How could this happen?

That question swept through the offices of NFL teams last week after The Athletic broke the news that Amit Patel, 31, a former employee in the finance department of the Jacksonville Jaguars, allegedly stole more than $22 million from the team over a four-year period.

Patel was a mid-level employee who worked for the Jaguars from 2018-23. He allegedly created fraudulent charges on the club’s virtual credit card and then covered his tracks by sending falsified files to the team’s accounting department. According to a charging document, he used that money to buy vehicles, a condominium and a designer watch worth over $95,000. He also purchased cryptocurrency, splurged on luxury travel for himself and others and used the funds to keep a criminal defense lawyer on retainer. Patel’s attorney said that the vast majority of the $22 million he stole were gambling losses; Patel allegedly placed bets on football and daily fantasy sports with online gambling sites.

Patel is expected to plead guilty to multiple charges — wire fraud and an illegal monetary transaction — in a court appearance Thursday, his attorney, Alex King, said.

In a statement, the Jaguars said that the franchise engaged “experienced law and accounting firms to conduct a comprehensive independent review, which concluded that no other team employees were involved in or aware of his criminal activity.” That fact makes the question people around the league were asking last week even more salient: How was Patel, working alone, able to steal more than twice the amount quarterback Trevor Lawrence counts against the Jaguars’ salary cap?

The Athletic spoke to two people familiar with Patel’s work for the Jaguars as well as nine people who work or have worked in finance for NFL teams or other pro sports franchises. Patel was no mastermind, people who knew him said, but rather a guy in the right place at the right time. The Jaguars may be a franchise worth an estimated $4 billion (according to Forbes), but the team’s finance department was understaffed. And turnover in key positions and a switch to a new credit card system created an opening that Patel exploited. The people who knew him and others who work or have worked for NFL teams questioned why Jacksonville didn’t have better safeguards in place that would have made it more difficult for Patel to get away with what he did and for so long.

“If you’re running a tight business, this would be impossible to pull off more than once,” said a former chief operating officer for an AFC team. “For (four) years, somebody was asleep at the switch.”

“I know people won’t believe it. But he was super basic.”

That was how one person who knew Patel during his time working for the Jaguars described him. That person and others who spoke to The Athletic were granted anonymity to discuss his work, which remains under federal investigation. Patel didn’t wear fancy clothes or flash his new expensive watch or brag about trips he took on private jets with friends. “Aside from the fact that he drove a Tesla, if you were to see Amit, you wouldn’t assume like, Oh, here’s a dude that is siphoning millions of dollars from his job,” the source said.

Patel was friendly and well-liked in the office. His job required him to interact with many department heads, and the source said he had “really great connections with everyone across the organization.” Patel oversaw the budget activity for each department, and he was responsible for helping department heads code individual expenses. If an expense came through on a corporate credit card, Patel was the person Jaguars employees would go to to ask: Hey, where does this need to go?

The staffing hierarchy for an NFL office is similar to any organization: coordinator, manager, director, vice president, senior vice president. Patel joined the Jaguars in 2018 as the coordinator of financial planning and analysis and was not promoted until three years later — to manager of financial planning and analysis. So the bulk of the alleged fraud occurred when he was a coordinator.

Court documents detail how Patel helped prepare the Jaguars’ monthly financial statements, oversaw department budgets and acted as the administrator of various programs, including the Jaguars virtual corporate card program. In October 2019, Patel’s direct supervisor, the director of financial planning and analysis, moved to a role in a different department and was not replaced. Two sources familiar with Patel’s work for the team said two other staffers also left the finance department, forcing others, including Patel, to pick up their work. It was not uncommon for staffers to arrive at work at 8 a.m. and not leave until 9 p.m.

“There was some transition in the organization which I believe created an opportunity for this to flourish,” said one source.

Added King, Patel’s attorney: “They were short-staffed in those departments. Normally you’d have segregation of duties, those kinds of internal checks and balances and they had lost people through attrition. … You’re supposed to have Person A do this part and Person B do this part as a check and balance and segregation of duties and all of a sudden he was doing both roles.”

Everbank Field, home of the Jacksonville Jaguars. (Sam Greenwood / Getty Images)

The Jaguars switched to a virtual credit card system after Patel had been with the team for about a year. VCCs are considered more secure than having employees carry around physical cards, and they keep the card information private when making online transactions. However, it takes time for employees to transition to the new system, and the person introducing the system is relied upon to answer questions. He or she becomes the go-to, the trusted expert.

Patel was that trusted person in Jacksonville. When he first started managing the VCC program, there was an employee from accounting who checked Patel’s submitted sheets, but then that employee left, and that layer of security also went away.

“The number one rule you learn in accounting is you need to have dual controls for a reason,” said one source.

The federal charging documents state that as the sole administrator of the VCC program, Patel had the power to create user accounts, approve new VCCs, request changes to the available credit for the VCCs, and classify all VCC transactions in the Jaguars’ general ledger. Each month, he created an “integration file” that listed each VCC transaction with cost coding information. But instead of accurately reporting the VCC transactions, Patel is alleged to have created fraudulent entries using a variety of methods to ensure that the total dollar amount of VCC expenses matched the balances paid by the Jaguars. Charging documents state that he “identified legitimate recurring VCC transactions, such as catering, airfare and hotel charges, and then duplicated those transactions; he inflated the amounts of recurring VCC transactions; he entered completely fictitious transactions that might sound plausible, but that never actually occurred; and he moved legitimate VCC charges from upcoming months into the month of the integration file that was immediately due to the accounting department.”

