Sharon Gardner, former director of food services for the Hempstead School District, on Tuesday pleaded guilty to receiving $121,000 in kickbacks for steering contracts to a local business owner. NewsdayTV’s Cecilia Dowd reports. Credit: Newsday; File Footage; Photo Credit: James Escher

The former director of food services for the Hempstead School District pleaded guilty Tuesday to steering $1.2 million in contracts to the owner of a popular Franklin Square restaurant in exchange for more than $120,000 in kickbacks that she used for international vacations, a leased vehicle and home furnishings.

Sharon Gardner, 57, of Lindenhurst, cried in federal court in Central Islip after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud, frequently wiping tears from her eyes.

In a prepared statement, Gardner told U.S. District Judge Joanna Seybert that she knew she was "prohibited from profiting" from the "kickback scheme" but nonetheless accepted more than $121,000 in payments from co-defendant Maria Caliendo. Gardner's statement did not include an apology to Hempstead students, parents or taxpayers.

Gardner, who is free on bond, is expected to be sentenced May 16. The sentencing guidelines, prosecutors said, call for a prison term of 46 to 57 months. 

“Gardner abused her position of trust as a school official in order to enrich herself with kickbacks she used to pay for overseas vacations and home furnishings," said Breon Peace, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York. "Now she will face the consequences for her greed."

Caliendo, 57, of Elmont, the owner of food service provider Smart Starts NY, Inc. and Prince Umberto’s restaurant, pleaded guilty on Oct. 27 to the same charge and is awaiting sentencing. Caliendo declined to comment outside of her restaurant.

As part of their respective pleas, Gardner agreed to forfeit approximately $120,000 while Caliendo will give up about $160,000, prosecutors said.

Edward Heilig, Gardner's Holbrook-based defense attorney, described his client's behavior as a "one-off" and said she's lived an otherwise "exemplary life" while serving as an "exemplary employee."

"I can assure the public and the court that this is not somebody who will be seen back in this court or any other court," Heilig said outside the courthouse. "She is very remorseful and she will never do anything like this again."

Between January 2017 and March 2019, Gardner helped secure several lucrative contracts for Smart Starts to provide prepackaged breakfast meals to district students, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony Bagnuola.

During the 2016/17 school year, Gardner used her influence, prosecutors said, to persuade school district officials to avoid the required competitive bidding procurement process and award the sole-source contract to Smart Starts. 

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, Bagnuola 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.

Gardner withdrew about $13,000 in cash from the account that she used for personal expenses, authorities said.

She left the Hempstead position in 2018. Gardner and Caliendo were indicted in May.

“This defendant leveraged her power as a Hempstead School District official to line her own pockets and those of her co-defendant for nearly two years,” said Nassau District Attorney Anne Donnelly. “Gardner orchestrated the scheme, shirking her responsibilities to follow a legitimate bidding process and handing over the contract to … a local restaurant owner who had previously hosted Gardner’s holiday parties."

In a statement, Hempstead School Board President Randy Stith said it's "unacceptable for anyone bestowed with the trust of the parents, taxpayers, the Board of Education and the Hempstead School District as a whole … to abuse his/her position for personal financial gain."

Stith was sentenced in 2019 to probation, community service and restitution pay after admitting to filing a forged letter in his application to become a Hempstead Village police officer and stealing from the village fire department.

Gardner left court Tuesday with family members, declining to speak to reporters.

Heilig said his client has gone through serious health issues and faced difficult "personal matters" as a child, declining to elaborate.

"She's been emotional during this whole time," he said. "She's been remorseful. And she just wants to put this behind her and move forward with her life."

With Cecilia Dowd

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