New York school district official Sharon Gardner pleads guilty to receiving more than $100,000 in kickbacks from a food service provider.
(The Center Square) – A former New York school district official entered a guilty plea Tuesday in a Long Island federal courthouse, and admitted to taking more than $100,000 in kickbacks from a food service provider.
Authorities say Sharon Gardner, who was the director of food services for the Hempstead Union Free School District, worked to ensure Smart Starts received contracts to provide prepackaged breakfasts at the district’s schools. In exchange, company owner Maria Caliendo gave Gardner more than $100,000.
Gardner pleaded guilty to honest services wire fraud before U.S. District Judge Joanna Seybert. Gardner and Caliendo, both entered a guilty plea last month, and face up to 20 years in prison. In addition, Gardner agreed to surrender about $120,000, while Caliendo will forfeit more than $161,000.
“As today’s guilty plea demonstrates, the defendant exploited her role in order to take advantage of the taxpayers for her own personal enrichment,” said Michael J. Driscoll, the assistant director-in-charge of the FBI’s New York Field Office.
Nassau County District Attorney Anne T. Donnelly said Gardner initiated the kickback scheme using Caliendo, who also owns a restaurant Gardner used for holiday parties.
According to court records, the arrangement began in January 2017, and continued through March 2019. Gardner notified the district’s purchasing officer that Caliendo’s business qualified for a sole-source purchase order for the 2016-17 school year.
Gardner oversaw a competitive bid process for the ensuing school year. Even though the district received at least three bids better than Smart Starts’, Gardner rejected those bids and recommended Smart Starts.
From February 2017 to June 2018, the Hempstead district paid Smart Starts more than $1.2 million.
“Public funds are precious and finite,” Donnelly said. “Individuals who exploit their positions to access those funds for their own financial gain will be found and prosecuted.”
Court documents claim the payments to Gardner were sent to a bank account established in the name of a family member. She used the kickbacks for international vacations and a leased vehicle. In addition, she used ATMs near her home and office to withdraw $13,000 in cash.
“Gardner exploited her position and betrayed the students, parents and taxpayers of the Hempstead School District to enrich herself,” said state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who thanked state and federal officials for pursuing the case.
Originally published by The Center Square. Republished with permission.
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