People who might assume an NFL franchise would be a tightly monitored operation are not wrong. Still, in Jacksonville, that description only applied to the football side of the business, because the league office monitors each team for salary cap compliance.

“We were so anal about everything,” said a former Jacksonville employee on the football side. “It went down to the penny. Constant communication with internal accounting, constant communication with the NFL management council, with player personnel (in) NFL headquarters, so by the time an official audit (from the NFL) came down, it was yesterday’s news.”

Audits of the non-football side of the Jaguars did happen, according to a source, but they did not scrutinize every transaction. “The thing with any audit is everything is samples. So if they pull a sample and the support aligns and supports the transaction, then there are not that many questions.”

In 2019, the FBI caught Sacramento Kings chief revenue officer Jeff David stealing $13.4 million from five companies by representing to them that payments they made were going to the Kings, when instead they were going to bank accounts that only he controlled. David was sentenced to seven years in prison but was granted an early release in September 2023.

An ESPN article chronicling the mess in Sacramento described how it became a “cautionary tale” within NBA circles, with CFOs sharing different methods of internal stress tests at the league’s annual sales and marketing meeting. One NBA team president told ESPN the franchise “initiated a full audit of its operations” days after David’s fraud became public knowledge.

David was a top executive stealing from other companies, not a lower-level employee allegedly defrauding his own organization. But the reaction from the NBA community mirrors what is now happening across the NFL.

“We saw a mess out there with the Sacramento Kings, so it’s not the first time,” one current AFC team president said. “But you certainly step back and think, what do we have in place?”

According to interviews with officials from other NFL teams as well as individuals working in finance at other professional sports franchises, the Jaguars may be an outlier in how little they were doing to monitor an employee with so much control over spending. Most of those interviewed were gobsmacked that one person would have unchecked oversight of the VCC setup.

“Talk about having egg on your face. That’s a whole f—-ing omelet,” said a former finance specialist for an NHL team.

A former finance employee for an NFC team said that their CFO ran the corporate card program, accounts payable received the statements for the cards, and then a manager approved each report. That finance employee reviewed the court filing that detailed Patel’s alleged crimes and said the sheer number of falsified transactions he created should have resulted in detection at an earlier point.

“A lot of times a big number might not look like an outlier,” said a former chief administrative officer of an NFL team. “Usually, you have someone who charges a payment and then expenses it to someone else. Then the money comes back to the budget and you see the figure hitting your account as an outflow of cash. Someone would notice if they turned in a bill for $100,000 and it was paid out by someone else at $150,000.”

But if one person handles multiple layers of the process, it can go “upside-down” quickly. “It certainly was a flawed system they had in Jacksonville,” he said. “Somebody was given way too much leeway and way too much trust.”

A former NFL COO said in a text message that he had “never heard of an employee having that kind of access without layered controls in place. … Usually everybody up to and including CEO level has another party who has to approve expenses. Sometimes it might be at a certain level (say above $10k) but their situation sounds highly unusual.”

Another former NFL COO said that Patel’s alleged fraud would likely have been detected at his organization because his fraudulent charges would have blown the annual budget. “Once a fiscal year was underway, each department head would receive a monthly update of expenses for the month versus the plan. Sometimes the actual spending might vary from the planned spending for simple timing reasons. Anything over a 5 percent variance would receive scrutiny from a number of sources including the finance department, the person that budget reported to and/or myself,” he said in a text message.

The spreadsheet integration file Patel allegedly falsified might not have even been reviewed by superiors, said the former finance employee for an NFC team, but rather something that accounting merely uploaded to a server. “It’s accounts payable, so that’s not like a fine tooth comb. When it gets back to accounts payable, you’re under the assumption that it’s all taken care of, and it’s ready to be paid,” the employee said.

A third former COO explained that teams often undergo three different audits annually: a league audit focused on compliance with the salary cap, then two others, one done internally, then another initiated by a banking institution (if the team borrows money). The internal audit would have been the one most likely to detect Patel’s alleged fraud, the COO explained.

The finance people who spoke to The Athletic said they expected NFL teams to review their reporting structure and potentially beef up those internal audits in light of what happened in Jacksonville. The senior members of the Jaguars’ financial operations while Patel was there remain in their posts. According to the team’s website, the organization has increased the size of the finance department by six employees since Patel was fired in February. Two of those positions are new — a vice president of accounting, and a senior manager of accounting. The team added in a statement: “With the assistance of external experts, (the organization) has extensively reviewed its own policies and procedures, added staff to its finance department, and taken other measures to ensure the integrity of its financial controls.”

As for Patel, his attorney said Patel checked himself into an inpatient recovery center this past spring and has cooperated with the government and the Jaguars. King said his client is remorseful, takes “full responsibility for his actions” and has opened a gambling addiction recovery center, where he plans to be “active in the treatment community.”

He was also working for Uber, driving the black Tesla that is referenced in court documents as one of the spoils from his alleged crimes. (His attorney said Patel purchased the car with his own money.)

A few days before his alleged fraud became a national headline, Patel picked up Chris Chaney, a product marketer from Cincinnati, and his wife from the Jacksonville airport and drove them 40 minutes to their Airbnb in Jacksonville Beach. They were in town to see the Bengals play the Jaguars.

Chaney said Patel made small talk as he drove, pointing out the country club where he is a member and telling the couple he’d been a Jaguars fan since he moved to Jacksonville as a kid. Patel told Chaney he’d worked in finance for the team but was recently laid off because of some restructuring.

(The Athletic’s Tim Graham contributed to this story.)

(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic. Photos: James Gilbert, Julio Aguilar / Getty Images)

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