Society: Charity Case

After his brother was paralyzed in a riding accident, former world-class polo player Bil Walton helped raise thousands for spinal cord research. But how much money did he keep for himself.

AT THE DALLAS POLO CLUB’S annual September Soiree charity match, Mercedes, Lexus, and BMWs lined the edge of the polo field, dusty from the 20-mile drive south of town to Red Oak. Women traipsed the grounds in Jimmy Choo heels and jewelry pulled from the vault. Men in brightly colored Izod shirts sipped Chardonnay from plastic cups, while players thundered across the field on sleek horses. Dallas Morning News society columnist Alan Peppard, a former member of the club, called the game from a booth, and actor Larry Hagman was in attendance.

In many ways, it all looked very posh, very privileged, very Dallas. At the après-match party held under two large, rented tents, several hundred people, many of them high-profile Dallasites, were having a swell time while helping to raise money for spinal cord research. Greg and Kim Miller, of the Henry S. Miller real estate family, co-chaired the soiree and bought a table with Greg’s brother Vaughn, a top polo player in the area. Almost $30,000 was raised for the Kent Waldrep Foundation Center for Basic Neuroscience Research at UT Southwestern Medical Center.

But for all the charity and goodwill that night, things were falling apart behind the scenes. The players cantered off the field unceremoniously, and, unlike in years past, there was no trophy presentation. They stuck around long enough to have a drink or two, then left. They were avoiding Bil Walton, their teammate and owner of the club. A big man with exaggerated eyebrows, Walton, 47, made several moves unbecoming a host. The night’s honoree, Kent Waldrep, a former TCU football player who was paralyzed during a game against Alabama in 1974, was never formally introduced. He spent much of the evening sitting anonymously in his wheelchair. When it came time to pay the band, Walton refused, saying it cost too much. (Volunteers eventually convinced Walton to pay the band.) And the night ended on a sour note when Walton, from inside his air-conditioned Infiniti, barked at club employee Stephanie Ley to break down the heavy tables and chairs herself. She cursed at him, and Walton sped off to the cabin where he lives on club property.

Far more serious, though, is the matter of the money. Months after the party, the Waldrep Foundation can put its hands on only a small fraction of what was raised that night. It appears that more than half went into Walton’s pocket. Bil Walton’s favorite charity, it turns out, appears to be Bil Walton. And, in fact, when D Magazine contacted UT Southwestern, officials there thought the September Soirees had ended in 2000. That was the last time they had been invited to a party. They were unaware that Walton had continued to use the hospital’s name and good reputation to solicit donations.

And the real kicker: thanks to lax regulations on fundraising in Texas, it’s possible that nothing Walton did violates any laws.

Bil Walton was born into privilege and polo. The family home is a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house in Modesto, California, and he boarded at the prestigious Robert Louis Stevenson School on the Monterey Peninsula. His father Robert, a polo player and prominent physician from Britain, made sure his three boys and three girls learned to play the game. They became some of the best players in the world.

“There are a handful of great polo-playing families, and the Waltons were certainly one of them,” says U.S. Polo Association Executive Director David Cummings.

In the early 1980s, at the urging of prominent Fort Worth businessman and polo player Jesse Upchurch, Walton moved to Dallas, bringing a string of polo ponies with him. The hot place to play polo in the Southwest was Willow Bend Polo & Hunt Club in Plano.

“He was a very determined young man who wanted to be a very good polo player and make his mark,” says Norman Brinker, who founded the club in the 1970s. “Bil became very aggressive and fast and quick and accurate. He was intimidating. When Bil was playing, you wanted to watch.”

Walton was also hard to get along with. “He was the winningest pro at Willow Bend and the most difficult,” says a friend who played with him during the Willow Bend years. “He was extremely demanding.” At the peak of his career, Walton was rated an almost perfect 9 in the arena and 5 on the field. (In polo, handicaps start at minus 2 and go to 10.) He was such a fierce competitor that Great Britain bestowed on him the highest praise possible for an American polo player, an invitation to play for a summer on Prince Charles’ Windsor Park polo team. Tall and good-looking, Walton drew a crowd of female admirers. When he started the Dallas Dragoons indoor arena polo team in 1989, the matches often sold out.

