A sham charity cheated about 100 New York teens out of wages for working long summer hours at sports and concert venues like Nikon at Jones Beach Theater and Citi Field, Nassau prosecutors said Thursday.
Two men pleaded not guilty in what authorities said was a scheme reaching four states.
Acting District Attorney Madeline Singas said the culprits "stole from at-risk teenagers who did hard work for many hours for little or no pay" in the summers of 2013 and 2014, victimizing the very group their Lindenhurst-based nonprofit was supposed to help.
Whelton Herron, 43, of Brightwaters, and Amadii Owens, 32, of Wyandanch, pleaded not guilty to felony charges of grand larceny, scheme to defraud and conspiracy.
A defense attorney for Herron, whom authorities identified as the nonprofit's president, also entered a not guilty plea to two felony charges on behalf of the corporation itself, Herron Foundation Inc.
Prosecutors charge that the officials recruited students from Freeport High School, Brentwood High School and Huntington High School to work in concessions for $9 an hour at Jones Beach, Citi Field in Queens and MCU Park in Brooklyn.
Authorities said the defendants also stole more than $100,000 from Aramark Sports and Entertainment Services, the stadium food and beverage company that paid a percentage of money from concession sales back to the foundation for the teenagers' work.
Freeport resident Sabrina Kelley, 45, said her daughter, then 18, worked at Mets games all last summer to try to earn money for supplies she needed for her freshman year of college upstate, including a warm coat.
"They promised she would get paid," said Kelley, a patient care assistant in a hospital. "I had to pick up extra shifts just to get her what she needed for college."
The mother said that for working 88 hours, her daughter netted $36 from Herron. The Freeport resident said it also upset her that the defendants targeted low-income neighborhoods.
"A lot of us parents work, and we struggle, and our kids want to go out and work, and they get shafted," Kelley said.
Aramark sponsors a program to support charities in which volunteers donate work hours in exchange for the concessions company donating to the charities, according to authorities. They said the Philadelphia-based company was told the teens were volunteers, and said Herron officials coached the teens to lie if Aramark supervisors questioned whether they were unpaid volunteers.
Aramark spokesman David Freireich said Thursday that the company hadn't worked with Herron since 2014 and was cooperating with authorities in their investigation.
Prosecutors said the scam involved hundreds of 16- to 19-year-olds in all, with about 100 of them coming from the metropolitan area, including about 50 from Freeport. But the scheme also spread to venues in Houston, Chicago and Nashville, Tennessee, according to Singas, who said her office was reaching out to authorities in those states "who can direct those victims to us."
The foundation recruited students in Suffolk County in 2013 and moved to Nassau in 2014, according to authorities, who said officials did presentations at schools, including Nassau Community College, to advertise job opportunities.
Prosecutors said Freeport High students complained to teachers about not getting paid, and the school district's attorneys notified their office in April, with investigators finding Freeport students were owed more than $25,000.
In the meantime, Herron, the foundation's president, spent money he received from Aramark to create an online magazine for golf cart enthusiasts and on a Mercedes-Benz, travel and rent, Singas said.
But Herron's attorney, Joseph Megale, called him "a good, decent, honest man." He said Herron had no previous arrest record, adding: "I believe he will be exonerated."
A judge set Herron's bail at $50,000 bond and Owens' bail at $5,000 bond. Authorities said both men face up to 15 years in prison if convicted.
Owens' attorney, Greg Madey, said his client, a husband and father, worked at the foundation for about nine months and got paid "very little." He said when Owens found out about the scam, he left the company and voluntarily spoke to investigators.