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Ex-Director of Food Services for Hempstead Public Schools Steered Contracts to Co-Defendant in Exchange for Kickbacks

WPCNR FBI WIRE. From the Federal Bureau of Investigation. November 30, 2022:

Tuesday, at the federal courthouse in Central Islip, Sharon Gardner, the former Director of Food Services for the Hempstead Union Free School District (“HUFSD”), pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud in connection with her participation in a kickback scheme. 

Gardner’s co-defendant, Maria Caliendo, the owner of food service providers Smart Starts NY, Inc. (“Smart Starts”) and Prince Umberto’s restaurant in Franklin Square, previously pleaded guilty on October 27, 2022 to the same offense and is awaiting sentencing. 

Tuesday’s proceeding was held before United States District Judge Joanna Seybert.  When sentenced, the defendants each face up to 20 years in prison.  As part of their respective pleas, Gardner has agreed to forfeit approximately $120,000 and Caliendo has agreed to forfeit approximately $160,000.

Breon Peace, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York; Michael J. Driscoll, Assistant Director-in-Charge, Federal Bureau of Investigation, New York Field Office (FBI); Bethanne M. Dinkins, Special Agent-in-Charge, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Office of Inspector General (USDA-OIG); Terry Harris, Special Agent in Charge, U.S. Department of Education Office of Inspector General, Eastern Regional Office; Thomas Fattorusso, Special Agent-in-Charge, Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigation, New York; Anne T. Donnelly, Nassau County District Attorney; and Thomas P. DiNapoli, New York State Comptroller, announced the guilty plea.

“Gardner abused her position of trust as a school official in order to enrich herself with kickbacks she used to pay for overseas vacations and home furnishings.  Now she will face the consequences for her greed,” stated United States Attorney Peace.  “This Office will continue to vigorously investigate and prosecute corrupt officials who illegally profit from our public institutions.” 

“As today’s guilty plea demonstrates, the defendant exploited her role in order to take advantage of the taxpayers for her own personal enrichment.  The FBI and our Law Enforcement partners are committed to fighting public corruption and ensuring that those officials who abuse the trust placed in them are held accountable for their actions in the criminal justice system,” stated FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge Driscoll.

USDA-OIG Special Agent-in-Charge Dinkins stated, “The School Breakfast Program (SBP) was created to provide food and nutrition to those who truly need this assistance. Those who are involved in fraud and abuse of USDA feeding programs will be investigated by our office to the fullest extent.  This joint investigation identified individuals who sought to profit from the SBP through illegal schemes. The USDA Office of Inspector General will continue to dedicate investigative resources, working with our law enforcement and prosecutorial partners, in order to protect the integrity of these programs and bring to justice those who commit fraud.”

“I am proud of the work of OIG Special Agents and our law enforcement partners in holding Ms. Gardner accountable for her criminal actions,” stated DOE-OIG Special Agent-in-Charge Harris.  “We will continue to aggressively pursue those who misappropriate federal funds for their own selfish purposes.  America’s students and taxpayers deserve nothing less.”

“This defendant leveraged her power as a Hempstead School District official to line her own pockets and those of her co-defendant for nearly two years,” stated Nassau County District Attorney Donnelly.

 “Gardner orchestrated the scheme, shirking her responsibilities to follow a legitimate bidding process and handing over the contract to Maria Caliendo, a local restaurant owner who had previously hosted Gardner’s holiday parties. Public funds are precious and finite. Individuals who exploit their positions to access those funds for their own financial gain will be found and prosecuted. I thank our law enforcement partners for their diligent work ensuring these defendants are now held accountable for their crimes.”

“Gardner exploited her position and betrayed the students, parents and taxpayers of the Hempstead School District to enrich herself,” stated Comptroller DiNapoli.  “I thank United States Attorney Breon Peace, Nassau County District Attorney Anne Donnelly, the FBI and the Inspectors General for the Departments of Agriculture and Education for their partnership in holding Gardner accountable for her actions.”  

According to court filings and facts presented at the plea proceeding, Gardner, in her capacity as the Director of Food Services for HUFSD, helped secure lucrative contracts for Caliendo’s company, Smart Starts, to provide prepackaged breakfast meals for Hempstead public school students.  In exchange, Caliendo kicked back a portion of the contract proceeds totaling more than $100,000 to Gardner through fraudulent payroll deposits and other payments.  To conceal the illegal nature of the arrangement, those payments were deposited into a bank account that was created in the name of one of Gardner’s family members.  The kicked back funds were spent by Gardner on international vacations, a leased vehicle, and home furnishings.  Approximately $13,000 in kicked back funds were also withdrawn by Gardner in cash from ATMs located near her home and workplace.

The government’s case is being handled by the Office’s Long Island Criminal Division.  Assistant United States Attorneys Anthony Bagnuola and Charles P. Kelly are in charge of the prosecution.

The Defendants:

Age:  56          
Lindenhurst, New York

Age:  57
Elmont, New York

E.D.N.Y. Docket No. 22-CR-229 (JS)

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