By Daniel Libit
HUNT, Texas — On Dec. 14, 2015, Cody Hopkins, the former University of New Mexico men’s basketball operations director, pulled up to the crossing-guard gate of La Hacienda Treatment Center, 80 miles northwest of San Antonio.
Tucked away on a remote, limestone shelf in the Texas Hill Country, Hopkins would try to make sense of a year that had fallen off a cliff. There would be no alcohol here. There would be no cell phone. And, ever mercifully, there would be no Purchasing Card statements.
Hopkins hoped that his arrival here marked the rock-bottom of his descent, the point where he could begin to climb out of the hole. And he was led to believe that UNM, his current employer, was behind him in this effort — or, at the very least, not against him.
But on Dec. 22, eight days into his treatment, Hopkins decided to check back in with the rest of the world. For the first time since he entered La Hacienda, he logged onto a computer — one with lumbering, dial-up Internet — to see if he could catch the score of the UNM-Auburn game at the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii. Best he could figure was to find it on the Twitter feed of Geoff Grammer, the Albuquerque Journal Lobos beat reporter, where instead he discovered this:
UNM announces recent absence of Director of basketball operations Cody Hopkins is result of investigation into recent purchases on team card
— Geoff Grammer (@GeoffGrammer) December 22, 2015
Cody Hopkins is on leave while an audit is being conducted by UNM. #mwbb
— Geoff Grammer (@GeoffGrammer) December 22, 2015
Hopkins had left Albuquerque just two weeks before, feeling assured that he would at least have a chance to address this matter privately when he got out of treatment. But now he was being publicly outed as the target of an investigation — at precisely a moment when he was most vulnerable and least capable of defending himself. Upon seeing the news, Hopkins had a full-blown, psychological meltdown. Nurses rushed him to the center’s critical care unit, where he spent the next 24 hours under heavy sedation, and the next three days under round-the-clock supervision.
“ENJOY PRISON, MORON”
To the extent that who we are is what the Google search of our name reveals, Cody Hopkins is the man who “bilked” UNM out of tens of thousands of dollars. That is what the Journal headline declared on May 6, 2016, and that is the story that has metastasized over the last year: the tale of an unscrupulous employee victimizing his employer.
In its official audit report, UNM formally accused Hopkins of defrauding the university and embezzling its money. It forwarded its findings to the Bernalillo County District Attorney for potential criminal indictment.
“We work very hard to be good stewards with our funds,” Athletic Director Paul Krebs said upon the release of the report, “and while this is the work of one individual, we are strengthening our controls and internal systems to prevent this from happening in the future.”
Echoing the one-bad-apple theory of the case, former UNM President Robert Frank described it as, “a situation with a person who engaged in potential fraud, and we had some systems that weren’t as tight as they should have been.”
Tim Keller, the New Mexico State Auditor, condemned Hopkins for using “our tax dollars…for personal shopping sprees.”
That is where things have been left, more or less: with just a soupçon of institutional scrutiny for the university and a public flogging for the not-so-dearly deposed.
“Enjoy prison, moron,” one ill-wisher Facebook messaged Hopkins, echoing dozens of other missives he has received over social media. “You left more evidence than they really even needed!”
And yet through it all, Hopkins has maintained a Sphinx-like silence over the last 15 months, hoping that the true story, as he conceives it, would eventually emerge on its own. But with so many days having passed, and so much still left unresolved, Hopkins is now ready to go public with his version of events. His is a heart-wrenching and complicated account, steeped in tears and tedium, and told by an entangled subject who has, among other things, retained legal counsel. In other words, Hopkins is not exactly a dispassionate witness; but, then, neither is UNM.
And so it was, last month, that I flew to San Antonio — where he has been living with relatives and driving Uber — to hear Hopkins’ side of the story. During the course of three unseasonably hot days — over meals, at his lawyer’s office, on a long car-ride to La Hacienda — and scores of subsequent phone calls, Hopkins spoke at length about his checkered career at New Mexico and the nerve-rattling limbo state he has existed in ever since. In many cases, Hopkins was a wide-open book; in others, his lips were pursed by legal worries or the fear of how his comments might be publicly construed. But in all, he had much to get off his chest.
Over hours and hours of interviews, Hopkins expressed embarrassment and remorse, anger and exasperation, and ultimately desperation to lift the cloud over his head. He believes his particular failures in New Mexico became co-opted by the internal politics and turf wars at UNM, as well as the prerogatives of an Athletic Department wanting to keep prying eyes in abeyance.
Hopkins says that New Mexico never approached him at any point to hear his side of the story or to seek his input on the reconciliation of his Purchasing Card (P-Card) expenditures. He notes that he was never allowed to participate in UNM’s Internal Audit examination of his P-Card charges, where he could have clarified many of the matters he addresses in this story.
A year and a half after he left, Hopkins says he still is in possession of university funds that he would like to return — if only UNM will provide him a proper avenue to do so.
“Cody would like nothing more than to be given the opportunity to not only speak to, but to rectify the ‘balance’ or overage,” said Hopkins’ attorney, Elizabeth Higginbotham. “We obviously cannot do that with any degree of pristine accuracy without the corroborating information that was removed from Cody’s office without his knowledge or consent.”
Among the noteworthy assertions Hopkins made to NMFishbowl.com:
- Hopkins states that Athletic Department employees would regularly share each other’s P-Cards for work-related purchases. Hopkins said that six other staffers used his P-Card at various points during the time he was at UNM. If true, this would appear to constitute widespread violations of the school’s stated P-Card policies, at the very least.
