A southeast Queens state senator was fined $15,000 last month for accepting gifts, including several all-expense-paid trips to the Pocono Mountains, from a nonprofit his office supported during his time as a councilman.
Senator James Sanders Jr., who served in the City Council from 2002 until 2012, when he was elected to the Senate, was reimbursed for cruises and getaways on 18 occasions from Margert Community Corporation, a nonprofit headquartered in Sanders’ current and former district, according to a report by the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board.
The nonprofit received nearly $842,000 in discretionary funds from Sanders’ office from 2009 through 2012, according to the report. A portion of those funds were then used to subsidize trips and vacations for the seniors the nonprofit serves. Sanders, and occasionally members of his family, would tag along on the trips serving as chaperones while expensing lodging, food and other items to the nonprofit, according to Office of Trials and Administrative Hearings (OATH) Administrative Law Judge Kara J. Miller.
Sanders said he is in the process of appealing the decision of the administrative court and has not paid the fine.
“No good deed ever goes unpunished,” Sanders said on Jan. 6. “One of the best things I’ve ever done is to treat my elders right, including taking them on beautiful trips. It’s true: We gave flowers to elders. It’s also true: There was a Mother’s Day event where we gave roses to every mother. For that I am guilty. I am not guilty of taking a dime of the people’s money.”
The investigation into the reimbursements focused on five trips to Woodloch Pines, an all-inclusive resort in Hawley, Pennsylvania. The trips were first proposed by Sanders and his office, according to the senator.
In May 2009, the first of Margert’s senior trips to Woodloch, Sanders, his wife and his son stayed in a luxury five-bedroom home, purchased items from the gift shop and expensed a trip to a gun range to the nonprofit, the report found. The total bill of Sanders’ May trip, paid by Margert, was a little over $12,600, according to OATH.
Sanders and his family again attended two Woodloch getaways in 2010 and in 2011, which Margert paid over $81,000 for using discretionary funds, according to the report.
Sanders claimed that his presence, and that of his family’s and several staff members, on the trips were strictly for chaperoning purposes, the report said. However, a former staff member claimed that beyond planning the trips, Sanders and his team did little work during the vacations themselves, the report found.
Additionally Sanders argued that hosting fireside chats with the seniors on the trip justified the vacations. However, the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board argued that Sanders should have left after the fireside chats instead of saying the night. Miller, the administrative judge, sided with the Conflicts of Interest Board.
“I look forward to my day in court,” Sander said. “And we will have it.”