NYC’s ex-school food chief convicted in bribery case tied to icky chicken tenders
DOWNTOWN BROOKLYN — A man who oversaw food service for New York City schools was convicted Wednesday by a federal jury in Brooklyn in a bribery case that picked apart how chicken tenders riddled with bone and bits of metal were served for months in the nation’s biggest public school system.
Former city Department of Education official Eric Goldstein and three men who founded a school food vendor — Blaine Iler, Michael Turley and Brian Twomey — were found guilty of bribery, conspiracy and other charges after a monthlong trial.
It delved into school menus, from yogurt parfait to ravioli. And the trial gave jurors a stomach-churning look at what some students and school staffers encountered when a brand called Chickentopia turned up on their plates in 2016 and 2017.
“Our children depended on nutritious meals served in schools and, instead, got substandard food products containing pieces of plastic, metal and bones,” Brooklyn-based U.S. Attorney Breon Peace said in a statement Wednesday. He called the case “a textbook example of choosing greed” over children’s well-being.
Goldstein’s attorney, Kannan Sundaram, declined to comment. Messages seeking comment were sent to the city Education Department and to attorneys for Iler and Twomey, both from Dallas, and Turley, of Fayetteville, Arkansas.
The charges carry the potential for 20 years in prison. No date has yet been set for sentencing.
As head of the school system’s Office of School Support Services from 2008 to 2018, Goldstein oversaw functions including the food service operation, known as SchoolFood. Iler, Twomey and Turley had a company, SOMMA Food Group, with its eye on the New York City school system.
Around the same time, the three men and Goldstein formed another company to import grass-fed beef. Prosecutors argued that the venture amounted to a conduit for paying Goldstein off.
The SOMMA founders “made sure that they got the key decision-maker at SchoolFood in their pocket so that he would make sure that the D.O.E. served a lot of their food products,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Laura Zuckerwise said in a closing argument this week. “Eric Goldstein got what he wanted, too. He cashed in the power and the resources and the influence of his office to enrich himself.”
According to prosecutors, Iler, Turley and Twomey paid thousands of dollars to Goldstein and his divorce lawyer. Meanwhile, Goldstein helped ensure that the school system bought Chickentopia items and other SOMMA products, sometimes on a fast track.
Then, in September 2016, SOMMA hit a snag: A school system employee choked on a bone in a supposedly boneless Chickentopia chicken tender and needed the Heimlich maneuver, according to documents presented at the trial. For a time, the schools stopped serving the company’s chicken tenders.
They were allowed back two months later — a day after the SOMMA founders agreed to pay Goldstein $66,670 and gave him their shares of the beef business. Goldstein then signed off on reintroducing Chickentopia products, prosecutors said.
The tenders reappeared. So did complaints about foreign objects in them. SchoolFood ultimately ditched SOMMA products in April 2017, according to prosecutors.
Goldstein testified that he couldn’t singlehandedly get a product purchased, saying that the “heavily gated process” could involve a dozen decision-makers. Fast-tracking didn’t mean skipping steps, he said.
He insisted that he was careful to separate his personal business from his city work.
“I always made sure that my D.O.E. responsibilities came first,” he told jurors.
His defense rebuffed the argument that the payments from his beef business partners were bribes, saying the sums were for such things as reimbursing travel expenses.
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