Did Inspirational Young Man's Hoops Dreams End With Bank of America Charity Scam?

April 8, 2011

Truly, I hate these stories. 

I have grown tired of reporting about far too many fallen angels.  Worse, the more of these stories that get publicized, the harder it is for well-meaning folks and organizations to raise money for their good works.  Nonetheless, the stories have to be told.

Like I said, I hate this.

Hoops For Africa

If you visit the website for HoopsForAfrica you learn that:

HoopsForAfrica is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation based in the Washington, D.C. region that is committed to educating the youth of Africa about HIV/AIDS prevention and the importance of good nutrition. We leverage the popularity of professional basketball players and other celebrities to gain the attention of young Africans and deliver HoopsForAfrica's "Play safe, stay alive" message. . .

The Hoops For Africa website provides a detailed biography of its founder:

Stephan Bekale of Tchibanga, Gabon, founded Hoops4Africa in 2002. His story is filled with hardship and triumph. He began living off and on in France at the age of 5, as his parents moved back and forth between France and Gabon . This early exposure to western and European culture ignited his hopes and dreams of a brighter future. Stephan developed an intense interest in the sport of basketball . . .

Young Stephan's next obstacle was purchasing the actual plane ticket. It took his entire family nearly a year to earn the $1,000.00 needed for a one way ticket to New York. Knowing absolutely no one upon his arrival to the US , Stephan lived at JFK International Airport for while before venturing out to the streets of Brooklyn with $75.00 to his name. Homeless and working as a street vendor at the age of fifteen, Stephan realized that life in New York was much too difficult, and the next step involved making government contacts. Stephan Bekale made the decision to re-locate to Washington DC .

Still homeless and without money, Stephan never lost sight of his dream. . . Stephan, a very talented and determined 6'8" fifteen year old . . .While maintaining a B average in his fifth language, Stephan emerged as a star at Notre Dame Academy . He was a first team All-State pick in 97-'98, an All-America nominee named one of the top ten centers at the 1997 Nike All-American camp, and helped guide his team to the Virginia Prep Championship with a 40-5 mark and a national ranking among the nation's top prep schools.

Upon successfully completing three years of American High School, Stephan was granted a full basketball scholarship from Penn State University in July 1998. . .

A few months into his first semester, Stephan received the news from Africa that his father had died of AIDS. The disease claimed his mother soon after. Despite this personal devastation, Stephan persevered and went on to graduate from Penn State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration that included a summer of study at Oxford University.

Always concerned with making a difference in his homeland, Stephan has consistently and simultaneously developed successful charitable projects focused on improving the living conditions of his people in Gabon . . .

Today Stephan Bekale is hard at work developing Hoops4Africa. This project is designed to leverage the power and influence of NBA Celebrities to increase awareness and education of the HIV/AIDS virus among African youth, and deliver a message of safety and prevention. Stephan Bekale is a volunteer at the Special Olympics, teaching basketball skills to underprivileged kids. He is also a motivational speaker for several high schools on the topics of drugs and staying in school . . .

Among the testimonials on the Hoops4America website is a June 8, 2005 letter from Senator Barack Obama.  You can also see Bekale, Number 21 for Penn State, playing in this clip  (see about the 2:38 mark). 

Say It Ain't So

On April 5, 2011, a 10-count federal indictment was unsealed in the Eastern District of Virginia charging

  • Stephen Bekale, 31;
  • Reynaldo "Christian" Villarroel, 38;
  • Maritza Villarroel, 34;
  • Irma DeMartini , 28; and
  • Jamal Ibraheem , 38.

with conspiring to commit wire fraud, wire fraud and money laundering.

From approximately March 2007 through May 2009, the indictment alleges that approximately 31 Bank of America employees at three different banking locations logged onto the bank's Matching Gifts Program website and certified that they donated money to "Hoops for Africa."   A total of 57 such matching gift requests for allegedly fraudulent employee donations ranging from $1,300 to $7,500 were received by Bank of America's charitable arm, which subsequently processed 55 of the transactions and disbursed through its charitable foundation approximately $276,600 in matching gifts to "Hoops for Africa."  

Allegedly, Bekale fraudulently obtained matching funds after he falsely certified that charitable contributions had been made to his nonprofit organization "Hoops for Africa" by Bank of America employees.   Bekale's co-defendants, all former Bank of America employees, allegedly received kickbacks from him in exchange for falsely certifying that donations were made in their names and/or for recruiting additional bank employees to participate in the scheme. Bekale is also charged with conducting a monetary transaction using the proceeds of the fraud.                                                           

NOTE: An indictment is merely an allegation, and defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.    

Bekale was arrested and the remaining four defendants will be arraigned at a later date.

The defendants face a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each count of wire fraud.   Bekale faces an additional maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine on the money laundering charge.