An Elmont woman plead guilty on Oct. 27 to participating in a kickback scheme with the former director of food services for the Hempstead Union Free School District, who plead guilty on Nov. 29.
56-year-old Sharon Gardner, the director of food services at the Hempstead school district, helped secure lucrative contacts for Maria Caliendo, 57, of Elmont and her company, Smart Starts, to provide prepackaged breakfast meals for the public school students.
In exchange, Caliendo — also the owner of Prince Umberto’s restaurant in Franklin Square — kicked back a portion of the contract proceeds totaling more than $100,000 to Gardner through fraudulent payroll deposits and other payments. The illegal payments were deposited into a bank account created under the name of one of Gardner’s family members.
Gardner spent the kicked back funds on international vacations, a leased vehicle and home furnishings. She also withdrew approximately $13,000 of the kicked back funds in cash from ATM machines located near her home and workplace.
Caliendo and Gardner await setencing and face up to 20 years in prison. As part of their respective pleas, Caliendo agreed to forfeit approximately $160,000 while Gardener will forfeit approximately $120,000.
Nassau County District Attorney Anne Donnelly said Gardner abused her power as a school district official to put money into her own and Caliendo’s pockets for nearly two years. She added that Gardner orchestrated the scheme, avoided her duty to follow a legitimate bidding process and handed over the contract to Caliendo, who previously hosted Gardner’s holiday parties at her restaurant.
“Public funds are precious and finite,” stated Nassau County District Attorney Anne Donnelly. “Individuals who exploit their positions to access those funds for their own financial gain will be found and prosecuted.”