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Former Hempstead Schools Official Allegedly Gave Contracts for Personal Gain

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The former director of food services for the Hempstead Union Free School District allegedly awarded contracts to certain vendors in exchange for kickbacks, according to an indictment unsealed in federal court on Thursday.

Sharon Gardner, 56, of Lindenhurst, who dealt with the school district’s food service contracts, as well as Maria Caliendo, 57, of Elmont, owner of food service providers Smart Starts NY, Inc. and Prince Umberto’s in Franklin Square, were charged in connection to the kickback scheme and face up to 20 years prison time if convicted.

“As alleged, with little regard for the taxpaying public, the defendants secretly steered lucrative food service contracts to themselves and then illegally shared the profits,” said Breon Peace, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York. “This office will continue to vigorously investigate and prosecute those who attempt to corrupt our public institutions through illegal bribes and kickbacks, as well as the officials who enrich themselves at the expense of the public they serve.”

Gardner allegedly steered more than $1 million in contracts to Caliendo’s businesses, and then shared the profits with her, when the school district could have contracted with more inexpensive bidders. Caliendo is also being charged with making false statements to agents investigating the case, according to federal officials.

“Instead of following the legitimate bidding process for a food services contract, the defendants allegedly used the Hempstead School District as their own piggy bank,” Nassau County District Attorney Donnelly said. “This prosecution sends a strong message to public officials that anyone using tax dollars to unjustly enrich themselves will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

The contracts related to pre-packaged breakfasts and other breakfast meals for Hempstead public school students. During the 2016-17 school year, Gardner allegedly convinced district officials to award Smart Starts a “sole source” vendor contract, which federal officials say is typically only used in rare cases when certain products are limited. Then in the 2017-18 school year, Gardner allegedly oversaw a competitive bidding process that she gave to Caliendo’s company.

In total, Caliendo received about $1.2 million from Hempstead School District, and Gardner received more than $100,000 in fraudulent kickbacks, federal officials said. The indictment claims that Gardner used the money for vacations and other luxuries.

Gardner and Caliendo were arraigned Thursday at the federal courthouse in Central Islip before United States District Judge Joanna Seybert.

The prosecutors are Assistant United States Attorneys Anthony Bagnuola and Charles P. Kelly, with the office’s Long Island Criminal Division. Attorneys for the defendants could not immediately be reached for comment.

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