ETSU Board of Trustees Vice Chair David Golden, head of the body’s Audit Committee, said the hall-of-famer coach was engaged in a “fairly sophisticated” scheme to forge student-athletes’ signatures on meal expenditure forms and print phony receipts for restringing tennis racquets to be reimbursed for the costs.
Tracing suspect transactions as far back as 2010, the university’s audit team estimated $85,674.61 in questionable expenses related to meals, racquet stringing, registration fees and other expenditures. Auditors also tallied $20,747.63 in unreported annual leave they called into question.
“It’s an audit that tells a story very different than the story that many of us have come to know about coach Zaatini over the course of our experience with him … but what we saw today is that appearances were not what they indicated in terms of what was happening behind the scenes,” university President Brian Noland said after the trustees meeting.
According to Athletic Director Richard Sander, discrepancies in the amounts Zaatini reported providing athletes for meal expenses were discovered after two students asked an NCAA compliance director about the cash they received for meals.
Providing athletes with money for meals is not against any rules or regulations, but staff realized the tennis coach was receiving petty cash from the university for one amount, giving students less and keeping the difference, Sander said.
As proof of the petty cash expenditures, auditors said Zaatini copied students’ signatures from forms previously signed by the students or by copying them from a computer file. Investigators said most athletes said they never signed any documents when receiving meal money.
The audit report claims the coach over-collected $51,683 from the university for meal reimbursement.
Auditors claimed Zaatini over-collected $17,881 for fees related to restringing tennis racquets by forging receipts from schools where the teams played.
When a string on a racquet breaks, which routinely happens from play at the collegiate level, the racquet must be restrung.
The ETSU team owns its own stringing machine, and players told auditors it travels with them to most drivable away games. But when flying to games, the school at which they play may allow them to restring their racquets or restring them for them.
According to auditors, stringing expenses were usually reimbursed to Zaatini as a travel claim.
Over the course of the investigation, they discovered 41 of the string fee receipts look similar from 24 different schools.
“It seems highly unlikely that 24 schools would have receipts that close in appearance,” the report states.
Auditors said blank string receipt templates were discovered on Zaatini’s hard drive and in emails, some with images of other universities’ logos.
In the report, auditors who interviewed Zaatini said he admitted some of the meal signature forms and string receipts were not real. He told them the money was used “to maintain a successful program and the help facilitate its competitive advantage,” but the coach did not elaborate on those expenses.
A statement from Zaatini’s attorney, Don Spurrell, said he would eventually explain the actions behind the audit findings.
“Yaser Zaatini is a two-time All American at ETSU, his alma mater, and dedicated himself to recruiting and cultivating players from around the world to bring home 15 conference tennis championships to ETSU as head tennis coach,” the statement reads. “His determination to field championship caliber teams made the financial management of such a challenge extremely difficult. Yaser appreciates the support of the East Tennessee State community and at the appropriate time he will fully explain the coaching and budgetary decisions he made during his tenure.”
Though auditors listed four potential violations of state law — theft of property, grading theft, forgery and official misconduct — Zaatini may have committed, school officials would not comment on whether criminal charges would be placed.
First Judicial District Attorney General Tony Clark said Friday he received the university’s audit report, but has not reviewed it, nor has he spoken recently with ETSU’s administration about the institution’s investigation.
In his resignation letter, Zaatini promised to pay $30,952 to the university and forfeited $19,047.32 in amassed leave, but did not admit malfeasance.
According to the auditors, he also may have failed to report $20,747.63 of that annual and sick leave during his tenure.