By Ray Stern
By New Times
By Amy Silverman
By Stephen Lemons
By Stephen Lemons
By Monica Alonzo
By Chris Parker
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"It was too fishy for me," Hollingworth says. He began an investigation and quickly saw that, for weeks at a time, Antonucci recorded no absences for any of his students. The teen also had, suspiciously, failed to turn in sign-in sheets that should have been collected at the classes.
Rory Hood admits the company was too trusting of its instructors, who represented Young Champions at the various class locations without much supervision. (Changes have since been made).
Because it turned out that Antonucci had been signing up and instructing more students than he claimed, and he'd been keeping the extra money, Hollingworth assigned himself the project of checking up on other instructors' records.
About the same time, company officials began receiving various complaints about Antonucci, Robinson, and other instructors. They'd been selling candy and water during classes without permits or approval from Young Champions, and they'd continued to do it even after getting written up for violating company policy.
Phone calls began to trickle in from people at the school or church facilities used for classes. Facility owners or managers complained that Antonucci was teaching more classes, at extended hours, than the contracts called for. He also wasn't monitoring everyone at the classes properly, meaning parents were wandering around the school or church grounds. Once, Antonucci backed his truck onto a church's property to unload equipment, destroying the landscaping.
When asked about such things, Antonucci typically had an excuse and would deny he did anything wrong. But Shar, who took many of the angry phone calls, told Rory Hood what it all added up to: Antonucci was a liar, and he couldn't be trusted.
Hood says he'd gotten other people who'd stolen from the company prosecuted in the past. But with the popular Antonucci, who was good friends with Robinson, "I was hoping this was not true."
Hollingworth and Hood called in Antonucci for a meeting in February 2009.
"I'm like, 'Jon, I'm upset,'" Hood says. "'What happened? What's going on?'"
Antonucci responded, "I figured you'd ask that." He took out some sheets of paper from a folder and passed them to his bosses. The sheets explained that all his moneymaking schemes were part of an elaborate experiment he was conducting to help Young Champions discover its security flaws. He called it "Project Catch Them."
Antonucci told Hood and Hollingworth he'd intended to show Young Champions how its instructors might steal from the company, and he added that he was "shocked" they'd caught him first. Then he pulled $2,700 worth of $20 bills from a moneybag in his pants and handed it to Hollingworth, explaining it was his illicit profit — from the semester that began just a few weeks earlier.
"Our jaws dropped to the ground," Hood says. "I told him, 'Do you think I became the president of a company to be this stupid?"
They estimated that Antonucci had snatched more than $10,000 in the previous year. Yet days later, when Antonucci came clean and admitted to stealing, the company decided to let him keep teaching some classes.
It wasn't a great time to give up one of its best instructors. The company had been posting poor profits and had recently hired an auditor to catch other thieves and figure out better ways to manage the firm's income. The auditor found a big reason for the company's poor performance: another embezzling employee, who Hood says used forgery and fraud to steal at least $16,000 and perhaps far more. Young Champions forwarded its findings to police. The employee hasn't been charged so New Times is withholding the person's name.
With bigger fish to fry, and with parents asking when Antonucci was coming back, Hood relented.
"We were going to take small amounts out of [Antonucci's] check," Hood says. "I felt good. I was not ruining this kid's life."
By that April, though, Sensei Jon had blown his second chance. Parents had started to complain, saying they paid too much for their kids' aptitude tests in the classes. It turned out Antonucci had added his own personal surcharge to the test fees.
The teen was fired, this time without much ado. But Hollingworth found more trouble when he went through Antonucci's company e-mails. Antonucci and Robinson had used the e-mails to discuss plans for the new company, Red Dragon. Hollingworth had also suspected Robinson was running some of the same schemes as Antonucci but hadn't caught him red-handed yet. He decided to perform a second audit of Robinson's records and, this time, found discrepancies that seemed to prove Robinson had stolen money, too.
Robinson was given an ultimatum: stop the shenanigans or be fired.
As for Antonucci, the company took the possible competition seriously and threatened to sue him. Like all the other instructors, Antonucci had signed a contract with Young Champions that prohibited him from similar employment within 16 months of leaving the company. Yet by May, Antonucci had started his own classes.
"We were getting ready to file an injunction," says Hollingworth.
Antonucci decided to settle with his former employer. He agreed to stop recruiting his former students, to not copy the company's business model, and to pay the company's attorney fees in the case. He was supposed to come into the office on Monday, June 15, to sign the agreement.