In her opening argument in the Federal criminal trial of Sylvia Ash, the attorney for the Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice asked jurors to consider her client just another victim of former Municipal Credit Union CEO Kam Wong, who was convicted in 2019 for embezzling $10 million from the coffers he oversaw.
Ms. Ash served as a member of the MCU board from 2008 through August 2016, and chaired it for the last 15 months of that period. She was arrested in October 2019 on charges that she received tens of thousands of dollars in improper reimbursements from MCU and obstructed Federal prosecutors' probe of Mr. Wong’s multi-million-dollar ripoff by destroying evidence and lying to investigators.
'No Cover-Up, No Crime'
“The government just got it wrong,” defense lawyer Carrie Cohen told the jurors. “Ms. Ash never lied to the government…She cooperated with the government voluntarily and met with investigators three times without a lawyer…No lies, no cover-up, no crime.”
She continued, “The fact that Ms. Ash is a judge does not mean she’s guilty…Your duty is not to assume the government is right.”
A few of our stories and columns are now in front of the paywall. We at The Chief-Leader remain committed to independent reporting on labor and civil service. It's been our mission since 1897. You can have a hand in ensuring that our reporting remains relevant in the decades to come. Consider supporting The Chief, which you can do for as little as $2.25 a month.
Ms. Cohen addressed the jurors from a plexiglass booth in Judge Lewis Kaplan’s courtroom. Like the rest of the proceedings in the Moynihan Courthouse, the trial is observing strict coronavirus precautions, including seating those present at least six feet from each other.
Prosecutor Alona Katz, however, told jurors Ms. Ash had willingly aided Mr. Wong in his attempt to cover his tracks once the FBI zeroed in on his looting, which included scores of cash withdrawals to feed his gambling addiction and extravagant lifestyle from 2013 to 2018.
'Lied, Concealed, Deleted'
She said prosecutors would produce evidence that the Brooklyn jurist had “knowingly signed a false document” at Mr. Wong’s suggestion and “lied, concealed and deleted evidence… claiming she had nothing to turn over” after being subpoenaed by prosecutors.
The government’s original complaint alleged that “in 2015 the Credit Union spent approximately $63,408 for the benefit of or at the direction of Ash, the most of any Board Director that year.” Those covered conferences she attended in Cancun, San Juan, Las Vegas, Cuba and the Greek Isles.
In October 2016, prosecutors charged, the MCU paid for her trip to a credit-union conference in Las Vegas with a guest, covering $3,800 in hotel, airfare, food and entertainment expenses, including three tickets to a Britney Spears Concert at Planet Hollywood.
Ms. Ash was placed on a paid suspension from her $210,000-a-year job as the Presiding Judge of Brooklyn Supreme Court's Commercial Division after she was arrested.
In May 2019, Joseph Guagliardo, a former NYPD officer and long-time member of the MCU’s supervisory committee, pleaded guilty to embezzling more than $400,000 from the credit union.
According to the court filings, he created a security company into which he channeled MCU funds that he paid to himself and his family and over-billed the credit union for more than $200,000 in web advertising services provided by a non-profit he controlled.
At the same time, prosecutors charged he had “unlawfully distributed controlled substances to the former chief executive officer of MCU [Wong], in the form of prescription drugs, some of which were obtained from Mr. Guagliardo's spouse, who worked as a doctor affiliated with a public hospital, and some of which were obtained from a different doctor affiliated with the NYPD.”
A June 2018 survey by this newspaper of the MCU’s 990 Federal tax filings and several credit unions of comparable, or even slightly larger sizes, found that in addition to Mr. Wong, MCU’s top executives were unusually well compensated with three of them earning in excess of $600,000 in salary and bonuses during 2016.
Administrator Stepped In
In May of 2019 the New York State Department of Financial Services seized the MCU and appointed the National Credit Union Administration, the nation’s credit union regulator which insures members' accounts up to $250,000, as its administrator.
In late 2019, the credit union offered buyout packages to employees as part of a plan to close five of its 16 branches. The MCU website now lists 10 locations.
“Yeah, I love the credit union,” said one NYPD officer, noting it gave him a loan to buy his uniform and other must-have equipment secured against only his promise of employment by the city. “You don’t see the Wall Street banks doing something like that.”
But on the eve of Justice Ash’s trial, Bob Croghan, chairman of the Organization of Staff Analysts and a longtime MCU member and activist, bemoaned the loss of member participation in its management.
“I am very concerned that this is still not in the hands of the membership,” Mr. Croghan said. “It should not be run by a faceless bureaucracy that does not respond to the people.”
We depend on the support of readers like you to help keep our publication strong and independent. Join us.