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Feds say CEO of Philly’s massive produce market funded millions of dollars in charity work with stolen money

Caesar “Sonny” DiCrecchio is accused of using nearly $8 million the market made from supplying much of the city's dining scene to fund extravagant charitable gestures and line his own pockets.

Customers load fruits and vegetables into a van at The Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market in Southwest Philadelphia.
Customers load fruits and vegetables into a van at The Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market in Southwest Philadelphia.Read more

In certain Philadelphia circles, Caesar “Sonny” DiCrecchio built a reputation as an unassuming neighborhood philanthropist prone to wowing those in need with extravagant gestures of charitable largesse.

He shelled out tens of thousands of dollars to send a cancer-stricken kid and his family to Minneapolis in 2018 to watch the Eagles win the Super Bowl. He contributed regularly to the Mummers string bands. And for over a decade, he covered home repairs and medical bills for victims he saw on the news and hosted an annual Christmas shopping spree for more than 100 children at aNorth Philly homeless shelter.

But federal prosecutors punctured DiCrecchio’s do-gooder image Thursday, accusing him of stealing most of the money he then showered on others.

They said DiCrecchio, 60, of Voorhees, had embezzled more than $7.8 million over a decade from the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market, the 700,000-square-foot Southwest Philadelphia facility that supplies many of the region’s restaurants, grocery stores, and neighborhood markets.

DiCrecchio led the organization as president and CEO for two decades and helped move it in 2011 to its current Essington Avenue location, where it has been hailed as the largest fully refrigerated wholesale market in the world.

But as prosecutors told it, DiCrecchio’s decade of theft was no Robin Hood tale. As much as he regularly doled out eye-popping sums to families in need, they said, he spent far more on himself and his family.

Checks drawn on the market’s account allegedly went to pay more than $1.6 million in rent for his summer home in Stone Harbor. An additional $26,000 covered boarding for his granddaughter’s horses, they said, while $1.1 million was diverted to DiCrecchio’s friends and relatives.

“‘Nickel and dime’ theft — skimming small amounts here and there over many years — is just as illegal as stealing one large lump sum,” a U.S. Attorney Jennifer Arbittier Williams said in a statement.

DiCrecchio abruptly resigned from his post in 2018. Neither he nor his lawyer responded to requests for comment Thursday.

He faces charges including wire fraud, tax evasion, and conspiracy to commit money laundering that could send him to prison for years. Court filings indicate he has worked out a deal to plead guilty, though details of that agreement remain unclear.

In the past, DiCrecchio has described his charity work as a compulsion.

In a 2016 documentary highlighting “Sonny’s Holiday Shopping Party” — the shopping spree he hosted each year for homeless children living in Stenton House, a North Philadelphia shelter — he described the origins of the event, which initially grew out of a partnership with Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb.

“I absolutely feel a spirit,” DiCrecchio told the filmmakers. “I can’t pinpoint it and I can’t say any more than it’s addictive.”

He allegedly spent $90,000 of the market’s stolen money to support the event.

But for vendors and employees at the Wholesale Produce Market, prosecutors say, DiCrecchio’s benevolence came at a bigger price.

The money he allegedly stole and his purported efforts to hide the missing funds made the market appear far less profitable than it actually was and cheated the organization’s board, which is composed of independent vendors who sell their fruits and vegetables at the site.

They filed a lawsuit against TD Bank last year seeking to recoup some of the missing funds, alleging that the bank enabled some of the loss by allowing DiCrecchio to issue checks without required signatures from market board members.

At DiCrecchio’s direction, court filings say, the market’s longtime bookkeeper, Patricia Pumphrey, covered the graft for years by claiming bogus expenses for items like building maintenance, snow removal, or legal fees.

She, too, is facing charges, along with at least two others implicated in the alleged scheme — a compliance officer at a South Philadelphia check-cashing business DiCrecchio favored and the owner of a Delaware County flooring business who is accused of knowingly accepting the stolen money for repair work at the former CEO’s home.

The market, meanwhile, is under new management. The board that oversaw DiCrecchio’s tenure resigned shortly after he did, once the FBI began poking around its finances in 2018.

“The Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market has and continues to cooperate with the U.S. Attorney’s office in this matter,” a spokesperson for the current management team said in a statement Thursday. “We look forward to those criminally responsible for the fraud being held accountable.”