- Hopkins says that the Athletic Department’s general adherence to P-Card protocols— and to other accounting regulations —was so loose that he was once asked by the business office to withdraw $1,000 from his P-Card to give to a UNM Olympic sport that was scrambling to find funds.
- Hopkins said that months before his reconciliation issues came to a head, UNM Athletic Director Paul Krebs announced in an Athletic Department Leadership Meeting that there was a major reconciliation matter involving an assistant coach in another UNM sport, which was never made public.
- Hopkins categorically denies authoring the unsigned, first-person “confession” letter that the Albuquerque Journal reported on last August.
- Contrary to swirling rumors, Hopkins said that he never gave any monies to players or recruits, in violation of NCAA rules, nor did he use school money to pay for personal gambling expenses.
- Hopkins said his job duties dramatically changed in June 2015, after an administrative staffer who handled most of the men’s basketball purchases was terminated. No mention of this staff change was made in UNM’s audit.
- Hopkins directly contradicts the public assertions by former UNM Deputy Athletic Director Tim Cass, who told the Albuquerque Journal, “I did not meet regularly with Cody on P-Card. Til this day, I have no knowledge of Cody’s P-Card details.” Hopkins says that he met monthly with Cass and his P-Card statements were examined line-by-line.
On Wednesday, NMFishbowl.com sent a detailed list of questions to 10 different UNM Athletics staffers referenced in this story, including Krebs, seeking responses to specific claims made or accounts told by Hopkins. Additionally, a separate list of questions was sent to UNM Athletics spokesman Frank Mercogliano, who indicated throughout the day that he was preparing a thorough response on behalf of all those queried.
But late Wednesday night, after saying he had been in consultation with UNM’s lawyers, Mercogliano emailed the following statement: “The university has no comment on this matter beyond the public statement we have already made.”
A day earlier, however, Mercogliano opined much more freely about Hopkins on the message boards of Scout.com’s Lobo fan-site. Responding to anonymous posters, Mercogliano made the unusual move of publicly chiding the Bernalillo County District Attorney for being slow to prosecute the former Lobo employee.
“We are seeking full restitution…we are awaiting the D.A. Should they continue to drag their feet we will look at all available avenues,” Mercogliano wrote. He later added, “The fact that the D.A. hasn’t moved on it has nothing to do with us, despite repeated calls for action by us.”
While willing to make a number of concessions about his personal and professional shortcomings, Hopkins says he has been falsely portrayed as an “Ocean’s Eleven”-like perpetrator, trying to steal money from UNM and bolting town. Rather, Hopkins describes himself as a tragically disorganized employee overwhelmed by a job that had dramatically changed mid-course. He is adamant that the discrepancies identified in UNM’s Internal Audit resulted from the head-on collision of his insufficient financial-reporting skills, his procrastination in filing the required reconciliations and a rapidly escalating substance-abuse problem that forced his early exit from UNM.
“I deserved to be fired,” Hopkins told me. “I don’t deserve to be tarred and feathered and to never be able to get a job.”
The bigger story, Hopkins insists, is about acute human failure set against the backdrop of institutional chaos — about an Athletic Department that chafed at the bureaucracy of UNM’s main campus and, in turn, consciously operated on the margins of its accountability. In so doing, Hopkins said he and other staffers were forced to navigate a byzantine warren of financial hidey-holes that keeps the Lobos’ balance sheet in perpetual twilight.
“I was told on multiple occasions that we needed to do whatever we could do to prevent an audit from happening, because nobody wanted that to happen,” Hopkins told NMFishbowl.com.
Far from a criminal, Hopkins presents him as an imperfect whistleblower. Though he may never have intended to, he says, “I tripped the wire.”
“A FIX-IT MAN”
Without a single, in-person interview, Hopkins was hired by UNM on Sep. 22, 2014. He replaced Mike Iuzzolino, who abruptly left the men’s basketball team after one season to return to Canisius. Hopkins came to New Mexico after serving a year as an assistant coach at Texas Pan-American. He previously had been the operations director at TCU, when it was still in the Mountain West Conference, and where he had gotten to know the Lobos staff.
The role of basketball operations director can sometimes be ill-defined, but Hopkins said the work basically boils down to: “just get the job done.” The actual specifics of that job can run the gamut of tending to the idiosyncrasies of the head coach; guiding college athletes through girlfriend troubles; or helping the parents of a recruit track down a lost passport. What Hopkins may have lacked in terms of orderliness, he said he made up for with gumption and street smarts.
“A fix-it man,” is how Hopkins described himself.
He learned, for example, that Neal had a particular superstition about the route the team bus would take from Albuquerque to Las Cruces, when the Lobos played at New Mexico State. One time, Hopkins recalled, a bus driver expressed a desire to go another way. So, Hopkins got right in the guy’s face and made it abundantly clear that there would be hell to pay if he dare messed with the Lobos’ juju (and the team’s five-game road winning streak against the Aggies).
Hopkins was also known, among his friends and colleagues, to be a partier. At his previous jobs, his night-time hijinks had occasionally aroused warnings to “cool it” from superiors. But Hopkins said that it never rose to the level of deep concern until he came to New Mexico. Working for the Lobos gave Hopkins a certain kind of minor celebrity in Albuquerque, he said, and he soon began running with a rollicking crowd of MMA fighters and the like. But this devil-may-care posture was camouflaging a lot of pain.
