Rigged: The undoing of America’s premier bodybuilding leagues – The Washington Post

Over more than four decades, the man who built the world’s premier amateur bodybuilding federation subverted the group’s nonprofit mission by establishing a parallel for-profit company that took over the sport for the benefit of himself and his family, a Washington Post investigation has found.

Many of those who worked alongside Jim Manion have turned against him and accused him of fostering an atmosphere of intimidation and compromising the sport with conflicts of interest and self-dealing. Manion went from an elected president of a small nonprofit to the leader of a company that now dominates a multimillion-dollar industry. He has turned the organization into a family dynasty, appointing his grandson, Tyler Manion, as vice president. Tyler’s father, J.M. Manion, was paid nearly $900,000 over three years by the charity for photography services.

The Post’s reporting is based on interviews with more than 80 people inside the sport, along with lawsuits, emails, tax forms, audits and internal documents dating back to 1978. Among current and former officials and promoters, 15 spoke on the record in hopes, they said, of breaking Manion’s hold on the sport. They include one former top contest judge who has sued Jim Manion in a business dispute and several others who are working for rival organizations in competition with him.

Manion’s rise is a story of an audacious takeover that began in the late 1970s when he was tapped to lead the newly created National Physique Committee of the AAU, or NPC. The nonprofit was founded as a charity for the benefit of athletes and the sport “to promote and improve physique competition,” its charter states. Gradually, oversight eroded. Former board members say they stopped receiving audits and financial reports. Elections and term limits went by the wayside, according to internal NPC documents.

Manion dissolved the nonprofit and turned the NPC into a private, for-profit company. Such a change requires a vote by the board, according to the laws governing nonprofits in Ohio, where the NPC was incorporated. Eight board members told The Post that they didn’t know the organization had been privatized until years later. Manion continued holdin­g board meetings as if nothing had changed, board members said.

Steve O’Brien, a longtime NPC vice president, said that he didn’t know the nonprofit had been dissolved until last year. Another board member said she first learned of the privatization when a Post reporter asked her about it in November.

“I’m amazed about the fact that these guys have stolen this corporation right from underneath our noses,” said O’Brien, a former bodybuilder and contest promoter on the West Coast who competed in the sport’s heyday in the 1970s at Muscle Beach in Venice, Calif.

In general, nonprofit corporations in Ohio are not permitted to transform themselves into for-profit companies, Kelly May, a spokeswoman for Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, said.

“Ohio Revised Code Chapter 1702 permits nonprofit corporations to convert to other entities, but not to for-profit corporations,” May said. “In general, charitable assets must always remain charitable.”

Jim Manion, who earned $278,184 in his last known salary at the nonprofit in 2016, took several steps to solidify his control over the NPC and its revenue while his family set up companies that appear related to NPC entities.

Over the course of his tenure as NPC president, Manion signed over control of the NPC’s trademark to himself as an individual, documents show. J.M. Manion and his wife started a for-profit company using the same name as the NPC News website. During this time, the Manions encouraged advertisers at the official NPC News magazine to buy ads on the website, according to interviews.

J.M. also listed himself as co-owner of a clothing company that sold NPC-branded gear, according to his LinkedIn page, which was taken down after The Post asked a spokesman for Jim Manion about it. Jim Manion’s wife started a company whose initials matched the NPC’s data processing vendor three months before that vendor was hired, Pennsylvania corporate records show.

Financial deals by nonprofits that provide an excessive benefit to individuals connected to the nonprofit are generally prohibited under federal law.

BUILT&BROKEN

A Washington Post investigation into the world of bodybuilding. This multipart series explores the exploitation of women, the health risks to athletes and the man who runs the largest federations in the United States.

Have a tip on the bodybuilding world? Email the reporters at builtandbroken@washpost.com.

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Available NPC records and tax filings do not include enough detail to determine whether the companies linked to the Manion family profited from the NPC. For example, the tax filings and the minutes do not list the names of its vendors. Nonprofits are required to name vendors if they earn over $100,000 and are among the top five highest paid contractors.

