Trinidadian-born attorney Roger Archibald, who is representing Caribbean-born Justice Sylvia Gwendolyn Ash against charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice and obstruction of justice, categorically says his client is innocent.
On Friday, Geoffrey S. Berman, United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said that the charges against Justice 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 (Brooklyn) Supreme Court, Commercial Division, and a former chair of MCU’s Board of Directors.
“All charges against Judge Ash are allegations,” Archibald, also a Brooklyn resident, told Caribbean Life in an interview Wednesday night.
“Under our system of justice, she enjoys the presumption of innocence, and she retains that cloak of innocence and never loses it, unless she’s found guilty by a jury of her peers,” he added.
Berman also announced on Friday 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 Aug. 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.
“It is interesting to note that the allegations against Judge Ash has nothing to do with embezzlement, conspiracy to commit embezzlement and receipt of any financial gain,” Archibald told Caribbean Life. “Judge Ash was charged with obstruction of justice in the investigation of the embezzlement.”
The charges against Justice Ash have seemingly put what observers consider to be a blemish on an otherwise very stellar career path.
In her 35-year legal career, she is distinguished for accomplishing many first.
On graduation from Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C., in 1984, Justice Ash was hired as the first African American judicial law clerk in New Jersey Superior Court, Chauncey Division, in Atlantic City.
She is also distinguished as the first Caribbean American to be elected as a Civil Court Judge in a county-wide race in Kings Country and the first Caribbean American to be appointed to New York State Committee on Judicial Conduct.
In addition, Justice Ash was the first African American to be appointed as a Presiding Judge of the Commercial Litigation Division in Kings County Supreme Court.
Among her accolades, Justice Ash has received the Brooklyn Bar Association Distinguished Jurist Award; the Brooklyn Women’s Bar Association Lifetime Achievement Award; the Carib News 2019 50 Most Powerful Caribbeans; and the Brooklyn-based Caribbean American Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CACCI) Distinguished Jurist Award.
In terms of her community involvement, Justice Ash is, among others, the director at the Brooklyn-based St. Gabriel Episcopal Church’s Senior Citizen Board; a member of CACCI; the 2017 Grand Marshal of the Brooklyn-based West Indian American Day Carnival Association’s (WIADCA) Carnival Parade; board member of the New York Urban League; former immigration supervisor with District Council 37, the largest union representing municipal workers in New York City; and former pro bono attorney with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Social Service Unit, New York Chapter.
The NAACP is the largest and oldest civil rights organization in the United States.
After the charges against Justice Ash were announced, a court system spokesman also told the New York Times that she 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.”