Hopkins moved to Albuquerque amidst a string of adversities in his personal life. His mom, Cecilia, who had been suffering for several years from a terminal illness, moved into a full-time nursing home shortly after he got the job. Two weeks after Hopkins’ start date with the Lobos, his best friend from childhood was killed in a car accident. And Hopkins was also tending to his own health issues: he had undergone spinal fusion surgery a few months before.
Once in Albuquerque, Hopkins would fly to Texas each month to visit her, watching as she withered away from the ravages of multiple system atrophy, a rare neurological disease with no cure. For years, Hopkins had served as his mom’s rock and caretaker. His relationship with his father, however, was more complicated.
Jerry Hopkins had been a college basketball coach at Sam Houston State, where he oversaw seven consecutive losing seasons. When he was eventually let go, in 1998, the family beat a hasty retreat out of town, moving to College Station, where Cody became a star player at A&M Consolidated High School. Despite their common interest in basketball — Cody would play Division I ball at Centenary — father and son did not see eye to eye, especially when it came to Cecilia’s health care. Cody Hopkins said he and his father have barely spoken over the last decade.
After college, while he crisscrossed the country in pursuit of a coaching career, Hopkins tried to provide moral support to his mom from afar. They would speak on the phone each night, until she lost the ability to talk. Then they would text, until her fingers couldn’t move. And so eventually, Hopkins had arranged for her nurses to type out her responses on her phone so they could wish each other goodnight.
Racked with a sense of helplessness, Hopkins tried to take comfort in the idea that he could do his mom proud by his professional achievements. New Mexico seemed to be a place where he could break out. But by the summer of 2015, those prospects were coming into question, as well. Hopkins was now in his sixth year serving as a collegiate ops guy, and he felt like it was either time to move up or move on. He said he had been repeatedly told by Neal that he would be bumped up to an assistant coaching position, just as soon as one became available.
But when two Lobos assistants, Drew Adams and Lamont Smith, took other jobs after his first season, and Hopkins still failed to get promoted, he figured his opportunities at the school had foreclosed.
Dispirited and adrift, Hopkins said, his partying ways turned decidedly darker. He started regularly drinking to the point of blacking out. He would wake up in strange places, on pavement, in a vehicle a half-an-hour from his office. This wasn’t living the life, as it were: this was being in the clutch of an addiction.
“I NEED TO CHILL”
The warning light flicked on after the Lobos played an early December road game against Purdue University. Following the 12-point loss, the team headed back to its hotel near Chicago’s Midway Airport. Hopkins, however, decided to make a night of it, and ventured downtown to meet some friends where, after a series of boozy bar stops, he blacked out. Somehow, rather miraculously, he found his way back to the hotel by morning, about an hour before the team was scheduled to leave for the airport. He took a cold shower, brushed his teeth, closed his eyes for a half hour, and taxied to the airport before the rest of the crew arrived.
It was the latest in a series of morning-after close calls. And not all of them were so close: A few months earlier, Hopkins said he had gone out drinking in Albuquerque the night before Damien Jefferson’s on-campus recruiting visit, and overslept the next morning. He was eventually awoken by Lobo assistant Alan Huss, banging on the front door of his apartment. When he arrived at the Davalos Center sometime later, Hopkins said Neal instructed him to take a few days off to collect himself.
“At that point, I was like: I need to chill,” said Hopkins. “But the next night, the same thing happened. It just comes back. It doesn’t go away.”
Still, Hopkins rejects the pretext that the business of college basketball is conducive to alcohol abuse. He notes that there are plenty of people in the profession who get by without having a drink. Still, stories of “alcohol-related incidents” are not unfamiliar in this realm — think Billy Gillispie, Larry Eustachy, Bob Huggins, and Eddie Sutton, among others. Neal, himself, has had a reputation for being the “life of the bar.”
Though he had escaped the Purdue road trip by the skin of his teeth, Hopkins said he realized that he needed an intervention.
Upon returning to Albuquerque, Hopkins first approached Huss and Chris Harriman, the Lobos’ associate head coach, both of whom encouraged him to confess his problems to Neal. So, on the morning of Dec. 8, Hopkins went to his boss to say that his drinking had gotten out of control. In addition, he acknowledged that he had fallen five month’s behind on his P-Card reconciliations. (Huss, Harriman and Neal did not respond to requests for comment.)
Hopkins described the meeting as deeply emotional, with both men breaking down in tears. He was heartened by the reaction from Neal, who he said expressed unambiguous support; Neal, according to Hopkins, had even offered to personally escort him to a treatment facility.
Neal ultimately made three demands of him, Hopkins said: that he immediately seek in-patient counseling; that he make arrangements with the university to be placed on paid medical leave; and that he agree to cooperate in the process of zeroing out his P-Card balance. Hopkins said he readily consented to those conditions and even offered to begin addressing the P-Card issues right then. But Neal told him that there would be time to deal with that later, and that his most pressing obligation was to tend to his health.
That afternoon, Hopkins said he went to Kaley Espindola, the Athletic Department’s human resources manager, who assisted him with the paperwork necessary to apply for work leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Hopkins recalled that Espindola expressed sympathy and support, and relayed that Krebs was also on board with the plan that had been outlined by Neal. (Espindola and Krebs did not respond to requests for comment.)
