A former executive with the New York City Department of Education, Eric Goldstein, was found guilty by a Brooklyn federal jury on Wednesday. Goldstein, the former head of the Office of School Support Services, was convicted of charges including extortion, conspiracy, and bribery. The conviction stems from a kickback scheme involving Somma Foods, a meat supplier based in Texas.
Goldstein, aged 55 and a resident of New Rochelle, could face a maximum prison sentence of 20 years. The owners of Somma Foods, Michael Turley, Brian Twomey, and Blaine Iler, were also convicted of conspiracy to commit extortion and bribery and face the same potential prison sentence.
During the four-week trial, jurors were presented with disturbing photographs of chicken drumsticks supplied by Somma Foods, which were found to contain plastic, bones, and metal. Debra Ascher, a former supply manager for school foods, testified about being sidelined at work after expressing concerns about the presence of plastic and bones in chicken tenders.
Prosecutor Laura Zuckerwise argued in her closing arguments that Goldstein had used his position of power and influence to enrich himself. She claimed that the owners of Somma Foods sought to secure Goldstein's support to ensure that their products were distributed by the Department of Education.
Zuckerwise alleged that Goldstein was "for sale," and that the owners of Somma Foods, including Turley, Iler, and Twomey, had bought his loyalty. Goldstein expedited the process of introducing Somma foods into nearly 2,000 schools in 2015. However, the company struggled to meet the sudden demand and fulfill the orders worth millions of dollars.
Reports of contaminated chicken tenders, including incidents of bleeding from metal pieces and plastic found in the poultry, began to surface between September 2016 and March 2017. In one instance, a food service manager choked on a bone in a chicken tender and required the Heimlich maneuver.
Amid mounting complaints, the Somma Foods bribery scheme escalated in November 2016 when the meat suppliers offered Goldstein complete ownership of a side company, Range Meats, along with an additional $66,000. Despite the ongoing issues with the food, the dubious products were allowed back on school menus the following day.
Prosecutors revealed that Twomey, Turley, and Iler bribed Goldstein by sending money to his divorce lawyer and his father and by treating him to trips in Chile and Poland.
It wasn't until April 2017 that the Department of Education removed all Somma's products from schools after continued reports of foreign objects in the chicken tenders from students and staff.
The conviction of Goldstein and the owners of Somma Foods serves as a reminder of the need to prioritize the well-being of students and ensure the provision of safe and nutritious meals in schools.