By Joe Taglieri
The City Council on Monday directed staff to oversee the finances of the Azusa National Little League’s upcoming fireworks fundraiser pending the outcome of a police investigation into alleged embezzlement.
“There have been serious allegations of embezzlement, and those allegations are being investigated by the Azusa Police Department diligently,” Chief of Police Sam Gonzalez said in an interview. “We hope to identify all those that are involved and exonerate all those that are not.”
Council members voted 3-1 in favor of closely monitoring the league’s fireworks sales after City Manager Troy Butzlaff revoked a permit to conduct this year’s fundraiser.
The league appealed the permit denial to the council, which approved a compromise allowing Azusa National to conduct its reportedly lucrative annual fireworks sale in early-July under the watchful eye of the city’s finance department.
Gonzalez said the investigation is focused on a “person of interest,” but he declined to identify the person by name or position with the league or divulge any other details related to the police probe.
In testimony at the council meeting and in a letter to the city manager, the current Azusa National board president identified her predecessor as a central figure in the alleged embezzlement scheme. In March board members voted unanimously to expel her from the league’s executive panel.
“The board gave her 30 days to produce receipts, explain discrepancies and/or repay the alleged monies in question,” wrote Melisa Padovano, the league’s current board president. “When time expired, the board … contacted the Azusa Police Department on Sunday, April 12, 2015, to open and conduct an investigation. Board members were questioned and all documents relating to all discrepancies were given to the Azusa Police Department.”
Marsha Juarez directly preceded Padovano as Azusa National board president, according to a source familiar with the investigation who requested anonymity. Juarez held the position since 2012 until her ouster in March.
Several websites describe Juarez as the league’s president, and Azusa National’s website lists Juarez’s phone number and email address on its contact information page.
Juarez did not respond to requests for comment.
The amount of money from fireworks sales allegedly pilfered from league coffers totals more than $20,000, the source said.
According to Gonzalez, police first learned of the embezzlement allegations March 20.
In an April 29 letter to Padovano, City Manager Troy Butzlaff spelled out his rationale for denying the popular local league’s permit application.
“It has come to my attention that the Azusa Police Department has received a criminal complaint and is currently conducting a criminal investigation into allegations of financial malfeasance related to profits generated from fireworks sales by Azusa National Little League over the past two years,” Butzlaff wrote. “Until this investigation is complete and a determination has been made by the Azusa Police Department whether there has been any financial malfeasance and/or criminal wrongdoing by current or previous members of your Board of Directors, I believe it is in the public’s interest to deny your application for a fireworks sales permit.”
Police Chief Gonzalez displayed a very thick binder that he said contained more than 300 pages of documents pertaining to the embezzlement inquiry. He reported that investigators still had a number of key steps to take before referring the case to the Los Angeles County District Attorney.
“This is just a precautionary measure until the investigation is over,” Mayor Pro Tem Edward Alvarez said, summing up the council’s majority position to concerned and at times tearful Little League officials as well as concerned parents and community members in attendance at Azusa Auditorium.
Council Member Angel Carrillo did not attend the meeting and did not vote on the matter, while Council Member Uriel Macias cast the dissenting vote.
“I want them to continue with the permit but not with the conditions that I think are unfair,” said Macias, whose preference was to allow the Azusa National board to continue managing funds raised from fireworks sales without involving city officials as long as improvements were made to the league’s financial accounting procedures.
“I have an issue where the city telling the Little League how to run their operation just as much as I would have with the city telling anybody how to run their business or any nonprofit, for that matter,” Macias said.
“This is a permit process, there are standards, and right now as your city manager I cannot tell you in all good conscience that I can approve a permit based upon the facts that I know to date,” Butzlaff explained in response to Macias’ comments.
A number of league officials and community members implored the council to reinstate Azusa National’s fireworks sales permit, noting its importance to the league’s fiscal survival.
“They have put checks and balances in order to make sure that this will not happen again,” said Jerry Curcio, who supervises California District 19 for the now international Little League organization based in Willamsport, Pa., that was founded in 1939.
Azusa National board member Raquel Castaneda credited fireworks profits with keeping the enrollment fee at $45, which is lower than most youth baseball leagues in the area.
“If the fees go up tremendously, that will be something that will be difficult for parents,” she told the council.
Enrollment for Azusa National’s 2015 season totals 178 players ages 4-16 including a division for special-needs children and young adults.