Hopkins flew to Texas that night and, the next morning, drove to Huntsville, to deliver the news to his parents. Jerry Hopkins, Cody’s father, called Neal on the phone. In response to requests for comment, Jerry Hopkins provided me a lengthy series of notes he typed up at the time. Here’s how he documented his conversation with Neal (CN):
The unaccountability for any funds was discussed off and on in the conversation, but there was no specifics. CN said he had heard several amounts during Cody’s conversation, but it was clear Cody could not verify yet exact accounting and Cody was overwhelmed at the time at attempting to even try. The FMLA is something I had vague understanding of, but I was assured by Coach Neal that was what was happening and was told that was the best way to keep Cody’s matters private. I was very appreciative of what I was hearing and I believe Coach Neal was doing his best within his role as immediate supervisor ( and friend) to help Cody. (I have no documented reason to believe otherwise even now). There was mention of Cody’s job performance. CN indicated to me that Cody was held in high esteem by Coaches, staff, and players, and the UNM community. He mentioned how difficult it was on the team members.
Jerry Hopkins further writes that when he broached the question of whether Cody needed to hire a lawyer, Neal “believed that steps taken thus far were sufficient and we could revisit that later when an audit was done.” On Dec. 22, when UNM released the public statement about the audit investigation, Jerry Hopkins again phoned Neal to ask why there had been a change of plans:
I recall CN told me it was around 8 a.m. Hawaii time that CN had been informed of the new release and its contents. He was furious at the time that it had happened…He then did admit that Cody “probably needed an attorney.” He said some things regarding internal politics at the University, but at the time, my concern was Cody and I was not really focusing on such bs.
Jerry Hopkins said that Neal texted him a list of attorneys he would recommend to Cody.
“THE GUINEA PIG”
Hopkins received his UNM P-Card on November 10, 2014, just before the basketball team headed off to a preseason tournament in Puerto Rico.
UNM P-Cards can be used to make purchases of goods costing $10,000 and less, or for pre-approved services that don’t exceed $5,000. P-Card holders are responsible for reconciling their charges through a multi-step process, which includes providing receipts and documentation; properly articulating the reason for the charge; and entering the correct Index and Account codes into the Banner system.
Hopkins said the tediousness of this process rankled the Athletic Department, which produces a voluminous amount of charges each month, especially in football and men’s basketball. By the time he arrived, Hopkins claims, the P-Cards were being regularly passed around the department and frequently used by those who didn’t have their own.
“The right hand didn’t know what the left was doing,” Hopkins said, “because the left hand, [the Athletic Department], was just trying to do what they thought was best for them and not worry about whether they lined up with what they were supposed to be doing. They are just used to doing their own thing any way, so they did it.”
One of the innate challenges, Hopkins said, was how few cardholders there actually were; most of the sports only had one. For UNM’s Olympic sports, the head coach would traditionally be the designee. For the major sports, the cardholder was typically an operations director or low-level assistant, along with an administrative assistant. Hopkins said this system differed from his experiences at other schools. At TCU, for example, Hopkins said each of the men’s basketball coaches were given their own university-issued American Express Corporate card; this way, they were accountable for their own expenses.
Additionally, by the time Hopkins arrived, the university had begun phasing out a practice of issuing advance travel checks to individual employees. In place of that, the new P-Cards now had a cash-withdrawal feature. Given the timing of his hire, Hopkins said he was one of the first people in the Athletic Department to be issued a card with these new ATM capabilities.
In retrospect, Hopkins felt like a “guinea pig” for a department moneylending experiment. And there wasn’t much in the way of practical instruction: a cursory online tutorial and quiz constituted the sum total of the P-Card training Hopkins said he received. He was told that the purpose of his card was to pay for the basketball team’s road-game expenses — meals, incidentals, Gatorade, granola bars, baggage charges, etc. — but said those lines of distinction quickly broke down.
The majority of the team’s expenses were handled by Yolanda Rodriguez, the men’s basketball administrative assistant, who Hopkins said had four P-Cards of her own. (An Athletic Department source familiar with the department’s purchasing confirmed that Rodriguez had at least three cards.) Anthony Travel, the outside vendor UNM Athletics pays to book airline and hotel reservations, also regularly accessed one of Rodriguez’s cards, Hopkins said.
Early in the going, Hopkins said Rodriguez instructed him to put the team training table meals on his card, as had been the case with his predecessor. The problem, Hopkins said, was that another men’s basketball staffer, video coordinator Ben Sanders, was responsible for purchasing those meals. Hopkins said he was instructed to let Sanders use his card. Hopkins said Sanders ended up carrying a photocopy of it in his wallet. According to UNM’s P-Card policy, as currently written: “The Cardholder is the only person authorized to use the P-Card. The Cardholder may not share the card or card number with others.” But Hopkins said the practical reality migrated far from this. (Sanders did not respond to requests for comment.)
“There is a written policy, but the people who you work with or for are telling you other things,” Hopkins said. “So I just did (how) things were done in the past.”
Hopkins said that Athletics staffers would often invoke the phrase, “the wild, wild west,” to describe the way purchasing was handled in the department. And he said the powers that be were excruciatingly aware of how precarious this ad hoc system had become. Hopkins recalls once apologizing to Yvonne Otts, the Athletic Department’s director of business operations, for turning in a reconciliation form a few weeks late. As he recalls, her response was: “Don’t even worry about it. Right now we have much bigger P-Card problems.” (Otts did not respond to requests for comment.)
“I was told many times that we just don’t want an audit,” Hopkins said. “And in reality, an audit would have saved my ass…They would have seen that the system is setting people up for failure. I feel that an audit, had it been done prior to April or May , would have shed light on the lack of instruction and oversight that we were operating under.”