In response to Post questions to Jim and Tyler Manion, as well as their organization, spokesman Jon Hammond emailed a one-sentence statement.

“The NPC was formed and has always been governed in accordance with all federal, state and local laws,” the statement said.

On Oct. 25, The Post published a story in which 20 women described their experiences with J.M. Manion. Some of the women said he asked them to pose for nude photographs that then appeared on his soft-core pornography sites. After that story was published, an official with one of the two most prominent contests in the sport, the Arnold Classic, said J.M. would not be photographing the event in March.

J.M. did not respond to requests for comment. Following publication of The Post’s story, Brian H. Simmons, a lawyer representing Jim Manion, the NPC and the IFBB Pro League, the professional bodybuilding arm that Manion also owns, said his clients “emphatically deny any and all wrongdoing.” Simmons added that some people cited in The Post’s story “possess a clear animus against my clients due to many prior disputes between the parties and/or the fact they are directly competing or seeking to directly compete against NPC and/or IFBB Pro League.”

Exploited for decades, female bodybuilders speak out

A Washington Post investigation found that scores of female athletes were sexually exploited by officials of the two major U.S. bodybuilding federations.

Some high-profile figures in bodybuilding say Manion has been good for the sport.

Lee Haney, an eight-time Mr. Olympia, said Manion has helped with his mentoring program for decades.

“Jim Manion is a man of integrity and we’ve been friends for years. We’ve prayed together over the phone.”

Sandy Williamson, a former vice president of the nonprofit NPC and a prominent contest judge, said the organization has done wonders for women.

“I’ve been working under Jim Manion for 40 years and the guy has always been about the athletes,” Williamson said. “He has helped women get contracts and build businesses, he’s always been about the athletes. The people who you are talking to are not part of this organization anymore because they were never about the athletes.”

While long viewed as a fringe sport, bodybuilding attracts thousands of athletes in the United States and many more internationally. The two organizations run by the Manion family oversee hundreds of contests per year, from smaller regional events for amateurs around the country and abroad to the headline competitions where top male pros can earn more than $600,000, such as the Olympia, which is now underway in Las Vegas. Pro women earn much less than men.

The sport is both art and competition, with athletes working out in weight rooms to sculpt their bodies and following pre-contest diet regimens designed to better show off their muscles onstage. Athletes compete in categories based on the degree of musculature. In contests, they perform a series of poses onstage for judges who score them according to criteria outlined by the federations.

Judges and insiders say the Manions have effectively built an old-fashioned patronage system to reward favored athletes, coaches, sponsors and others. Several former officials and athletes said in interviews that they were ostracized from Manion’s organizations after disagreements with him or family members.

O’Brien said he sold his West Coast shows after Manion, who chooses the promoters, asked him how old he was and suggested a replacement. O’Brien was 70 at the time, and selling seemed the only option. O’Brien said he now regrets not speaking out earlier about the management of the NPC.

At a contest in Phoenix in 2010, O’Brien said he witnessed a judge altering the winning lineup after phone conversations with Manion and his son, J.M. “I got really pissed off,” said O’Brien, who has judged some of the top professional competitions in the world.

Wayne DeMilia worked closely with Manion for more than two decades as head of the NPC’s then-professional affiliate in the United States. He returned to bodybuilding in 2017 after a 13-year absence to run a rival amateur organization, IFBB Physique America, under the auspices of the original worldwide professional bodybuilding organization, now known as the International Fitness and Bodybuilding Federation (IFBB).

Founded in 1946 in Montreal by the famed Weider brothers, Ben and Joe, the IFBB was the world’s leading federation until Manion split from it in 2017 and later formed his own professional league. Manion chose a similar name for his new federation, the IFBB Pro League, which has surpassed the original IFBB because it runs the two largest events, the Olympia and the Arnold Schwarzenegger-owned Arnold Classic.

