By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
An alleged embezzlement of possibly more than $100,000 in league funds may prevent a Hilo midget football team from traveling to Florida next month to play in the Pop Warner Super Bowl.
No one has been able to confirm the exact amount of money allegedly stolen, but the case was investigated by the Hawaii Police Department’s Kona Criminal Investigations Section and passed on to prosecutors for further investigation and possible charges.
“At this point, because it’s uncharged and we’re in the preliminary stages of the criminal process, I’m not able to speak to the facts of the case,” Deputy Prosecutor Kauanoe Jackson, who is assigned to the case, said Monday.
Jackson would not identify the individual being investigated, but league officials say it was the league’s former treasurer, Greta “Pua” Correa of Waimea, and that was confirmed by an official source.
Correa has not been arrested or charged with any criminal offenses and the Tribune-Herald couldn’t obtain a phone number to contact her.
The Panaewa Alii midget team won the Pop Warner Western Regional finals on Saturday, defeating Maui’s Wailuku Rainbows 30-8 at Wong Stadium in Hilo.
The Alii team advances to the Pop Warner Super Bowl starting Dec. 7 in Kissimmee, Fla., provided they can raise the funds necessary to go — funds that league officials say would have been in the coffers.
“They’re scrambling for money. They can’t pay for their trip outright, right now,” said Brenda Kuamoo, the Big Island Pop Warner Football Conference secretary, who has also taken on treasurer’s duties.
As for the alleged embezzlement, Kuamoo would only say that “it’s in the hands of the judicial system right now.”
William “Bo” Waite, the Big Island’s conference president, said that the travel fund is missing “between $75,000 and $80,000.” That was money that the league’s teams kicked in from fundraising efforts, at $2,000 per year per team between 2006 and 2010. He said that additional money from ticket sales and vendor’s fees has gone missing, as well.
“The money itself represents a lot of hard work and dedication of every parent, grandparent, aunty, uncle, and whoever helped with the fundraising,” Waite said of the missing travel funds. “It represents the hard work of the kids selling $2 spam musubi, $3 Big Island Candies, $7 sweet breads, $10 steak fries. All that effort is gone, just because of one individual. I’m hoping that the people look at that and understand that it was done by one individual, feel for the kids and kokua.”
Waite said that it would cost “approximately $2,000” per person for the Alii team to make the Florida trip, including airfare, hotel and other travel expenses. He said that figure does not include meal costs. He said that “up to 60 people, including chaperons, maybe more” would be in the travel party.
Sergio Mamone, the Panaewa coach, said the team has 31 kids between the ages of 12-15, eight coaches and Pop Warner rules requires at least 15 chaperons for the trip, and also estimates the team needs roughly $120,000 to make the trip.
“These kids that we coach right now are like my sons,” he said. “In fact, my son is on this team. … I will do whatever it takes to get them there. If I cannot take 31, I’ll take who we can — but I don’t want to do that.”
Mamone said other teams in the league have made offers to help, as well.
“It’s so wonderful because when we were playing against them, you hear parents and coaches yelling a lot on their side to kill us and beat us,” he said. “But today, they’re calling to say, ‘Eh Serge, what can we do to help?’ And that’s what it’s about, the kids.”
Keven Lee, the former president of the Puna Panthers team, told the Tribune-Herald that a bounced check last year for a relatively small amount tipped off league officials that something was amiss.
“In February of 2012, during our flag (football) season, there was a refund check that was due to the Wailoa Razorbacks of $108. Well, the check bounced. If there’s an account that should have in excess of $100,000, why did this check bounce? That started raising our suspicions,” he said.
Lee said that he and another team official voted in subsequent league board meetings to not accept the treasurer’s minutes, but that they were voted down by “majority rule.” He said that he and others were also told to “be patient” by league officials.
“We sat back for a while, but here we are a year-and-a-half later, and the report was done May 25, 2012. Here we are and nothing’s been done yet,” he said. “I think something needs to be done. The kids don’t have a voice, so I was their voice.”
Lee said that his team “bought in” to the travel fund in 2009 and had to put up a lump sum of $6,250 at that time. He said that he personally lost money due to the alleged misappropriation of the travel funds.
Waite said that, to date, no audit has been done of either the travel fund or other league accounts.
“One will be done by the end of this year,” he said. “Pop Warner’s a volunteer program and whoever does this, we need someone that can volunteer their time. We need someone certified also to volunteer to handle our funds for a while to gain back the community’s trust.”
Waite added that in the meantime, the Panaewa Alii team is in fundraising mode.
“Prior to them winning, they knew what their challenge was going to be,” he said. “And we’re doing everything we can to help these kids get to Florida, and we’re hoping that because it’s out now and the story can be told, we’re hoping that people will help in any way they can. We’re in the process of setting up bank accounts for people to send their money to.”
Email John Burnett at email@example.com.