Five years earlier, an internal UNM audit had been commenced after $2,700 of Athletic Department cash was taken from an employee’s filing cabinet. The audit report released in May 2011, admonished Krebs for failing to file a police report over the missing cash. It also recommended that, in the future, relevant Athletic Department personnel participate in a cash-handling training course. But Hopkins said that no such instruction was ever provided to him when he was hired.
Hopkins said that Rodriguez was far better equipped at handling cash and P-Card reconciliations than he was. She had the experience, the know-how and the time to do the job. So it was a seismic loss, Hopkins said, when Rodriguez was laid off from her job just before Memorial Day 2015. Hopkins points out that, according to the internal audit of his P-Card, there were scarcely any documentation problems before Rodriguez departed.
Numerous efforts to reach Rodriguez for this story — through phone calls, texts and Facebook messages — were unsuccessful. But when Rodriguez left, Hopkins said, significant portions of her jobs were now tacked on to his original list of assignment duties.
Chris Birmingham, the football team’s administrative assistant (and the wife of UNM baseball coach Ray Birmingham), would eventually be moved over men’s basketball, but her full transition took several months to complete. Hopkins said that left him as the sole P-Card holder of a program, with a $1.5 million annual operating budget, just before the busy summer recruiting season commenced.
It was an unholy mess from the moment Rodriguez left.
One morning, for example, the basketball coaches arrived at the Davalos Center to discover that the cable TV in their offices had been shut off. Only then was it realized that the DirectTV auto-pay charges had been set up on one of Rodriguez’s now-inactive P-Cards. Quickly, all the programs’ various auto-pays were shifted to Hopkins’ card, even though he had no way of accessing the associated online accounts.
But that kind of glitch was relatively minor: the larger issue, Hopkins said, was his unfamiliarity with many of the core purchasing functions — like how to process reimbursements back to the school. He credits Chris Birmingham for being a “total rock star” who tried to help him along the way, but there was only so much she could do before her new P-Card was issued that fall. (Birmingham did not respond to requests for comment.)
The question of how much money Hopkins withdrew off his P-Card — and whether it was excessive — became the driving focus of UNM’s internal audit investigation. There was an underlying suspicion that the money was going some place it shouldn’t. Hopkins insists that this perception was misplaced, given all the basketball mouths he was now forced to feed.
It is typical, he said, for teams to travel with thousands of dollars of cash on hand. At the other schools he worked, he would go on the road with the team carrying between $2,500 and $5,000 of university money, zipped away in a bank bag. This would be used for meals, player per diems and the many unforeseen expenses that can crop up when away from home.
In March 2015, the Journal recounted Hopkins’ starring role in one such incident, when the Lobos were caught stranded at a gas station in central Arizona after the team bus broke down.
“Cody Hopkins, the team’s first-year director of basketball operations, was scrambling throughout the day to make arrangements for the drive back,” the Journal wrote.
The saving grace, Hopkins would later recall, was him having enough cash on hand to pay an auto mechanic, in the middle of the night, who wouldn’t accept credit cards.
And just because the season was over, it didn’t mean that the team’s cash needs had abated: the summer was the time when the coaches would need money for their recruiting travels.
The busiest month is typically July, during which there are three, five-day “evaluation periods” where college coaches can attend NCAA-sanctioned events to watch prospects. In anticipation, Hopkins said that the Lobos’ assistant coaches each asked him for between $3,000 and $6,000. (Harriman and Huss had trips planned to Australia and Greece, ahead of the financial crisis.) He took out the money, in a series of $800 withdrawals, the max his P-Card would allow per transaction.
As often became the case, Hopkins said, the coaches would ask that he dole out their road remittances in smaller increments, so they didn’t have to carry around that much money at a time. Hopkins would deposit the rest in his personal checking account, along with whatever overages the coaches would return to him after their trips.
On July 1, 2015, Hopkins said that he received an urgent text message from Cass, the Lobos’ chief financial officer, summoning him to a meeting to discuss his recent spate of cash withdrawals. Hopkins said Espindola and Otts also were present for the meeting.
“They immediately thought I was doing something crazy,” Hopkins said. Some of the money, Hopkins remembers telling the administrators, was designated for recruiting subscription services and tournament entry fees. Hopkins explained that he decided to pay for these in cash because, “I didn’t have time to wait for the [P-Card] exception process.” He said everybody was on board by the end of the meeting; he remembers Cass even affirming that it was “industry standard” to pay for tournament entries with cash. They agreed that, until Birmingham was in place, Hopkins would be the sole source of cash distribution for the men’s basketball team. (Cass did not respond to requests for comment.)
Hopkins said he rolled his eyes at this plan but went along with it anyway. He went to his office and printed out 20 “check-out” sheets, which he would ask the coaches to sign whenever he gave them money. It was an admittedly callow effort at keeping track of the team’s cashflow.
“It became a cartoon-level comedy, what we were about to embark on,” Hopkins said of his role as team banker. “I basically left (the reconciliations) to be (the Athletic Department’s) problem — and I shouldn’t have done that, because my name’s on it.”
Sure enough, he soon misplaced a number of the signed check-out sheets. In a blundering attempt to make headway, Hopkins acknowledges, he reprinted duplicates of the sheets and signed the other coaches’ names on them. In this way, Hopkins is technically conceding one of the charges UNM’s audit made against him— that he falsified documents — but he says there was no nefarious purpose to it. “Chalk it up to disorganization, not fraud,” Hopkins said.