DeMilia, who was the first to approach The Post with allegations about Manion’s empire, said he has made it his mission to hold Manion accountable. Many former colleagues told DeMilia that greed was warping it, he said, adding that athletes and others in the business were helpless to do anything but bow to the Manions.

“If you’re making money and you enjoy being part of the sport, that’s what you have to put up with now,” DeMilia said.

Onetime NPC stalwarts are leaving in anger over how the Manions have run the organization.

Pete Fancher, once a board member from Florida, promoted his last contest in 2018, and told The Post that Manion rules the organization “by fear.” He looks back at Manion’s leadership with “disgust, pure disgust.”

Miles Neussle, a former board member, held his last show in July and then resigned because of Manion’s “arrogance, corruption and intimidation,” he told The Post.

Brent Jones ran bodybuilding competitions in Kentucky for decades, but he gave it up in October because of the “sexualization of the sport and the corruption,” he said in a statement he posted on social media.

Stuffing the ballot box

If Ken Sprague could replay the founding of the NPC, he says, he wouldn’t have cheated to put Manion in the top job.

Sprague was the owner of Gold’s Gym in Venice, Calif., known as the center of bodybuilding. Manion was president of the Amateur Athletic Union’s Physique Committee, which then presided over amateur bodybuilding in America. In 1978, an act of Congress removed the AAU from governance of any sport, and bodybuilders moved to start their own organization.

To head off another candidate whom he didn’t think was up to the job, Sprague says he championed Manion, then a former bodybuilder from Pittsburgh, to lead the newly independent organization, the National Physique Committee of the AAU. The election was by a secret ballot, but Sprague said he was able to stuff the box with a fistful of Manion “votes,” he recalled in an interview from his home in Georgia.

“It was very easy to miscount,” Sprague, 77, said. “I’m not proud of it. But the calculation was that it was best for bodybuilding at that time.”

Once in place as president of the NPC, Manion developed his own power base. In 1981, the organization’s name was changed to the National Physique Committee of the USA.

Many people who were once close to Manion say he adopted some of the mannerisms and vocabulary of mafia films and TV shows, according to several insiders who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared retribution.

Inside his warehouse in Pittsburgh, a poster from the gangster movie “Goodfellas” used to have Manion’s face pasted onto Robert De Niro’s, the insiders said. Manion sometimes greets male associates with kisses on the cheek, others say, and talks about people who make money for him as his “earners,” as if he were Tony Soprano.

Richard Rondinelli, a promoter who knew Manion from the early days and was later convicted of tax evasion charges related to selling steroids, said he found it comical that NPC associates would refer to the Manions as “the family,” as if they were connected to the mafia.

“The family? The family of what? I have no idea,” Rondinelli said. “Is it the Partridge Family?”

But the image Jim Manion cultivated is no joke to many people in the bodybuilding world who spoke to The Post. More than a dozen expressed fear of retaliation for speaking out.

Board members said the drift away from oversight dates back to the 1980s and 1990s, when the sport was booming, gyms were sprouting everywhere and many of the board members were making money running contests.

The NPC’s original bylaws, obtained by The Post, had protections in place that were gradually eliminated or ignored, such as yearly independent audits, term limits and power vested in the voting members, documents and interviews show. The Post also obtained minutes from meetings of the NPC’s board of governors and trustees, spanning the years 1985 to 2017, but was unable to acquire complete records. The NPC declined a request for its minutes.

The board of governors had the power to choose which promoters could run and profit from major events while paying the NPC for the privilege. But over time, the board stopped selecting the promoters, former board members say, and Manion began picking them himself.

“All of a sudden you get the same promoters for every national event,” said Jim Rockell, who was an NPC vice president, a frequent head judge at top pro events and once a close friend of Manion’s. “And there were no other bids. Bids were already sealed, and they were already determined ahead of time. And that’s how that went.”

