A jury convicted a Merrick woman on July 9 in Brooklyn federal court of embezzling $1 million from the Lynbrook nonprofit organization for the disabled that she led. She used the money to renovate her home and fund vacations and cosmetic surgeries, prosecutors said.
The jury found Wafa Abboud, 51, guilty of stealing funds from Human First, which serves about 1,400 clients with autism and other disabilities on Long Island and in New York City. On the first day of deliberations after a two-week trial, Abboud was found guilty of embezzling money, conspiracy and bank fraud.
“With today’s verdict, Abboud has been held accountable for abusing her position of trust as the executive director of a charity,” said U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue, according to a release, “and funding her elaborate lifestyle with money intended to serve the needs of vulnerable individuals in the community.”
Before the verdict, Abboud wrote a letter to U.S. District Judge Edward Korman, in which she said her lawyers would not allow her to testify before the jury, even though she wanted to.
“I am a single mother of three children who have no support of any kind,” she wrote, according to Newsday. “I am innocent of all these charges and waited three years for justice to clear my name.” Korman declined to reopen the case, and appointed a new lawyer to address Abboud’s concerns.
Abboud was initially represented by Samuel Schmidt, and then Sarah Kunstler and Andrew Bernstein. Schmidt deferred comment to Kunstler, who said she took on the case after the trial, had not met Abboud yet and declined further comment. Bernstein also declined to comment. A call to Human First seeking comment on the conviction was not returned.
Abboud faces a potential maximum sentence of more than 45 years in prison.
Abboud founded Head First in the early 2000s, and the state-funded service provider’s budget grew to more than $23 million. After she divorced her husband, Abboud took over as CEO. She served as the executive director of the nonprofit from January 2011 until she was terminated on May 27, 2016, two months before her arrest. Between May 2011 and February 2016, at the direction of Abboud, Human First issued about $16,000 a month in consultant fees to MPB Management Services, a company controlled by Marcelle Bailey.
During that time, Abboud deposited two checks payable to MPB per month for $8,000 into accounts in MPB’s name that she controlled. She diverted $420,000 from the charity into the accounts and used the funds for personal expenses, including trips to Florida and Disneyland in California, a stay at the Royal Beirut Hotel in Lebanon, dining at the upscale Japanese restaurant Nobu in Los Angeles, tickets to the Broadway show “Newsies,” visits to luxury spas and high-end beauty salons, cosmetic surgeries and international wire transfers, according to Donoghue’s office. She also used between $5,000 and $6,000 to pay for camps for her children and to cover dental bills.
Bailey pleaded guilty to embezzling funds and bank fraud in December 2017 and is awaiting sentencing.
The defense attorneys argued that Bailey was a close friend of Abboud’s and that Abboud split pay with her out of friendship, not as part of a crime. They further argued that Bailey’s extensive work for Human First merited the $16,000 in monthly payments.
According to the U.S. attorney’s office, Abboud also embezzled more than $440,000 from Human First with Rami Taha, another consultant whom she hired to work at the charity. Abboud approved inflated construction invoices that Taha submitted to Human First, and issued checks out of Human First accounts to companies that were owned by Taha. In turn, Taha diverted the embezzled funds back to Abboud, who then used the money to put a down payment on her nine-room, million-dollar Merrick mansion and to pay for extensive renovations.
When asked by her mortgage lender about the source of her funds, Abboud covered up the embezzlement by saying they were part of a settlement that she received for damage to her previous home, according to Donoghue. The evidence at trial also showed that Abboud increased her salary to $479,000 annually without obtaining the required approval from Human First’s board of directors in order to become approved for a mortgage loan.
Taha pleaded guilty to embezzling funds in May 2019 and is awaiting sentencing. A fourth co-conspirator, Arkadiusz Swiechowicz, pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in September 2018, and is also awaiting sentencing.
The government’s case was handled by the U.S. attorneys office’s public integrity section. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Robert Polemeni and F. Turner Buford were in charge of the prosecution.
Abboud is due back in court on Sept. 5 for sentencing.