“Nothing was done to profit from the University. Any of the errors I made, none of them were done for personal gain. None of it. I was trying to get this shit reconciled. Did I make some mistakes? Yes. Did I lose some receipts? Yes. Did I make receipts for things we actually bought? Yes. That is because I am disorganized. I am not trying to funnel money back to myself.”
Hopkins said his inherent bookkeeping struggles were only compounded by the barrage of third-party expenditures. Receipts began turning up on his desks for charges on his P-Card that he had not initiated, he said.
Hopkins claims that at least six different Athletic Department staffers used his card at one point or another. This group, he said, included: Rodriguez, despite the fact she had four cards of her own; the two men’s basketball graduate assistants; Sanders, the team’s video assistant; Jeremy Anderson, the former UNM strength and conditioning coach; and an Anthony Travel representative. (Anderson did not respond to requests for comment.) With so many people having ready access to his P-Card, Hopkins said, he would open up his Bank of America monthly activity statement without the foggiest clue of where to begin.
To illustrate his challenge, Hopkins showed NMFishbowl.com a copy of his P-Card statement from July 6 to August 5, 2015, a period of time that UNM’s Internal Audit zeroed in on. Of the 51 charges identified in the document, Hopkins claims that 29 of them had been made by other individuals, without his knowledge. These included airline tickets, Amazon.com purchases, a PayPal charge, car-rental bookings, and a $7,530 moving expenses from Mayflower transit. Hopkins said he had still not received from other staffers a number of the corresponding receipts to these charges by the time he left UNM in December. “I was doing favors for (UNM) because there were budget cuts, and they didn’t have the money to pay people to be in our office to take care of things,” he said.
Hopkins said when he was in Las Vegas in late July for the annual 6th Man Club booster trip, his card was halted after reaching its monthly $50,000 limit.
“Because of all this extra usage, I couldn’t pay for the final dinner or the golf outing,” Hopkins recalled. He said he had to call the credit card company in the middle of the night to ask for a one-time credit extension. (In fact, the July/August statement shows a “total activity” of $55,047.06.)
But it wasn’t just men’s basketball that was flying by the seat of its pants.
“CULTURE OF CIRCUMVENTING”
Hopkins remembers at one point during the summer, the Athletic Department business office came to him asking if he could withdraw over $1,000 on his P-Card to give to an Olympic sports coach. Evidently, the coach needed to make a large purchase of athletic gear but didn’t have a working method of payment at the time. Hopkins said that the coach eventually found another solution, but that the episode highlighted the “culture of circumventing the P-Card rules.”
Around that same time, Hopkins said Krebs dropped a bombshell at a monthly Athletic Department Leadership Team meeting, of which Hopkins was a regular attendee. Krebs, Hopkins said, let it be known that an assistant coach having committed a serious cash-handling violation. The issue surrounded the coach withdrawing an excessive amount of money for a road trip, and failing to properly account for he story. Krebs was incensed, Hopkins said, and described the coach’s behavior as “immoral.” Krebs declined to respond to requests for comment about this specific claim or for the story in general.
It is worth nothing that, if true, this episode alone appears to contradict Krebs’s recent public statements that the Hopkins’ P-Card problem was an “isolated act.”
Hopkins said that, in the Leadership Team meeting, Krebs showed concern that the incident could lead to an audit of the department; he subsequently threatened that anybody else found to be carrying a large cash balance could face termination. Hopkins figured he was likely carrying a cash balance of five-figures. Rather than writing a large check back to the school, Hopkins said he decided to hold onto the money to pay future work-related expenses. Even if he had wanted to make a full reimbursement of the excess cash he was holding, Hopkins said, he didn’t know how to on his own. In an earlier period, with Rodriguez’s assistance, Hopkins had successfully re-deposited $13,772 of excess cash with the university. (The Internal Audit confirmed as much.)
“A lot of how this got out of hand [after Rodriguez’s departure] is us not getting too much attention on the financial side, because I had other issues, and it would be impossible for me to dedicate three straight weeks to lock myself in my office to figure this stuff out,” Hopkins said.
As Hopkins’ substance struggle steadily increased during the fall of 2015, he fell further and further behind on his P-Card reconciliations. Receipts were lost and reports went un-filed. What the Internal Audit later labeled as fraud, Hopkins characterized as profound procrastination with his paperwork. (UNM’s Internal Audit Director Manu Patel did not respond to requests for comment.)
By its own depiction, the 2015 P-Card audit was narrowly focused on whether Hopkins had violated University policies. Quite secondarily, it would appear, was its concerns about “internal controls over men’s basketball,” though it briefly mentioned that “adequate reviews were not completed to prevent and detect P-Card misuse.” The way Hopkins tells it, however, the reviews were plenty adequate: this was just the accepted way of doing business.
Hopkins said that he would have a standing meeting the second Wednesday of every month, in which he would go over his P-Card transaction log with Otts and Cass.
“We would go over each transaction and would decide if we were spending too much in this area, or if we need to do more in (another) area — stuff like that,” Hopkins said.
It was during these meetings, Hopkins said, that Otts repeatedly warned him, “The last thing we need is for them to do an audit on us.”
Hopkins now says, “At the end of the day, they didn’t want main campus coming in, looking at them, and everything that was going on.”