Rockell, who now works with DeMilia as executive vice president of IFBB Physique America, says he was cast out of Manion’s circle several years ago. Rockell said he ignored a directive to stay away from DeMilia, an outspoken Manion critic. DeMilia was not working in the sport at the time, and he and Rockell had a friendly dinner. The word got back to Manion, Rockell said, and the two argued.

Rockell said Manion told him: “If you think you can talk to anyone you want, you are mistaken.”

Manion stopped assigning Rockell as a judge in his federations, Rockell said, so he resigned.

Rockell said Manion demanded that promoters pay his way to the contests, sometimes with first-class plane tickets, and put him up in fancy hotels. “It was always a suite,” Rockell said.

The NPC’s revenue became less transparent at some point in the 1980s, board members say, when Manion stopped presenting the charity’s financials to the board. O’Brien and Rockell said they cannot remember seeing the charity’s tax filings during the decades they served as vice presidents, though the forms require an officer to certify that copies were provided to all members of the governing board before filing.

Fancher, the Florida promoter who was on the NPC’s board of governors from the early 1990s until its dissolution in 2018, was asked by The Post whether he ever saw financials. His reply was terse: “Oh, hell no!”

Many of the officials and promoters who spoke to The Post said they noticed that during the nonprofit era NPC-branded clothing and gym gear was being sold by a business connected to the Manions. This is not allowed under rules governing nonprofits unless the board approves a license and the NPC is compensated at fair market value. But the board members were unclear whether the NPC was compensated, and they did not ask.

“All insider transactions are looked at by rules governing excess benefit transactions,” said Benjamin Leff, a professor who teaches the law of charitable and nonprofit organizations at American University’s Washington College of Law. If the insider “paid fair market value, it’s done in a written agreement and the disallowed person does not participate in the decision, it can be okay. All this should be well-documented in the minutes.” Ex-board members say that Manion did not offer information about the clothing business to the board.

“Nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing,” said Rockell, who used to carry NPC merchandise in his gym. “You figure as a member of the NPC, you’re buying it to support the organization.”

Some NPC financial documents, including internal audits from the 1980s and early 1990s, show some income from apparel. One year, it was grouped in a category with donations and videocassettes and listed at $31,000.

According to a LinkedIn page for J.M. Manion, he became co-owner of California Active Wear in 1986, in charge of photography, marketing and accounting. J.M. is listed as a co-owner of California Active Wear with John Albert, his uncle, in Experian’s corporate database.

Rockell said he bought the NPC merchandise he sold in his gym from California Active Wear and dealt with Albert on the orders.

Albert could not be reached for comment.

In 1996, a website linked to California Active Wear was registered to J.M. Manion’s personal email. The site, npcwear.com, has been offering NPC branded apparel since at least 1997, archived versions show. Internet domain records show that both npc-wear.com and npcwear.com have been registered since 2000 to J.M. Productions, a company owned by J.M. Manion, corporate business records show. At various times, the clothing sites included links to J.M.’s soft-core pornography sites, The Post found.

Board members say they were not aware of any licensing of the NPC name. In a 2008 lawsuit, however, the NPC stated it had licensed its trademark for clothing but did not name any companies. There is no line item for apparel income reported in tax filings for the NPC from 1998 to 2017 and the filings show no revenue from the licensing of the trademark during that period.

The treasurer

Board members describe Harry Wulff, NPC’s longtime treasurer who became vice president of the private NPC company, as quiet, reserved and often in the background.

Wulff was also busy. According to tax filings made by the nonprofits, he worked 100-hour weeks. Between 2006 and 2009 Wulff was making $108,000 annually from the NPC, and was listed as working an average of 40 hours per week. But that was only his second job — in those years he also earned $88,000 to $112,000 a year from a nonprofit printer’s association he ran. The nonprofit declared he worked an average of 60 hours per week as its president.

Wulff has been deeply involved in the NPC since the 1980s and shared an office with Manion at the Pittsburgh warehouse. Their wives were also in business together, documents show.

