A Brooklyn federal court jury on Tuesday convicted a Merrick woman who headed a nonprofit for the disabled in Lynbrook for embezzling nearly $1 million from the organization to renovate her home and to fund vacations and cosmetic surgeries.
The jury found that Wafa Abboud, 51, took the money from the nonprofit Human First, which serves about 1,400 clients on Long Island and in New York City. On the first day of deliberations after a two-week trial, Abboud was found guilty of embezzling money, conspiracy and bank fraud.
“With today’s verdict, Abboud has been held accountable for abusing her position of trust as the executive director of a charity and funding her elaborate lifestyle with money intended to serve the needs of vulnerable individuals in the community,” said U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue, according to a release.
Before the verdict, Abboud wrote a letter to U.S. District Judge Edward Korman, in which she said her lawyers would not allow her to testify before the jury even though she wanted to.
“I am a single mother of three children who have no support of any kind,” she wrote, according to Newsday. “I am innocent of all these charges and waited three years for justice to clear my name.” The judge declined to re-open the case and said he would appoint a new lawyer to address her concerns.
Abboud faces a potential maximum sentence of more than 45 years in prison. Korman did not set a sentencing date.
Abboud founded Human First in the early 2000s and its budget grew to more than $22 million. After she divorced her ex-husband, Abboud took over as CEO. She served as the nonprofit's executive director from January 2011 until she was terminated on May 27, 2016, two months before her arrest. Between May 2011 and February 2016, at the direction of Abboud, Human First issued about $16,000 a month in consulted fees to MPB Management Services, a company controlled by Marcelle Bailey.
Over that time period, Abboud deposited two checks payable to MPB per month for $8,000 into accounts in MPB’s name that she controlled. She diverted $420,000 of funds from the charity into the accounts and used them to pay for personal expenses, including a trip to Disneyland in California, tickets to the Broadway show “Newsies,” visits to luxury spas and high-end beauty salons, cosmetic surgeries and international wire transfers, according to Donoghue’s office. She withdrew nearly $120,000 in cash from the accounts.
Bailey pleaded guilty to embezzling funds and bank fraud in December 2017 and is awaiting sentencing.
According to the U.S. Attorney’s office, Abboud also embezzled more than $440,000 from Human First with Rami Taha, another consultant who she hired to work at the charity. Abboud approved inflated construction invoices that Taha submitted to Human First, and issued Human First checks to companies that were owned by Taha. In turn, Taha diverted the embezzled funds back to Abboud, who then used the money to put a down payment on her million-dollar Merrick home and to pay for extensive renovations.
When asked by her mortgage lender about the source of her funds, Abboud covered up the embezzlement by saying they were part of a settlement that she received for damage to her previous home. The evidence at trial also showed that Abboud increased her salary to $479,000 annually without obtaining the required approval from Human First’s board of directors in order to obtain a mortgage loan.
Taha pleaded guilty to embezzling funds in May 2019 and is awaiting sentencing. A fourth co-conspirator, Arkadiusz Swiechowicz, pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in September 2018 and is also awaiting sentencing.
The government’s case is being handled by the Office’s Public Integrity Section. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Robert Polemeni and F. Turner Buford are in charge of the prosecution.