JACKSON – They were the best of times for the Holbrook Little League.
Its all-star baseball team slugged its way to a 25-3 record and four championships last summer.
The team captured the hearts and minds of millions of fans as it earned a berth in the Little League Baseball World Series in which it placed fourth in the eight-team United States Bracket and seventh in the LLBWS overall.
The league now finds itself in the worst of times – courtesy of a financial scandal allegedly involving President Anthony M. Del Vecchio, 63, and Treasurer John M. Lehmann, 55.
Both were charged with second degree theft and conspiracy to commit theft for the misappropriation of league finances, the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office stated.
Both have resigned, charged by the office with diverting more than $118,000 of league funds to themselves.
The scandal has rocked the league.
“We should be celebrating the accomplishments of what those kids did last year,” said David Citron, its vice president of baseball operations. “Instead, we are picking up the pieces of a broken home. This is a sad thing that happened at a very bad time. This puts a cloud over what happened last summer.”
The scandal has cost Citron plenty of pillow time.
“I don’t think I slept more than 10 or 15 hours for the whole month of January,” he said. “Tony has been a very close friend of mine for quite some time. He and I have been peers for more than 20 years. It has been devastating to me.”
Citron said he is determined to see the league get back on its feet.
“Well,” he said, “we are working diligently to make sure we have baseball for the kids. We are inviting the parents for their input going forward. We are rethinking a lot of our policies and procedures. Really the most important thing is to go forward with plenty of transparency.
“We want people to have the tools to see exactly what is happening. Their questions must be answered. We gave our upper level board members too much autonomy and that has to change. We are all responsible for doing our jobs and we have to make sure everyone next to us is doing their job.”
Citron said he hopes for more involvement among league members.
“I think a lot of us may have gotten too lax and complacent and allowed a couple of people to run the show so to speak,” he said. “Right now, I feel we are receiving cooperation and help from our parents.”
Citron said the league has yet to name a new president and treasurer.
“We are running things for now as an executive board,” he said. “We will get the ship righted. At some point, we will have elections and elect new officers.”
Jim Osmond, a Holbrook all-star team assistant coach, attended a meeting concerning the situation on a recent Thursday night.
“How will trust in the organization be restored?” he asked, repeating a reporter’s question. “Well, that is the million dollar question right now, really. At the meeting, the community had a chance to voice its concerns and receive answers from the board. There definitely was tension. At the same time, there was an underlying air of optimism. As the meeting went on, it was interesting. People talked more and more and voiced their displeasures and concerns.
“Slowly, the conversation turned to, ‘How do we fix what has happened? How do we get the league back to being a community centered organization that is run in the best interest of the kids?’ People talked about how we must come together as a community to do the right things for the kids.”
Osmond said he is all for openness among the league’s leaders.
“The first thing they must do is get back to doing things the right way with transparency,” he said. “There has always been an air of secrecy around things. I have been involved in the league for probably seven years and there has always been an air of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ People are not going to ‘blanketly’ trust the organization again. The organization has to earn back the trust of the people.”
Has the scandal overshadowed the feats of the team?
“If anything – and this is just my personal opinion – I feel if this had happened and we did not have the excitement of the team there would be an even bigger cloud,” Osmond said. “It was a crazy, Holbrook-driven summer in Jackson Township and now we have this negative winter sentiment again. The ups and downs have been pretty ridiculous quite frankly and I hope in the end the positives outweigh the negatives.”
The county’s Economic Crimes Unit began investigating Del Vecchio and Lehmann last December after receiving an anonymous tip about theft of funds, police said. What followed was an extensive review of Holbrook’s finances from 2014 until now.
Board members allowed the prosecutor’s office to look at the books, the press release noted. Board members raised concerns about discrepancies in the accounts.
It was determined that Del Vecchio and Lehmann – the lone persons who had full control of the money – diverted the funds to themselves. Additionally, the Economic Crimes Unit reported that Lehmann used the league’s debit card for more than $500 worth of charges inappropriately.
“You are talking about people going to jail,” Osmond said. “There are not that many positives from that point of view.”
Osmond’s sons, J.R. and Andy, played on the all-star team. J.R. Osmond was a catcher. Andy Osmond pitched and played first base and right field. The club consisted of 12-year-old players.
“Whatever I can do to help get the league back up and in good standing is important to me,” Jim Osmond said. “I want it to be a league for kids.”
Perhaps the worm has begun to turn in Holbrook’s favor as nearly 225 youngsters showed up to register for the 2018 season.
“It’s about the same amount of kids we had at this time last year,” Citron said. “There will probably be at least a handful of people who will have a trust issue. If it’s just a handful or two, we will survive and it (the scandal) won’t be that devastating.”
Holbrook is not the first Little League in Ocean County to be rocked by a financial scandal.
Richard Cunningham, known as the Beast of the East as the mascot for Toms River East American, which won the LLBWS in 1998, began serving a 10-year prison sentence Oct. 22, 2010.
He was put behind bars at the age of 52 after stealing more than $237,000 from the league’s treasury and diverting the funds to his personal bank account. He was the league’s treasurer from 2003-07.
Cunningham wore a gorilla suit as he led the cheers for the team, paced by Todd Frazier, now a third baseman with the New York Mets.