Home Service company 2 charged in scheme to run Hempstead school canteen contracts, feds say

2 charged in scheme to run Hempstead school canteen contracts, feds say

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Two Long Island women have been indicted by the federal government for directing more than $1.2 million in food service contracts for Hempstead schools to a company controlled by one of the defendants in connection with what one official said it was a kickback program that used the school district as “their own piggy bank.”

Sharon Gardner, 56, of Lindenhurst, former director of food services at the Hempstead Union Free School District, and Maria Caliendo, 57, of Elmont, owner of food service providers Smart Starts NY Inc. and Prince Umberto’s restaurant in Franklin Square, were charged in the indictment with conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud. Caliendo was also charged with making false statements to a federal agent who was investigating the alleged scheme.

Both defendants pleaded not guilty to the charges during their arraignments Thursday afternoon before U.S. District Court Judge Joanna Seybert in Central Islip Federal Court.

Both were released on $100,000 debentures.

Caliendo’s attorney, Joseph Benfante of Staten Island, said after the arraignment, “My client is a hardworking woman who has provided excellent service in providing meals to local schools, second to none. I have a feeling she will eventually put this behind her.

Gardner’s attorney, Philip Branigan of Holbrook, declined to comment.

“As alleged, with no regard for the tax-paying public, the defendants secretly proceeded to lucrative restaurant contracts and then illegally split the profits,” U.S. Attorney Breon Peace said in a statement. “This office will continue to vigorously investigate and prosecute those who attempt to corrupt our public institutions through illegal kickbacks and kickbacks, as well as public officials who enrich themselves at the expense of the public they serve.”

Nassau County District Attorney Anne Donnelly, whose office assisted in the investigation, said, “Instead of following the legitimate bidding process for a food service contract, the defendants allegedly used Hempstead School District as their own piggy bank.”

Sharon Gardner, pictured wearing a mask, leaves Central Islip Federal Court on Thursday, after being released on $100,000 bond.
Credit: James Carbone

Sylvia King-Cohen, spokeswoman for Hempstead Schools, said in a statement: ‘The District is fully aware of the investigation and the District has cooperated fully with authorities in this matter. The individual has not been employed by the district since 2018.”

According to the indictment, between January 2017 and March 2019, Gardner, while working as director of food services for Hempstead Schools, managed more than $1 million in breakfast contracts. sole-sourced to Caliendo’s company, and in return, Caliendo paid Gardner more than $121,313.60 in bribes, which she used to purchase international vacations, a leased vehicle, and furniture from home.

Authorities allege the bribes were deposited into a bank account set up in the name of one of Gardner’s close family members, identified in the indictment as “co-conspirator No. 1.” , in order to conceal corruption. Gardner allegedly withdrew about $13,000 in cash from the account, authorities said.

During the 2016-2017 school year, Gardner “used his official position to advise and persuade” school district officials that Caliendo’s “Smart Starts” company should avoid the mandatory bidding process because the company was referred to as a “sole-source exception”. according to the indictment. While the district required competitive bidding before awarding contracts, it allowed exceptions when it determined that goods or services could only be purchased from one source.

Maria Caliendo, center, leaves Central Islip Federal Court on...

Maria Caliendo, center, leaves Central Islip Federal Court on Thursday with her attorney, left, and an unidentified woman.
Credit: James Carbone

“Based primarily on Gardner’s approval,” the indictment says, the school district purchased prepackaged breakfasts for students from Caliendo’s company for the remainder of the year.

During the following school year, according to the indictment, Gardner again used his official position to re-award the company to a breakfast contract, despite receiving three more cheaper offers.

Caliendo, in what authorities described as voluntary interviews with investigators, made “materially false statements” about the nature of the payments, “falsely claiming that they represented the repayment of a start-up loan from a member of Gardner’s family, although he received no capital, labor or labor contributions from this individual,” authorities said.

If convicted, the defendants face up to 20 years in prison for conspiracy to commit a wire fraud charge.

Gardner and Caliendo are due back in court on July 19.

With Craig Schneider