Today’s news:

Estelle Cooper charged in theft from nonprofit: DA

TimesLedger Newspapers

Estelle Cooper was charged with stealing $50,000 from her former nonprofit, which funds activities at Flushing Meadows Corona Park, the Queens district attorney said Tuesday.

Unisphere Inc. is a nonprofit that fund-raised to ensure the park was maintained and had adequate programming.

Cooper, who lives in Whitestone, was the executive director of the group until she resigned in December 2011, DA Richard Brown said. She was also an assistant commissioner with the city Parks Department and the park’s administrator until she quietly stepped down in early 2012.

The 82-year-old was charged with two counts of larceny and could face up to 15 years in prison if convicted, the DA said.

The grand jury charged that Cooper obtained access to Unisphere funds and then allegedly stole more than $50,000 between November 2007 and December 2011, according to the DA.

The indictment came on the heels of a 2011 internal audit at the conservancy, the DA said.

But missing funds were first noticed by Phil Ragusa, who is a public accountant in addition to being the chairman of the Queens Republican Party.

Ragusa was not exactly surprised when he heard of Cooper’s arrest.

“I guess this is just the next step,” he said. “I knew the grand jury was going on, but I didn’t know if they would indict her or not.”

In late 2011, Ragusa was looking over the books and noticed Cooper had withdrawn money from ATMs and not provided receipts to justify where the money went, he said.

According to Ragusa, after Cooper could not provide adequate proof of the ultimate destination of the funds, he passed along the case to the president of the conservancy, Bruce Bendell.

Bendell and the conservancy then brought the findings of an internal audit to the DA’s office, according to Brown.

According to records filed with the office of the state attorney general, the conservancy made $66,000 in profits in fiscal year 2011.

The nonprofit also has about $281,000 tucked away in savings, the records showed.

Cooper is due back in court in mid-September to appear in front of Queens Supreme Court Justice Fernando M. Camacho.

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

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