Then Walton’s world shattered when he and some polo buddies were in a car accident, which broke his neck. Walton spent months recovering in the hospital. Though his broken neck healed, he lost most of the sight in his left eye, permanently affecting his balance. Years later, he remains in constant pain. After the accident, Walton focused on breeding and training polo ponies at his 1,000-acre ranch in Red Oak, giving lessons and selling horses. He later turned the ranch into the Dallas Polo Club, a working man’s version of the more ritzy Las Colinas Polo Club. The barns need painting, and there is no clubhouse for members, but the club’s Spartan look keeps costs down. Lessons run about $50, stall fees are a few hundred a month, and it’s still one of the few places in North Texas where a new rider without a horse can learn to play polo inexpensively.

Besides polo, Bil Walton has one passion. Some call it an obsession. It began in 1995, when his brother Rob was thrown from his horse during a match in Malaysia. He was paralyzed from the neck down. Like Bil, Rob was at the top of his game when the accident happened. Devastated by Rob’s injury, Bil looked for a way to raise money for spinal cord research. He launched the first September Soiree fundraiser and tournament benefiting the Kent Waldrep National Paralysis Foundation, a respected $21 million charity established in 1985.

“I wanted to take Rob’s tragedy and turn it into a positive for the polo community and the medical community in Dallas,” Walton told Alan Peppard in a 1996 Morning News column about the fundraiser. Peppard, who worked with chairman Kelly Green on the fundraising, chronicled the socialites who attended a pre-party at Hermès. Celebrity chef Kent Rathbun donated a dinner that followed.

“Our first donation check was from Margaret Hill, and then we got one from Caroline Hunt,” Peppard recalls. The event raised a little more than $50,000, which was matched by an anonymous donor at UT Southwestern. Later, at a lunch at Cafe Pacific, Walton and Kent Waldrep presented UT Southwestern President Kern Wildenthal a check for $104,000. And during the following three years, the Dallas Polo Club’s September Soirees raised another $100,000 for the Waldrep Foundation.

But the checks to UT Southwestern started getting smaller, and, coincidence or not, it happened at about the same time that Walton began to experience financial trouble. In 1999, he divorced his first wife and was ordered to pay $605 a month in child support, plus cover half his daughter’s private-school tuition and provide her with medical and dental insurance. Walton remarried the next year and fathered another child, but, a year later, he landed in divorce court again, and this time he was ordered to pay $1,025 in monthly child support (plus pay past-due medical bills and reimburse his ex-wife for car repairs and insurance). Attorneys for both Walton and his second ex-wife would later sue him for $8,324.70 in unpaid fees.

Not long after Walton’s first divorce, in 2000, Kent Waldrep, after repeated requests by Walton, relinquished the record keeping for the Soiree to the Polo Club. In an interview with D Magazine, Walton says that the high cost of producing the event often meant that the Polo Club wound up donating more than it had raised. Taking over the finances allowed him to be more fair to the club he owns.

“Fundraising is an unbelievable nightmare,” Walton says. “But at the end of the day, it’s kinda like, these guys [at the Waldrep Foundation] are smart, and they go, ’Just give us what you can, and that’s fine.’”

Kent Waldrep doesn’t remember making such an arrangement, but he does allow that it’s possible. He also acknowledges that he let Walton take over the accounting because he no longer had the time or resources to do it himself. With no oversight by Waldrep or the foundation’s board of directors—including Kansas City Chiefs and Dallas Burn owner Lamar Hunt, U.S. Risk Insurance CEO Randall Goss, and attorney Buford Berry—Walton had free reign. Donors were asked to make their checks out to the Dallas Polo Club, though they’d previously written them to the Waldrep Foundation. “He’d get really angry if the checks were made out to the foundation,” says Stephanie Ley, former Polo Club sales director. “He’d make me send them back and get them rewritten.”

Walton explains the switch thusly: “I always have checks made out to Dallas Polo Club because Dallas Polo puts all the energy into raising the money. If a charity group wants to get in and handle it and run the thing, then great. But they don’t want to get involved. All they want to do is have their hands out and get whatever they can get their hands on.”

While it’s not illegal for Walton to solicit money on the foundation’s behalf and deposit it into his own account, that’s not the way it’s usually done, according to Anne Leary, vice president of development for the Center for Nonprofit Management, a Dallas training and resource agency for the nonprofit community. “It’s pretty black and white. All checks have to be made out to the nonprofit when you raise money on behalf of a charity,” she says. “That way, it’s a tax-deductible contribution for the donor.”

Despite the fact that the only person eligible for a tax write-off was Walton, donors gave tens of thousands of dollars. And Walton would have been able to claim an enormous deduction on money that wasn’t even his. “In all honesty, I just didn’t think about it,” says Greg Miller, who co-chaired the Soiree. “I should have paid more attention.”

