The ex-head of a prominent Long Island nonprofit for the disabled “systematically” looted hundreds of thousands of dollars to feather her own nest and pay for perks ranging from cosmetic surgery to renovations of her Merrick home, a prosecutor said as the trial of Wafa Abboud began Wednesday in Brooklyn federal court.
“She used it to live the high life,” prosecutor Frank Buford told jurors in his opening statement.
Abboud, 51, the former director of Human First, a well-known service provider for people with autism and other disabilities on Long Island and in New York City, was charged with theft of funds, conspiracy and bank fraud in 2016 along with two co-defendants who have pleaded guilty.
Hired to head the agency in 2010 and paid a salary as high as $480,000, she allegedly engaged in two kickback schemes with cronies hired as Human First consultants — stealing $400,000 by splitting a $16,000 monthly fee to a management consultant, and conspiring with a construction consultant to help pay for her million-dollar Merrick mansion.
“Human First trusted the defendant, the head of the agency, to manage its multimillion-dollar budget,” Buford said. “The defendant abused that trust to take money and give it to herself.”
He called the arrangement with management consultant Marcelle Bailey a “cover,” and said that in addition to cosmetic surgery Abboud used stolen money to pay for $1,000-a-night stays at the Waldorf Astoria, Broadway shows, vacations, “luxury spa” visits, property taxes, overseas wires and a “huge amount” of cash withdrawals.
The government has also charged that Abboud lied to her bank about the sources of her down payment when she bought her Merrick house, and made renovations including a patio, a new roof and a 3200 square foot second floor.
“How did the defendant pay for the renovations?” Buford said. “She didn’t. She stole from Human First.”
Defense lawyer Andrew Bernstein told jurors that not all the charges were in dispute, but said Abboud did not conspire with the construction consultant, and payments to Bailey were mischaracterized by prosecutors.
Bailey, he said, worked hard and earned all the money she was paid as Human First’s second-in-command, and made her own decision to pay Abboud.
“It was Ms. Bailey’s money and Ms. Bailey’s alone,” he said. “She had the right to give it to whoever she wanted, including her friend, Ms. Abboud.” Bernstein said.
The Merrick home, according to prosecutors, was purchased by the nonprofit executive in 2014 for $1.3 million. It is currently valued at $2.26 million, according to the website Zillow, with 9 bedrooms, 8 bathrooms and 5013 square feet.
Human First, founded in 2001, has just under 400 employees, operates with government funding of over $22 million, and serves an estimated 1400 clients by offering residential housing, adult day programs, counseling, employment assistance and other services.
Abboud’s replacement Cheryelle Cruickshank, testifying about the agency Wednesday, said that when she took over she found two signed blank checks from Bailey’s company inside a company-paid Range Rover she inherited from Abboud, and replaced it with a Nissan because it was “too expensive.”
The trial is expected to last more than a week.