Caribbean-born jurist charged with obstruction of justice

Justice Sylvia Ash.
Justice Sylvia Ash

The United States Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York in Manhattan has charged a Caribbean-born jurist with conspiracy to obstruct justice and obstruction of justice.

Geoffrey S. Berman, United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said on Friday that the charges against Justice Sylvia Ash, who was born in Trinidad and Tobago to Grenadian and Vincentian parents, arise from “a scheme to seek to influence and impede an ongoing federal investigation into fraud and corruption at MCU (Municipal Credit Union), a non-profit, multibillion-dollar financial institution.”

Ash, 62, a Brooklyn resident, is a presiding judge of the Kings County Supreme Court, Commercial Division, and a former chair of MCU’s Board of Directors.

Berman also announced that Joseph Guagliardo, also known as “Joseph Gagliardo,” a former New York City Police Department Officer and former member of MCU’s supervisory committee, was charged separately with embezzlement, fraud and controlled substance offenses “arising from abuse of his position as a member of the supervisory committee.”

Guagliardo was arrested in Brooklyn Thursday afternoon and was presented before US Magistrate Judge Ona T. Wang in Manhattan federal court.

Berman said Ash was arrested at La Guardia Airport in New York Friday morning after arriving from Miami and appeared before Magistrate Judge Wang in Manhattan federal court Friday afternoon.

“The charges announced today reflect the latest in our ongoing work to uncover criminal conduct at the highest levels of MCU, a multibillion-dollar, federally insured credit union,” said Berman in a statement.

“As alleged, Sylvia Ash, a sitting state court judge, took repeated steps to obstruct a federal investigation into significant financial misconduct at MCU during Ash’s tenure as chair of the board of directors,” he added. “Joseph Guagliardo allegedly abused his position as an MCU supervisory committee member to enrich himself and his family.”

Berman said Ash has served as a judge in the New York State court system since at least about 2006, first as a Kings County Civil Court Judge, and, commencing in 2011, as a Kings County Supreme Court Justice.

In or about January 2016, Berman said Ash was appointed to be the presiding judge in the Kings County Supreme Court’s Commercial Division.

He said Ash served on MCU’s Board from in or about May 2008 until on or about August 15, 2016, when she resigned.

Ash also served as a trustee of MCU’s pension plan, a position from which she resigned on or about Oct. 31, 2016, Berman said.

From in or about May 2015 until her resignation from the Board, he said Ash served as the chair of the Board.

From at least in or about 2012 through 2016, while serving as an MCU Board member and while Kam Wong was chief executive officer, Berman said Ash “received annually tens of thousands of dollars in reimbursements and other benefits from MCU, including airfare, hotels, food and entertainment expenses for her and a guest to attend conferences domestically and abroad, as well as payment for phone and cable bills, and electronic devices.”

Wong pleaded guilty last year to stealing nearly US$10 million from the 500,000-member MCU.

“Even after her resignation from the Board, Wong continued to provide or cause MCU to provide Ash with benefits, such as Apple devices,” Berman charged.

“In or about January 2018, after Wong had been approached by federal law enforcement agents investigating potential financial misconduct by Wong involving MCU and in an attempt to protect Wong, Ash agreed to and did sign a false and misleading memorandum purporting to explain and justify millions of dollars in payments that Wong had received from MCU, which was then provided by Wong to law enforcement officers,” he added.

“Subsequently, Ash agreed to and did continue to seek to influence and impede the federal investigation in multiple ways, including by (i) concealing and deleting relevant text messages and email messages and wiping her MCU-issued Apple iPhone in a further effort to destroy and impair the availability of evidence that had been sought by federal grand jury subpoenas, and (ii) making false and misleading statements to federal law enforcement officers in interviews conducted as part of a federal criminal investigation,” Berman continued.

He said that on or about May 8, 2018, Wong was charged and arrested by the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, and, on or about June 12, 2018, Wong was terminated by MCU.

On or about Dec. 2, 2018, Berman said Wong pled guilty to a multimillion-dollar embezzlement from MCU, “and acknowledged, in his written plea agreement, among other things, endeavoring to obstruct and impede and obstructing and impeding the administration of justice with respect to the criminal investigation into this matter, and agreeing with one or more others to do the same.”

Berman said Ash was charged with one count of conspiracy to obstruct justice, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison; and two counts of obstruction of justice, each of which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.

Ash made an initial appearance on Friday before judge Wang, who set the terms of her release at a US$500,000 personal recognizance bond, according to the New York Times.

Ash must also wear a GPS location-monitoring device, and was detained until it was fitted on Tuesday, a spokesman for Berman told the Times.

Roger Archibald, Justice Ash’s Trinidadian-born lawyer, said that she would fight the charges.

“My client maintains her innocence,” the Times quoted the Brooklyn-based Archibald as saying. “She didn’t do anything wrong, and she expects to be fully exonerated.”

Archibald also rejected the suggestion that there was anything inappropriate about the reimbursements cited by prosecutors, according to the Times.

“There was nothing that she received that was above and beyond what every board member received,” he said.

A court system spokesman also told the Times that, after the charges were announced, Ash was “immediately stripped of her judicial duties pending the outcome of the case and suspended with pay from her US$210,000-a-year position by the state Court of Appeals.”

Guagliardo, 62, also of Brooklyn, is separately charged with one count of conspiracy to embezzle from a federal credit union, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison; one count of embezzlement, one count of conspiracy to defraud a financial institution, and one count of defrauding a financial institution, each of which carries a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison, Berman said.

He said Guagliardo is also charged with one count of conspiracy to distribute controlled substances, and one count of distribution of controlled substances, each of which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.

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