State Senator Shirley Huntley arrested

August 27, 2012 3:24:56 PM PDT
State Sen. Shirley Huntley was indicted on charges of conspiracy Monday in the latest case involving a wide-ranging probe of pork-barrel grants distributed by legislators, often to nonprofit organizations they founded or which are run by relatives and friends.

Huntley called the charges a politically motivated, trumped-up effort to disrupt her Democratic primary less than three weeks away.

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's 20-count indictment charges the Queens Democrat of conspiring in a scheme to use state grants to benefit associates in a nonprofit group she founded. The accusation also charges leaders of the organization called The Parent Workshop with grand larceny for taking the state money, but performing no services, according to the investigation by Schneiderman and state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.

The indictment says the Huntley covered up fraudulent use of the state money. It states she "personally wrote a template for a false, backdated letter designed to fool investigators into believing that the Parent Workshop had conducted workshops that never took place."

Evidence in the case includes a handwritten note that crosses out a request to set up a date for a meeting and writes below, circled, "back date."

The 74-year-old is accused of felonies of tampering with evidence and falsifying business records in the first degree, and fifth-degree conspiracy, a misdemeanor. Each felony has a sentence of up to four years in prison.

Huntley had secured a $30,000 grant in 2006 for the group, which was formed to help parents work effectively with the New York City school system.

The indictment also accuses Huntley's aide, Patricia D. Savage, and the senator's niece, Lynn H. Smith, as well as David R. Gantt, who worked for the New York City Housing Authority as a community associate. The indictment refers to Gantt as "purported to be a consultant" to the nonprofit group. Efforts to reach Savage, Smith and Gantt by telephone were unsuccessful.

Huntley said Monday morning that the case will prove her innocence.

"The individuals who schemed to profit at the taxpayers' expense and cover it up will be held accountable," Schneiderman said.

DiNapoli said the comptroller's office received a tip that led auditors to dig into Huntley's member item grant, resulting in the first criminal charges against a sitting state lawmaker by an attorney general.

"They found some obvious red flags and we went a little deeper," DiNapoli said. He credited the joint public corruption unit that he and Schneiderman created two years ago, teaming investigators, prosecutors and auditors.

"This was an example of how we want this unprecedented cooperation to work, our teams side by side," DiNapoli said. The effort included a critical element in which the comptroller under law had the power to refer the criminal case to the attorney general, which needed the referral to pursue a criminal case.

Huntley faces a tough Democratic primary in Queens on Sept. 13 against New York City Councilman James Sanders Jr. and community activist Gian Jones. She said she will be exonerated of all charges.

"The fact this indictment against the senator is coming down less than three weeks ... before the primary election is no coincidence," her office stated. "Senator Huntley has been an advocate for parents and children in this community for over 40 years and, rest assured, she will continue representing the 10th Senatorial District."

Senate Democratic leader John Sampson immediately stripped Huntley of her committee ranking and leadership positions. She received a $9,000 stipend as ranking Democrat in the mental health committee. However, that was already paid for this year. Her $79,500 base salary isn't affected.

A legislator can be removed from office if convicted of a felony.

Member item grants or "pork" have totaled about $200 million a year for legislators and governors, although they have been suspended the last three years because of budget constraints.

The case is the latest involving legislators and their private business dealings:

-Democratic Pedro Espada Jr., who briefly joined Republican senators, was convicted in July of misusing public funds meant to help poor patients at Bronx health clinics that he controlled.

-Longtime Republican Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno faces a retrial on federal corruption charges next year.

-In April, Democrat Carl Kruger, the one-time chairman of powerful Senate Finance Committee, was sentenced to seven years in prison in a bribery scheme.

-In December 2010, former Republican Sen. Vincent Leibell of Putnam County admitted he filed false tax returns and tried to influence a grand jury investigating him on allegations of corruption involving a nonprofit organization he founded.

-Former Republican state Sen. Nicholas Spano admitted in February that he underpaid his income taxes by $53,000.

-Former Assemblyman Anthony Seminerio, a Queens Democrat, pleaded guilty in 2009 to defrauding his Queens constituents by collecting $1 million in consulting fees.

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