In the wake of the Hopkins audit, Otts and Espindola were given formal letters of reprimand. Michael Marcelli, who had been hired that August to serve as the Athletic Department’s finance chief, was given a “letter of expectation”. According to the Journal, Bruce Cherrin, UNM’s chief procurement officer, was also disciplined over the matter. Cass, who left UNM at year’s end, escaped the investigation without blemish, although arguably, he had as direct a supervisory role as anyone.
“He was in every business meeting with Yvonne Otts and me,” Hopkins said of Cass.
Eventually, Mercogliano acknowledged to the Journal that Cass and Otts, “did try to meet monthly” with Hopkins, and that the P-Card “would have been discussed.” When NMFishbowl.com recently queried him about the matter, Cass cited his absense from the audit report as evidence of his non-culpability.
One mid-morning earlier this month, Hopkins and I arrived at the gates of La Hacienda. It was the first time he had been back to the facility since being discharged a year prior. As we walked around, he beamed like a college freshman returning to his high school.
The treatment center, which sits back from the nearest road, is comprised of a series of red-roofed buildings and green lawns. There’s a gym, a swimming pool, and a stone staircase leading to an open-air chapel that sits at the highest point.
“I thought it was hokey at first,” Hopkins said, as we stood up on a hillside overlooking the grounds. “I was like, ‘What am I doing here?’I felt like it was camp.”
He pointed to the chapel.
“Everyone in the program has a responsibility or a role,” he explained. His daily job was to light the fire, at 5:30 a.m., for the morning worship service, a particularly challenging task for a late-sleeper in the dead of winter. But Hopkins said that he quickly took to the routine. Though not particularly religious beforehand, he grew fond of the ritual of the morning service, where he and about eight other patients would sing Amazing Grace and read the Serenity Prayer.
“I learned more about who I am while I was there, and what I can and what I can’t do,” Hopkins said. “And I think we all have an ego, we all believe we are invincible at times, and then there is a wake-up call. I feel I am fortunate that I was able to look myself in the mirror and say, ‘This isn’t right. This is going down a path you don’t want to go down.'”
He continued, “I don’t want pity, but my reality wasn’t very kind and I handled it very poorly. When you ask for help, you are asking for people to show you how to help yourself, and that is what they gave me here.”
After 30 days in treatment, Hopkins was discharged from La Hacienda at the end of January 2016. It was recommended, partly because of the trauma triggered by the release of UNM’s audit report, for him to continue with intensive out-patient therapy. He found a place to do so in College Station, his old high school stomping grounds, where a couple of friends had an empty room in their house for him to crash. He enlisted the help of Gaines West, a Texas attorney who had previously been associate general counsel for Texas A&M University. That February, West, reached out to UNM’s lawyers with the intent of starting a dialogue. He told Hopkins that they had a “good conversation” over the phone and seemed amenable to work with. A month later, in March, West flew out to Albuquerque to speak to UNM on Hopkins’ behalf, hoping to chart a path for how Hopkins could reconcile the outstanding balances he had when he left.
“I wanted to trust the system, I wanted to let this thing play out,” said Hopkins.
But at that meeting, Hopkins said, West was given the brush-off, and afterwards suggested to his client that he might need to now hire a criminal attorney in Albuquerque. (West did not respond to requests for comment.) At the advice of a UNM booster, Hopkins said, he hired Paul Kennedy, the powerful and controversial New Mexico legal figure, who is the personal lawyer for Gov. Susana Martinez. Kennedy has, in the past, represented Lobo athletes. (He did not respond to a request to comment for this story.)
“AN ISOLATED ACT”
The 39-page UNM Internal Audit report, released on May 3, 2016, tallied $289,374 of P-Chard charges Hopkins made over the course of 11 months. It claimed that $63,411 was for unallowable activity and, of that, $5,827 was made for “unallowable personal purchases.”
One night in San Antonio, Hopkins and I went line-by-line over the various charges that UNM claimed were for personal expenses, the biggest one being a $2,921.12 tab at the Chateau night club in Las Vegas. Hopkins said he and Harriman were participating in a work-related gathering during the 6th Man trip. Hopkins said he does not know how the charge ended up on his P-Card, but is sure he wasn’t the one who signed for the bill.
“I think it was put down on my room as a method of payment and when I blacked out and ninja-bombed on them, it got charged,” Hopkins said.
Hopkins acknowledges that a $466.20 bill at the Embassy Suites in Albuquerque was most likely his responsibility: he said a family member from out-of-town stayed at the hotel and racked up room charges on his P-Card, which was kept on file at the Embassy Suites for team-related use. Hopkins said he was not aware of this charge until after-the-fact.
According to Hopkins, a number of the expenses UNM flagged were charges made by other UNM Athletics staff members without his knowledge. These included: $93.79 at the Albuquerque Courtyard by Marriott; $231.80 at the Mirage hotel in Las Vegas; $73.28 at the Fairfield Inn and Suites in Albuquerque. Two expenses, Hopkins said, were for legitimate work-related expenses he incurred: $42.87 at BJ’s Restaurant; $19.22 at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas. Hopkins said a $125.00 tab at Nob Hill Bar and Grill was also a work-related expense and said the $12.86 spent at Chipotle was for Lobo basketball player Obij Aget, after he missed the team’s training table one day. Hopkins said he could not recall the genesis of a Southwest Airlines and Enterprise Car-Rental charge totaling $1,118.81.
