Queens Councilman Ruben Wills pleaded not guilty this morning in Queens criminal court to a slew of corruption charges in connection with allegations that he used a sham company to funnel more than $30,000 in government grants and public campaign matching funds into the coffers of his own nonprofit, which he then raided for shopping sprees at high-end stores.
For a period of six years, from 2008 to 2012, Mr. Wills, 42, allegedly “engaged in an ongoing scheme to defraud New York City and New York State using his not-for-profit corporation,” according to a complaint from Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office. He faces a dozen criminal counts, including fraud, grand larceny and falsifying business records in connection with the scheme and its alleged cover-up, according to an indictment unsealed this morning.
Much of the indictment centers on missing state funds given to New York 4 Life, a nonprofit Mr. Wills founded in 2006 and described in his official council bio as an “organization which has helped single mothers champion critical issues such as civic literacy and financial empowerment.” While the nonprofit did do some good, “a central purpose” of its founding, investigators said, was “to enhance” Mr. Wills’ reputation as he sought election and re-election.
One alleged scheme involved a $33,000 state grant allocated to the group in 2008 by since-indicted former State Senator Shirley Huntley, who hired Mr. Wills as her chief of staff before he ran for the City Council. But instead of using the money to run four programs, per a deal with the New York State Office of Children and Family Services, Mr. Wills ran just one, at a cost of about $14,000, and pocketed the remaining $19,000, which he then used to fund shopping sprees at high-end stores like Nordstrom and Century 21, the attorney general’s office said.
He also allegedly doled out cash to friends and associates who did not provide services, and then then falsified documents pretending to have spent the money on legitimate causes, the office said.
Also arrested this morning along with Mr. Wills was Jelani Mills, a Wills relative with a lengthy criminal record, who was charged on four counts of grand larceny and falsifying business records.
According to Mr. Schneiderman’s office, Mr. Mills helped Mr. Wills by creating a “shell company” called “Micro Targeting,” which claimed to provide translation and literature services for campaigns. According to campaign finance records, Mr. Wills’ 2009 campaign paid $11,500 to the firm. But the state’s corporation database has no record of Micro Targeting’s existence and the firm’s address matches that of a Queens UPS store. One source described the firm as having only one official date of existence–November 11, 2009–which happens to be the exact date of the Wills campaign expenditure.
Indeed, instead of providing services, Mr. Schneiderman’s office alleges that it wrote a $6,800 check to NY 4 Life, whose bank account Mr. Wills controlled, defrauding the city’s Campaign Finance Board, which provides public matching funds to candidates.
Mr. Wills went on to spend the cash using the NY 4 Life debit card on luxury purchases including a $750 Louis Vuitton handbag he bought at Macy’s. To hide the scheme, the pair allegedly went as far as to provide fake invoices and literature samples touting the firm’s services.
Mr. Wills, who today pleaded not guilty to the charges, told reporters that he was innocent and planned to fight the allegations “like anybody else.”
“I know because of where I come from and the color I am, it doesn’t usually work like that with you guys, but I am presumed innocent and that’s what I’m going with,” he said.
Mr. Wills faces a maximum of seven years in prison on his most serious count and has already resigned as co-chair of the council’s subcommittee on drug use.
Correction (12:59 p.m.): An earlier version of this post said Mr. Wills founded his nonprofit in 2009. He actually founded it in 2006, according to the attorney general’s office.
View the full indictment below.