On Sept. 24, 1987, Manion’s wife, Deborah A. Albert, and Wulff’s wife, Jane A. Wulff, filed incorporation papers to start a for-profit company called Data Service International, described as “a computer listing service.” State business records list the corporate address for the company as the home addresses of the Wulffs.

Less than three weeks later, at the NPC board meeting in Atlantic City, Wulff announced that the NPC would begin using a new computer service to keep track of its membership registrations, the minutes show. The service, Wulff said, would have a dedicated operator, just for the NPC.

The minutes did not mention the name of the company. The board passed a motion unanimously to approve the use of the unnamed company. The following year, members were told to mail checks to “D.S.I.”

Finding D.S.I. would have proved difficult for customers. The Post could not find a listed phone or commercial business address for D.S.I. or locate the company in any commercial credit or business database over the 35 years it has been in business.

After the switch to D.S.I., data processing costs for the NPC grew steadily — from $51,000 in 1985 to $425,000 in 2004, NPC audit records and tax filings show. In 2015, the final year data processing is accounted for, the NPC spent $284,000.

Even with the addition of D.S.I.’s services, the NPC continued to rely on an outdated system to register members, according to a case study by Blue Archer, a Pittsburgh-based company hired by the NPC to help transition to online registrations in 2016. In the study, Blue Archer said that the NPC had relied on an inefficient paper system for membership and was “stuck in the past.”

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“NPC did all 50,000 memberships by hand,” the study said. Members would print cards off the web and send them to NPC headquarters in Pittsburgh. “The NPC Administration team would then collect each mailed application and check and manually enter all of the handwritten information into a system,” the study reported.

Blue Archer did not respond to requests for comment.

Questions for Deborah Albert and Harry Wulff were provided to NPC spokesman Hammond but they did not respond. Jane Wulff is deceased.

J.M. Productions

For three decades, the nonprofit produced a magazine called NPC News as a benefit to members and funded by their dues. It also ran a companion website, npcnewsonline.com, administered by J.M. Manion and J.M. Productions and registered to NPC News.

In late 2013, J.M. and his wife, Debra Amelio-Manion, registered a for-profit company called NPC News Online.

Carl A. Chiocca, 57, creative director for the NPC News magazine for 15 years, said he started to see advertisers migrate from the magazine to the website. Chiocca said he suggested a reciprocal agreement in which advertisers who bought an ad on the website would get an ad in the magazine as well. He said Jim Manion rejected the suggestion without giving a reason.

“They were heavily pushing the website. It was apparent,” Chiocca said in an interview with The Post. “The advertisers would quit advertising in the magazine, and then I would see them on the website.”

NPC magazine advertising fell from about $869,000 in 2002 to zero from 2014 through 2016, tax filings show. During this period, the NPC’s costs for producing the magazine spiked dramatically, from $979,000 in 2011 to nearly $2.7 million in 2015.

Chiocca said that he was baffled by that increase. “We did not change the process,” he said.

The magazine folded in 2018.

The Post could not determine if money went from the nonprofit NPC to J.M.’s for-profit company, NPC News Online. J.M. did not respond to questions about why he incorporated a company using the trademarked name of the NPC. Board members who spoke to The Post said they were unaware that Manion’s son had created a company using the name of the NPC website.

Though J.M. worked at the magazine for many years, the NPC did not declare business transactions with him before 2014, records show. That year, the nonprofit listed payments totaling $307,714 to J.M. for photography services. Over the following two years, the NPC paid him an additional $591,493. Federal tax forms for nonprofits specifically ask companies to declare when they are paying relatives of officers.

Rockell said that Manion made clear to him and other promoters that if they were putting on a competition, they had to hire J.M. as the official photographer.

“You had to pay him cash under the table and take care of his food, his lodging, and so forth,” Rockell said.

J.M. and Debra Amelio-Manion did not respond to requests for comment.

A 2016 antitrust lawsuit filed against the NPC by a rival organization alleged, among other things, that Manion owned or controlled companies that profited off the NPC.