Again, coincidence or not, the amount of money Walton turned over from the Soirees decreased each year after the Dallas Polo Club took control of accounting. In 2000, Walton donated $25,000; 2001, $12,000; in 2002, a paltry $7,200. Waldrep says he wasn’t alarmed because the economy was bad and attendance had dwindled.

But the 2003 Soiree was a financial success. It grossed at least $27,000, according to Ley, who handled ticket and table sales and tallied the deposits. Expenses, she says, ran about $7,000. But Walton’s contribution to the Foundation amounted to only $5,000. Most curious, the Waldrep Foundation didn’t get the money until December 18, almost four months after the event—and eight days after D Magazine began asking questions about the Soiree’s accounting.

A $2,500 check written by Norman Brinker directly to the foundation was also forwarded in December, although Ley remembers that it was the first check to arrive in the Dallas Polo offices last summer. Walton claims another $2,500 check was sent, but Waldrep says there is no record of it at the Foundation. “It raises some red flags,” says Michael Nilsen of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, a 40-year-old organization based just outside of Washington, D.C., which has published a code of ethics to guide the industry. “Money should be moved to the charity as quickly as possible, and most of the time the entity that raises the money does not have control over the funds—or it should not. They should have turned the money over immediately.”

When questioned about why it took so long for UT Southwestern to receive what little money it did, Walton said he didn’t know where to send it—even though he eventually sent the money to the same place he had in years past.

Anne Leary wants to know where the Waldrep board of directors was during all this. “A foundation’s board of directors has a fiduciary responsibility to the donors to make sure that people raising money on their behalf are handling it correctly,” she says. “I would want to know why the board never asked to see that money.”

Was anything Walton did illegal? It’s a good question, but not an easy one to answer—at least not in Texas. When it comes to regulating special-event fundraisers such as the September Soiree, Texas lags behind the rest of the country, Nilsen says. Most states have laws that require for-profit businesses like the Polo Club to keep clear accounting records when they hold special events for charities and even to create contracts stating how much money a special event will generate. Texas does not.

In Texas, the Deceptive Trade Practices Act loosely regulates fundraising activities. Under the act, for example, if you set up a table in front of a grocery store with a can marked “Salvation Army,” without permission from the Salvation Army, and you collect $100 but turn over only 50 cents, you’re not committing a crime. The law doesn’t stipulate a percentage of funds raised that must be given to the charity. And, anyway, if the Salvation Army didn’t want you using its name, it would have to bring charges.

By his own admission, Walton keeps half of what he raises. During the first three years of the Polo Club’s fundraising efforts under the Waldrep Foundation’s management, expenses never exceeded 35 percent. “Most nonprofits strive to turn over 75 to 80 percent of what is raised, if not 100 percent,” Leary says. “It’s pretty bad if you’re keeping so much more than you’re giving.”

Wherever the money has gone during the past three years—conservatively, perhaps $50,000 or so unaccounted for—a survey of the grounds at the Dallas Polo Club does not suggest that Bil Walton is leading a life of luxury. The barn has fallen into disrepair, with cobwebs and beehives in the stalls. In one corner sits a pile of broken mallets. Helmets hang on a wall, but only a few are useable. Several have bird’s nests in them. Late last fall, four of the club’s new members quit after a vet examined their lease-to-buy horses and found them to be malnourished and 100 pounds underweight. The SPCA investigated after a complaint was filed, but it declined to open a case.

Stephanie Ley also quit. Just weeks after the 2003 Soiree, she said she’d had enough of Walton’s tirades and foul language. And the Soirees she helped organize are likely finished for good. In a move that had been planned for some time, the Waldrep Foundation closed in September, and UT Southwestern assumed all fundraising duties for the Waldrep Center, which still operates at the hospital. Officials there are taking measures to prevent Walton from using the hospital’s name in any future fundraising efforts.

Walton himself looks almost as worn as some of the horses. Players kid him about his tattered polo attire, which includes a pair of white polo jeans with holes in the knees and inner thighs. He wears this pair every day, and you can see where the saddle has rubbed calluses on his skin. Too, he still has constant neck pain from the car wreck years ago. Those close to him say he takes copious amounts of ibuprofen. To get to sleep at night, he will often do shots of bourbon or vodka and polish off a six-pack of Bud Light.

A friend says money is so tight that Walton has himself on a strict budget and even figures lunch tabs down to the dollar. Curiously, though, this same person says that after the Soiree, Walton took his entire staff out for lunch. And in the days immediately following, he met friends for dinner and drinks and did something they’d rarely seen him do: he picked up the tab.

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