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Ex-Sen. Huntley pleads guilty to fraud charges

TimesLedger Newspapers

Former state Sen. Shirley Huntley pleaded guilty in Brooklyn federal court Wednesday to committing mail fraud in order to cover up a scam that bilked taxpayers out of $87,000.

The embattled southeast Queens Democrat smiled at family members waiting in the courtroom as she arrived, and with her husband sitting by her side she admitted to embezzling the money from a non-profit she controlled and pleaded guilty to sending phony documents through the mail in order to cover up the deception.

“I’m guilty,” she told U.S. District Court Judge Jack Weinstein. “I plead guilty.”

Huntley, who sat on southeast Queens’ District 28 School Board before being elected to the Senate in 2007 and serving on the Education Committee, steered $87,700 in legislative member items that were administered by the state Education Department to the Parents Information Network Inc., a non-profit she ran from 1994 through 2008.

Huntley admitted that she repeatedly filed false documents to make it appear as though the funds were legitimately used to help parents navigate the city’s school system.

“This was not true,” she said. “The funds were used for personal items for myself and others.”

Federal prosecutors were able to nail her on the mail fraud charges because checks to the non-profit and the false paperwork vouching for them were sent through the mail.

Huntley said she was guilty of setting up straw donors who cashed checks she drew on the Network’s bank account and split the takings with her. Vanessa Sparks, the non-profit’s president, was named as a co-conspirator.

The disgraced ex-senator used the cash on shopping trips and to pay her credit card, she said.

By accepting the plea, Huntley dodged a maximum sentence of five years in jail, and prosecutors said federal guidelines called for a sentence of 18-24 months plus three years of supervised release. A sentencing date was not scheduled at the hearing.

Huntley will have to repay the $87,700 plus an extra $1,000 to the Port Authority resulting from a separate bribery scheme, Weinstein said.

She was released on $100,000 bail and was prohibited from leaving the tri-state area without permission.

“Huntley’s experience and influence were supposed to be used for the benefit of her constituents. Instead, Huntley used her knowledge of the system to steal funds intended to help some of her neediest constituents, lining her own pockets at the expense of parents in need, and ultimately their children,” U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch said in a statement. “She will now be held to account for her crime. “

Both Huntley and her attorney declined to speak with reporters.

The former senator was ousted by voters after the state attorney general’s office indicted her on charges alleging she covered up a similar scheme involving another non-profit she set up.

In December 2011, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman indicted Huntley aide Patricia Savage and Lynn Smith, the senator’s niece, on charges of submitting false documents in order to embezzle $29,950 in member items the legislator set aside for the Nassau County-based Parent Workshop.

As was the case with the Parent Information Network, the authorities claimed that instead of helping parents the money went to line the pockets of Huntley and her associates.

In August, just weeks before her Democratic Party primary defeat to Sen. James Sanders (D-Jamaica), Huntley was charged with tampering with evidence, conspiracy and falsifying business records in an attempt to cover up the scheme.

Huntley pleaded not guilty to the charges in Nassau County Court. It was not clear what effect her guilty plea Wednesday would have on the pending charges.

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at rbockmann@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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