“Businesses owned or controlled by Jim Manion — including NPC Active Wear, NPC News Online, and DSI — are involved in publishing, clothes manufacturing, and nutritional supplement distribution and marketing,” the lawsuit stated. “These companies are highly influential within the United States bodybuilding community because they serve as the main conduit between athletes (who are seeking sponsorship) and fitness industry businesses (who are seeking athlete endorsements or other publicity).”

Lawyers for the NPC denied the allegations.

Behind the lawsuit was Lee Thompson, who ran Manion’s Texas operation and served as a chief judge in the IFBB Pro League before publicly splitting with Manion in 2015. Thompson started a competing company called NPC Global and attempted to promote his own bodybuilding events. Manion sued Thompson for using the NPC name. In 2016, Thompson sued Manion and the NPC on antitrust grounds, alleging that they attempted to stifle the competition. The lawsuits were later settled.

Manion declined to comment on the settlement.

Moving the cash

In hindsight, several of the NPC’s board members say they should have asked more questions about the nonprofit charity’s financials, given what they describe as Manion’s preference for cash transactions.

For years, cash flowed from the U.S. contests to the Manion-led NPC and IFBB Pro League. Bodybuilders often bought their required annual membership cards at competitions and mostly paid in cash, promoters and officials say. NPC membership is slated to rise to $150 next year. A pro card costs $275. Manion said the NPC had more than 30,000 members in 2015, according to a filing in a lawsuit. The IFBB Pro League declined to give a number for its membership.

At some events there were cash-only signs for tickets to the shows as well as for the annual membership dues for athletes, multiple promoters said.

Thompson said that Manion or his wife, Deborah, sometimes drove back to Pittsburgh with cash from the contests. When they did not attend, four promoters said, cash or cashier’s checks were shipped or flown back to Manion in Pittsburgh.

Thompson said he would store hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash in a safe in his house until he could deliver it to Manion.

O’Brien said that he would sometimes send cash via FedEx to Manion’s office. “I remember one time I had about $25,000 in cash. And no way I was running that through my personal account,” he recalled. “I would bundle it up and send it overnight. Fortunately, none of it got lost.”

Sometimes, money flowed from Manion to NPC officials. “I don’t remember what year it started, but all of a sudden he was cutting checks to some of our trustees,” Rockell said. “I’d come into the meeting and he’d give me a $5,000 check. And so I’d say, ‘Well, look, what’s this for?’ ‘Well, because you’re doing a good job, you know?’”

Benedetto Mondello runs competitions in Italy for the International Fitness and Bodybuilding Federation, which the NPC was affiliated with until Manion split from it in 2017. Mondello said that before the break he was sometimes asked to wrap cash in newspaper and mail the bundle to Manion’s Pittsburgh office.

In a 2016 email to Mondello obtained by The Post, Manion’s secretary advised him that he could no longer send payments through MoneyGram or Western Union because the transfer services “have said we have reached our limit.”

“So you either send a money order or another way is to send cash by FEDEX or DHL but don’t tell them it’s cash, say it’s a contract or they won’t allow you to send,” the secretary wrote. “Also, if you have a friend in the US that can send it for you that will also work.”

The NPC’s secretary declined to comment to The Post.

The takeover

On Sept. 2, 2015, Jim Manion, president of the nonprofit NPC, gave himself the organization’s most valuable asset: its name.

The name had been first trademarked by the NPC in 1990. Twenty-five years later, Manion transferred the trademark to himself, signing the federal trademark document as a “duly authorized representative” of the NPC, “James B. Manion, President.”

When Manion filed the paperwork to take the NPC name, he declared he was authorized to transfer it. But he didn’t ask for approval from the board until weeks later.

“You’ve made an oath to the trademark office,” said Christine Farley, a trademark expert who directs the Program on Information Justice and Intellectual Property at the Washington College of Law at American University. “If you didn’t have the authority to make that transfer, it could be fraud on the trademark office.”

Although the transfer of the trademark had already happened, Manion called a special meeting of the board’s officers by conference call for Oct. 1, to approve what he had already done.

