The former Hempstead school district director of food services was sentenced to 6 months in federal prison Thursday for steering $1.2 million in contracts to the owner of a popular Franklin Square restaurant in exchange for $121,000 in kickbacks.
U.S. District Court Judge Joanna Seybert told Sharon Gardner, 58, of Lindenhurst, who pleaded guiltyin November 2022 to conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud, that she violated the public trust when she helped secure lucrative contracts for a friend and “deserves to be punished” for her actions.
“The taxpayers on Long Island, who pay a tremendous amount in taxes for schools because they want the best education and they want the best future for their children, shouldn't have to abide by corruption,” Seybert said in announcing her sentence.
Gardner admitted last year that she knew she was prohibited from profiting from the scheme, but nonetheless accepted more than $121,000 in payments from co-defendant Maria Caliendo. Prosecutors alleged she used a portion of those funds for international vacations, a leased vehicle and home furnishings.
Caliendo, 58, of Elmont, the owner of food service provider Smart Starts NY Inc. and Prince Umberto’s restaurant, pleaded guilty to the same charge and was sentenced to 2 years probation in July.
As part of their respective pleas, Gardner agreed to forfeit approximately $120,000 while Caliendo was to pay about $160,000, prosecutors said. Both women were indicted in May 2022.
At her sentencing Thursday, a sobbing Gardner apologized to the court, the school district and her family, saying she was “ashamed and disgusted” with herself. Gardner pleaded with the judge to issue a sentence with no jail time so she could continue to work at her new job and take care of her ailing wife.
“I always had the best interest of the students in my heart,” Gardner told Seybert.
Assistant United States Attorney Charles P. Kelly said that’s a “frivolous statement” and that Gardner’s actions were particularly troubling given they involved a beleaguered school district in a poor community.
“What she had in her heart here was not the children, it was greed,” Kelly told Seybert.
“This corruption and word of this corruption spreads and weakens public institutions and if public institutions are to survive, there must be some consequence for those who seek to destroy them from the inside,” Kelly said in requesting a guideline sentence of 37 to 46 months in prison.
Between January 2017 and March 2019, Gardner, a 14-year employee of the district, helped secure several contracts for Smart Starts to provide prepackaged breakfast meals to district students, prosecutors have said.
During the 2016-17 school year, Gardner used her influence to persuade school district officials to avoid the required competitive bidding procurement process and award the sole-source contract to Smart Starts, prosecutors said.
The following school year, Gardner oversaw a supposedly competitive bidding scenario but again used her position to award Caliendo's company the contract, despite receiving three other bids that were less expensive, records show.
In exchange, Caliendo kicked back about 10% of the proceeds to Gardner through fraudulent payroll deposits and other payments, prosecutors said.
To conceal the arrangement and launder the money, the payments were deposited into a bank account created in the name of one of Gardner’s family members, prosecutors said.
She left the Hempstead position in 2018. Her attorney, Edward Heilig of Holbrook, declined to say where she is currently working but noted that her income has helped her pay $90,000 in forfeiture funds to date.
Seybert noted the U.S. Probation Department had sought a prison sentence of 1 year and 1 day for Gardner. The judge said she found both government-recommended sentences to be excessive.
Heilig called 6 months a fair sentence and said Gardner, who declined to comment, was grateful.
“She will persevere with that sentence,” the attorney said. “Sharon had a very difficult life. She took full responsibility for her actions and she’s remorseful and shameful for what she did.”
Heilig said during her career that Gardner helped bring grant funding to the district to pay for food-service programs and had been recognized at the White House by former first lady Michelle Obama, a point the judge noted several times during sentencing.
Gardner was given until May 7 to surrender to federal authorities to begin serving her sentence. She will be subject to 2 years post-release supervision following prison.