The audit also identified $2,135.69, from which it “was not able to determine if the purchases were for valid business purposes or personal.” Hopkins had explanations for all of the expenses except a $5.36 bill from Express Copier Service, which he said wasn’t made by him. His explanations were as follows:
- $200.00 for PayPal was for a scouting service
- $50.97 for Amazon was for video equipment
- $500.00 for Basketball Promotions was for a scouting service
- $200.00 for US Student&Ev related to a Lobo player’s foreign visa
- $695.00 for PP Westcoastel was for a scouting service
- $424.20 for Cytosport Inc. was a power-enhancement supplement for the team
When, back in May, Paul Krebs was asked whether Hopkins was effectively doomed from the start, the Athletic Director responded: “What I can say is we had a business office that offered help and support. I think we had the support system to help him.”
So why did Hopkins’ troubles persist for so long without someone stepping in?
Not only were Otts and Cass regularly briefed on his purchasing activities, Hopkins said, but Neal had warned him at least on five separate occasions about smaller discrepancies with his P-Card. The reason nobody intervened, Hopkins said, is that nobody had a better way to keep the wheels of Lobo basketball turning.
This past August, three months after the audit was released, the Journal reported on what it termed a “previously undisclosed confession letter,” which Hopkins purportedly authored. The document, which the Journal said was referenced in a UNM Police Report, states, “I don’t know where to start, but I will try with where the downward spiral began…”
It then goes six paragraphs into confessional claims and anecdotes purportedly about Hopkins’ personal demons.
In our conversations, Hopkins “100 percent” denies having written the document, which he describes as containing a mash-up of truths, half-truths and non-truths from his conversations with the coaching staff prior to his departure. The document reads as if written by Hopkins in the first-person, but does not carry a signature. Hopkins believes that it was likely composed by someone at UNM, in consultation with the basketball staff. He said that in certain cases, things he acknowledged had been combined or extrapolated from, so as to no longer be accurate.
Citing legal reasons, Hopkins declined to specifically address the assertions contained in the document, except for one: he vehemently denied that a gambling problem was contributive to his P-Card issues or struggles at New Mexico.
In September, Hopkins hired Higginbotham, a civil litigator and registered nurse, whose practice focusses on employment law. Higginbotham strongly questions why UNM hasn’t sought Hopkins’ input.
“I have been on every side of this,” she said. “I have been the employer’s counsel, and have told them that before you start making accusations and reaching conclusions, you need to hear all of the sides. Like in a harassment investigation: you don’t do an investigation without talking to the (alleged) perpetrator.”
Hopkins argues that UNM violated its own administrative procedures by the way it publicized the news of his audit. According to the school’s policy manual, UNM management is directed to avoid: “Alerting suspected individuals that an investigation is under way; Violating the employee’s right to due process. Making statements that could lead to claims of false accusation or other offense.”
Hopkins says that the comments made about him by UNM officials and spokespeople, from the time he was in treatment, contravene these directives.
“I LIVE IN FEAR OF RETALIATION”
Shortly after hiring Higginbotham, Hopkins filed an EEOC “charge of discrimination” against UNM, claiming that the school had retaliated against him when it did not renew his contract after March. The Journal broke the news of the filing after obtaining a copy of the complaint through undisclosed means.
Hopkins’ mother passed away on Christmas Eve. The silver lining of his return to Texas was that he could take her to church each Sunday for the last year of her life. When the doctors said the end was near, Hopkins relocated his mom to her hometown of Oklahoma City. Following her death, Hopkins moved to San Antonio, where he currently is living with his aunt and uncle.
“The more we heard about his story, I felt he got a very raw deal,” said Hopkins’ uncle, Rodney Sands, the former president of salsa giant Pace Foods. “Now, I am completely biased, but the fact (is) that while he was in treatment he couldn’t catch a break…I was with him when articles would appear in the New Mexico paper and I saw the impact it had on him. It hurt him. It hurt him a lot. And for a while, it seemed like it would happen weekly.”
Hopkins is also stressed about this article — he would later tell me, in the hours after I departed San Antonio, that he vomited twice from anxiety. “I live in fear of retaliation,” Hopkins said.
He said he wishes he had handled so many things differently at New Mexico. Principally, he wishes he had gone to Neal or Krebs, months sooner, and said he was unable to do what the job demanded.
Hopkins still watches every Lobos game he can find on TV. One night while I was in town, we sat at a high-top table in an Asian fusion restaurant and watched the Lobos beat Air Force. As the game played, I scoured his face for any evidence that he might be rooting against his former employer. I couldn’t detect any.
“I believe that my mistakes are my mistakes and it didn’t have anything to do with those kids,” Hopkins said. “The fans were great to me. I had a great relationship with people on campus…I have absolutely no interest in wishing anything but the best for those people, because they’re not a part of this.”
Hopkins maintains fond feelings towards Neal, who he believes tried to do right by him throughout the process of his departure. It is others at UNM whose agendas he questions.
“They’ve decided to do what they think is best to protect themselves,” said Hopkins. “I had kept wanting to believe that there were certain people who made those promises, the ones that were encouraging of me — it was hard for me to say those guys are gonna screw me, they are going to cut and run. I feel I am the only one who has been forthright.”
It took weeks of my coaxing for Hopkins to go on-the-record with the fact he now drives Uber. He resisted at first, he said, because he is embarrassed. To acknowledge his current job is to acknowledge how far he is from his dream job. Hopkins foresees that his preferred next stop may be at a very different kind of court than the one with basketball hoops.
“I am not going to go another 15 months of not knowing,” he said. “I want reconciliation — for lack of a better term — of my life.”
(Lead photo by NMFishbowl.com; Story photos courtesy of Cody Hopkins.)
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