The meeting was to consider “ratifying and approving” the transfer of “the trademark ‘NPC’ to James Manion, subject to James Manion granting the [NPC] a perpetual exclusive license to use the mark ‘NPC,’” according to a notice signed by Wulff.

According to O’Brien, who was on the call, after a brief discussion that did not touch on the trademark, Manion dropped off the call to talk to some lawyers, and Wulff took over.

After some small talk, the call ended. O’Brien said the assignment of the trademark to Manion was not discussed or voted upon at the meeting. “I thought the meeting was about him turning it over to us, not him taking it for himself,” O’Brien said.

Once Manion acquired the trademark, his new private company would not have to buy it, a costly process that would have required an appraisal of its value and board approval, according to federal and state nonprofit laws.

According to Farley and other experts, the failure to get prior approval could mean that the transfer is invalid — that neither Manion, his family nor his companies own the NPC name today.

Trademark appraisal expert Joseph Kettell, a managing director at Appraisal Economics in Paramus, N.J., said service businesses such as the NPC are usually valued at one times annual revenue. NPC revenue was $6,188,181 in its tax filing in 2016. “A well-known trademark can be 25 to 40 percent of a company’s value,” Kettell said.

Leff, the American University law professor, said the board “would have a duty not to give away an asset without appraising its value and receiving fair market value for it. The person receiving the asset would have to declare any conflicts, and all of this would need to be documented.”

The transfer of the trademark is tantamount to taking the whole company, trademark experts said, including its goodwill and brand equity.

“That is fundamental,” said Brian A. Coleman, an attorney specializing in intellectual property and trademark law at Faegre Drinker. “With that assignment, you are the company.”

Soon, Manion would take over the whole company.

Weeks after the call with the officers, the NPC’s board gathered in Miami on Nov. 19, 2015, for an annual meeting that several members recall as unremarkable. But according to the minutes mailed months later, it was the end of the NPC as a nonprofit.

The minutes record that Manion asked the board to “start the process to change the NPC from a not-for-profit to a profit.” It was listed under “old business.” Manion justified the change as “the natural evolution in the success of the NPC,” while noting that contest promoters, which included most of the people in the room, were very successful and already for-profit entities.

The minutes said the motion was approved unanimously.

But several board members who were listed as present for the motion denied that it was either proposed or voted upon. The Post attempted to contact all 35 voting members listed as in attendance that day. Some declined to comment or did not respond. Eight board members said the vote did not occur.

Former board member Michael McKinney said he did not recall any discussion or vote around privatization at the time.

“That’s not really something we approve, it comes from the top,” he said. “My loyalties were always to Jim. I did not believe I was a voting member. The board of governors was more for information as to the way we were operating.”

McKinney, 51, said he was not upset when he later learned Manion had turned the company into a for-profit entity. “If it wasn’t for Jim Manion, the NPC would not be there,” he said. “It started with shows in high school auditoriums and now shows are held in huge venues.”

Taking such a vote at the end of the board meeting might not have sufficed. The law in Ohio, where the NPC was incorporated, requires the leadership of a nonprofit to hold a special meeting to vote to dissolve the organization, and then to inform all board members that the vote has happened.

“The general principle is a meeting has to be called for that purpose,” said Daniel J. Hoffheimer, an Ohio lawyer who specializes in nonprofit corporate law. “That means the notice of the meeting has to state that one of the purposes of the meeting, an item on the agenda at that meeting, will be a vote on or a decision on the dissolution. And if that’s not in the notice, then it’s not properly noticed.”

Only two of the eight board members who spoke to The Post said they remembered the issue being discussed, and they said that occurred at the end of the meeting after most of the members had left the table. None had read the notice in the 2015 minutes when they were sent out months later, they said, though the notes from the following year say the minutes were approved by the board.

“I don’t think I would have supported that,” board member Pam Betz said. When a Post reporter asked her in November if she was just learning in the interview that the NPC had been privatized, Betz replied: “I think so. Wow.”

