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Did Vero Beach Bridge Club misplay its hand and lose out on $100K donation?

STORY BY PIETER VANBENNEKOM (Week of January 11, 2024)

The cash-strapped Vero Beach Bridge Club, which has suffered from a steep decline in membership and attendance since the Covid pandemic, may have just blown a chance at getting its biggest donation ever – a $100,000 grant from its highest-ranked player.

Club President Denis Conlon says he never believed a real offer was on the table of a $100,000 donation from 81-year-old Reanette Frobouck, a 10-year winter resident of the Orchid Island Golf and Beach Club and a snowbird from Pittsburgh, and added that he just wants Frobouck to go away. Conlon has apparently convinced the other nine members of the club’s board to go along with his strategy.

Frobouck and her estranged husband Stephen, a successful Pennsylvania fracking entrepreneur, say the $100,000 offer most assuredly was real. All they wanted in return was some kind of apology over the way she was treated during and after a club game last March, when club director and manager George Weber made a ruling against her and in favor of his own wife and club co-manager, Jan.

The Froboucks went to the regular December meeting of the club’s Board of Governors to try and work something out, but came away disappointed, saying it appeared to them the club is on a “vendetta” against Reanette.

“If anyone had shown any interest in compromise or mediation,” Stephen Frobouck wrote to club president Conlon after the meeting, “I would have given you the entire $100,000 on the spot. Both sides never get everything they want, but trying to meet in the middle of the table is generally a good start.

“Instead, I was called a liar,” Frobouck added. “In all my years of business, I have never seen an organization work so hard against its own best interest.”

But Conlon would not budge. “Reanette is repeating her ‘I’m withholding financial support’  nonsense. What is there to discuss or compromise?” Conlon shot back. “The matter is closed. If either you or Reanette would like to make a donation to the club, it would be much appreciated.”

In the wake of the Covid pandemic, the bridge club, a venerable 63-year-old institution in Vero Beach, has seen membership dwindle from over 1,100 to just over 700 and attendance at daily duplicate games is down more than 50 percent from its heyday. In over a year of trying, the membership-owned club has been unable to get a serious bite on selling all or half of its building, a former bowling alley on 14th Avenue just south of the downtown area which is now too big for its needs. Late last year, the club eliminated the position of office manager in another cost-saving move.

In an effort to shore up finances and reduce annual operational deficits of tens of thousands of dollars, the club recently raised membership dues from $35 to $50 annually and also boosted card-playing fees from $8 to $10 per session, now the highest fees in the area.

Ironically, the club has been constantly seeking donations from other well-to-do members to stay afloat, but the biggest contributions in that campaign have been in the $5,000 range. The club also just launched a new website, where more donations are solicited.

Frobouck’s attempts to give the bridge club $100,000 go back about a year, when she and her husband were deciding how to make some charitable donations at the beginning of 2023. Among other gifts, they had decided in principle to give the local bridge club $100,000 spread over three years because she appreciates a good competitive club where she can play in the winter in between her appearances with bridge professionals at major tournaments.

Then in March, the incident with the Webers, the club managers, happened, and Frobouck says she tore up the papers for the grant. As a result of her questioning George Weber’s ruling at her table, she was accused of attacking the integrity of the club director and put on probation for three months, which had little practical effect because she wasn’t going to be in Vero Beach during the summer months anyway.

Frobouck says she tried to talk to Weber about his ruling after the game, but he refused and allegedly threw her out of his office. Regardless of whether Weber’s ruling against her and in favor of his wife was technically correct, Frobouck wanted to make the point that it might be best in such cases to ask another director to make a ruling to avoid even the appearance of bias.

When Frobouck couldn’t get anyone at the club to talk to her, she had her Pittsburgh lawyer write a letter to the club asking for an apology. The possibility of a lawsuit at first appeared to sway the club’s board – no suitable lawyer had been found to take a case on a pro-bono basis – and at one of its monthly meetings, the board appeared to be leaning toward making an accommodation with Frobouck to avoid litigation costs.

That’s when club manager George Weber, miffed at having his impartiality as a game director questioned, asked the board not to give in to her, and offered to pay the first $10,000 of the club’s legal costs out of his own pocket.