Sky Blue FC, the professional women's soccer team co-owned by Gov. Phil Murphy and his wife, Tammy, has been named in an immigration scheme that has led to federal charges in a widening visa scandal.
Neither of the Murphys have been charged or accused in court documents of wrongdoing. But their club is named as one of seven professional teams that participated in a visa program that illegally brought foreign coaches and scouts to the United States, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court in Boston on Friday.
Emails published by a Rhode Island news outlet, GoLocalProv, showed Phil Murphy included on one email about a visa and scouting agreement. In another email asking for his OK to discuss it with an attorney, Murphy responded: "Absolutely. Good luck."
Murphy has said that although he owns "a big chunk" of Sky Blue, "I don't have any involvement day to day in running the team, which is good news for everybody."
The charging documents were filed following the arrest of Justin Capell, the former chief operating officer of Global Premier Soccer, one of the country's biggest youth soccer businesses that offered clinics, youth and elite leagues, tournaments and academies.
Capell's arrest was first reported by the Boston Globe, which has detailed the fallout from Global Premier's collapse and legal troubles. He has agreed to plead guilty but a hearing date has not been set, according to the Globe.
One other soccer official has pleaded guilty in relation to the investigation and others have acknowledged they are targets of the criminal probe.
The investigation has focused on Global Premier and its leaders, and no members of Sky Blue or other professional teams have been accused of wrongdoing.
The allegations of illegal conduct thrust the governor's financially struggling soccer team into negative light once again. The team was accused of mismanagement and providing poor living conditions and inadequate facilities for its players in 2018, prompting Tammy Murphy to "take an active role" in an effort to improve conditions for the team.
The team's alleged involvement in the visa scheme happened two years earlier, in 2016, before Murphy was elected governor, according to court documents. The Murphys have owned the team, along with Bed Bath & Beyond executive Steven Temares, for more than decade. It has consistently been a money-losing venture for the Murphys, according to their tax returns.
Murphy's office deferred comment to Sky Blue, which said in a statement: "In 2018, Sky Blue personnel became aware of an investigation relating to Global Premier Soccer. The team has received no further information about the investigation since then and has had no relationship with GPS since 2016."
Global Premier allegedly reached financial agreements with professional teams that helped secure visas for youth coaches, with sponsorship, ticket and scouting-service agreements valued from about $25,000 to $50,000 per team, according to the Globe.
Capell, of Murphy's home state of Massachusetts, created fake contracts for various Global Premier Soccer employees, according to charging documents.
"The contracts stated, falsely, that the employees would work as 'Scouts' for Sky Blue' and as 'Assistant Coaches/Scouts' for the Boston Breakers – at salaries far above their actual GPS compensation – and falsely indicated that they would report directly to the teams’ Head Coaches and/or Technical Directors," court documents said.
According to prosecutors, an unidentified co-conspirator later submitted a petition on Sky Blue's behalf to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for seven P-1S visas, which are available for essential support personnel for athletes in the United States.
"The petition contained materially false information about the beneficiaries’ purported employment and attached fraudulent supporting documentation, including the false employment contracts Capell had created," the court documents said.
A month later, the same co-conspirator submitted another petition that "contained materially false information" on behalf of Sky Blue seeking six more P-1S visas, according to the documents.
That petition had false information about employment and attached fraudulent supporting documentation – including at least two fake "FA coaching licenses," according to the documents.
Sky Blue's involvement may have been broader than the charging documents detailed. According to the Globe, citing company records, Sky Blue was among the "most active partner in the immigration arrangement, submitting petitions for about 40 visa applicants on behalf of Global Premier." The most active was the Boston Breakers, according to the Globe.
Sky Blue's coach at the time, Christy Holly, grew up in Northern Ireland and played professional soccer. He is engaged to former Sky Blue player Christie Pearce. They both left Sky Blue in 2017 and Holly described himself in an interview with the Globe as the "mutual connection" between Global Premier and Sky Blue.
Holly said immigration attorneys for the business and the soccer club deemed the visa arrangement legal.
"When everybody involved goes through their attorneys and follows those guidelines, the expectation is that you're doing things right," Holly said in the Globe interview.
None of the Global Premier coaches who entered the country through Sky Blue petitions worked as scouts, Holly said. But he benefited from scouting information he received from Global Premier's network under Sky Blue's agreement with the company, according to the Globe.
"On multiple occasions, that information definitely helped with my decision making when it came to drafting or signing or not signing players," Holly told the newspaper.
The federal investigation began after Global Premier sold a majority stake to Legacy Global Sports in 2016 for $14.2 million, according to the Globe. Federal agents raided the company's offices in 2019 and Legacy has gone into bankruptcy, leaving parents, coaches, vendors and investors jobless and with little chance of recovering a combined $30 million they are owed, the Globe reported.
Much of Legacy's financial problems were chronicled by its former CEO, Stephen Griffin, in a book of fiction, "Front Row Seat: Greed and Corruption in a Youth Sports Company."
As part of the criminal investigation, another Global Premier manager, Gavin MacPhee, was convicted last year of obstructing the investigation. Another company executive, Joe Bradley, has reportedly acknowledged he is the subject of an investigation and filed a counter lawsuit.
"We acted, at all times, with the direction of legal counsel," Bradley told the Globe. "We particularly sought out and relied upon immigration counsel and did as that counsel advised that we do. I do not believe that we violated any immigration laws and we certainly aimed to comply with all the laws."