Tax law experts said Manion would have had an obligation to place the nonprofit’s interests before his own.

“The duty of loyalty says that the officers and directors, again, who are managing this thing have to do shared duty to not operate the organization to benefit themselves,” said Philip Hackney, a law professor from the University of Pittsburgh. “You’re also not supposed to take business opportunities that the organization might have.”

After the vote, it would take more than two years to unwind the nonprofit, with a final dissolution recorded in 2018 with the Ohio secretary of state’s office. Manion had already applied the trademarked name he had taken from the nonprofit, the National Physique Committee of the USA, to a for-profit company registered in Pennsylvania.

In the NPC’s final years as a nonprofit, certain expenses soared. Among them, the NPC spent $1.69 million on management fees in 2016. There had been no such fees recorded since at least the late 1990s.

Several of the board members said in interviews that they were not aware and could not understand the sudden appearance of such large management fees.

“I’m flabbergasted,” Betz said. “I don’t have any explanation for this.”

All of the eight board members at the 2015 meeting who spoke to The Post said they were in the dark when on March 15, 2017, the NPC began giving away its remaining cash assets, a legal requirement when a nonprofit dissolves.

“When a nonprofit dissolves in Ohio, every asset must be independently appraised and a value set,” Hoffheimer said. “That would include things like trademarks, copyrights, any intellectual property that is owned. There’s nothing to prevent a board of directors from dissolving the nonprofit; however, they have to comply with the requirements of the statute.”

All the assets of the nonprofit, he said, have to be distributed for nonprofit purposes. The tax form for 2017 lists donations to Manion’s church, Our Lady of Victory, and to the Pittsburgh YMCA, among others. The donations totaled $214,280. According to an officer at the church, Manion had been making donations for years in the name of the NPC, though three board members who spoke to The Post said they were unaware of them.

One donation for $35,280 went to a nonprofit mentoring program in Georgia called Haney’s Harvest House, run by Lee Haney, the Mr. Olympia champion. He hosts a yearly NPC-sanctioned bodybuilding competition that doubles as a fundraiser for Harvest House.

O’Brien said he didn’t understand what happened to the nonprofit until 2020, when a friend showed him the publicly available 2017 tax filing indicating that the nonprofit had been dissolved. Now, he says, it’s clear that Manion deceived him, since Manion called annual board meetings in 2018 and 2019, behaving as if the company were still a nonprofit.

“They talked about a board. I mean come on, there was no board,” O’Brien said.

When a nonprofit dissolves in Ohio, it must notify the secretary of state’s office, which the NPC did in 2018. And it must also alert the attorney general’s office that the company’s assets have been transferred to another nonprofit, Hoffheimer said.

The spokeswoman for the Ohio attorney general said the office has received no notice of dissolution from NPC.

“Our office does not have any evidence that between 1978 and 2018 ‘The National Physique Committee of the USA’ ever registered, filed annual reports, or submitted a dissolution,” May said.

As Manion was privatizing the NPC, he ended his organizations’ affiliation with the world’s biggest bodybuilding organization, the IFBB.

In September 2017, international judges from the IFBB arrived in Las Vegas for the Olympia contest but were barred from judging, according to Pawel Filleborn, one of the judges. Manion brought in his own judges and continued on as the IFBB Pro League.

At the NPC’s annual board meeting, held in November 2017, Manion told the board that the NPC had been separated from the IFBB, according to the meeting minutes. Most of the top professional bodybuilders went with Manion, as did the promoters of the Olympia and the Arnold Classic.

In 2020 he sold the NPC trademark back to his now-private company, the National Physique Committee of the USA.

A filing at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office said the company paid $10.

Have a tip on the bodybuilding world? Email the reporters at builtandbroken@washpost.com.

About this story

Nick Trombola, Alice Crites, Cecilia Nowell, Jimmy Magahern, Claire Healy and Linda Chong contributed to this report.

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