Councilman Accused of Fraud Dodged Investigators for a Year, Suit Says
QUEENS — City Councilman Ruben Wills tried to wiggle out of answering investigators’ questions long before he was charged on Wednesday with using a charity as a personal piggy bank.
A lawsuit that the state Attorney General’s Office and the state Comptroller’s Office brought against Wills in 2012 outlines the lengths he went to avoid their probe into New York 4 Life, a nonprofit he ran that helped single parents.
The lawsuit, which investigators filed to compel Wills to comply with a subpoena for information about charity, says the southeast Queens councilman repeatedly ignored requests for meetings, used excuses about a sick family member and a busy work schedule to postpone sit-downs — and even stormed out of a hearing with state prosecutors.
The probe, which ultimately led to charges of grand larceny and fraud, began three years ago when Wills ignored a request by the state’s Office of Children and Family Service to account for how the charity spent a $33,000 grant.
After Wills ignored two requests for accounting, OCFS referred the matter to the state Attorney General’s Office, which sent the councilman a letter in August 2011 demanding repayment of the grant, according to the lawsuit.
When Wills ignored three letters from the Attorney General’s office, state prosecutors and the state Comptroller’s Office opened a joint investigation in November 2011, the lawsuit says.
Investigators obtained records that show Wills drained the charity’s bank account in a matter of months, making many cash withdrawals and purchases to “entities and persons seemingly unconnected with the asserted purpose of the grant,” the lawsuit says. Prosecutors said on Wednesday that the purchases included a $750 Louis Vuitton bag.
The lawsuit says that as the probe expanded, Wills continued to engage in “delaying tactics” by canceling three meetings with the comptroller’s office between December 2011 and January 2012.
In February 2012, state prosecutors and the comptroller’s office finally put the squeeze on Wills, issuing a subpoena commanding him to produce documentation about the charity and attend a hearing. But the councilman barely flinched.
On Feb. 23, 2012, he personally delivered documents that only accounted for how $980 of the $33,000 was spent.
Through his lawyer, Steve Zissou, Wills agreed to meet with state prosecutors for a hearing on March 15, 2012. But less than an hour before the sit-down, Wills cancelled, according to the lawsuit.
Then Zissou said the councilman would appear for a hearing on March 20, 2012. A day before the meeting, Wills’ lawyer asked to reschedule for March 28 because one of the councilman’s family members was having an unspecified medical procedure, the lawsuit says.
“However, [Zissou] failed to offer any details regarding the timing of the procedure, nor did he provide any further details about why [Wills] was seeking to postpone the hearing another eight days,” the lawsuit says.
When state prosecutors demanded an earlier date than March 28, Wills claimed he couldn’t because he was “busy at work,” according to the lawsuit.
After the prosecutors refused to budge, Wills and Zissou appeared at the attorney general’s office on March 20, the original hearing date. Wills answered questions about his name and “basic pedigree,” but after every other query, he invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, the lawsuit says.
Less than an hour into the meeting, Wills and Zissou stormed out as the prosecutor grilled the councilman about individual transactions from a New York 4 Life bank account.
Before he left, Zissou told the prosecutors that requiring his client to invoke the Fifth Amendment as to individual transactions was “borderline abusive,” according to the lawsuit.
After prosecutors twice failed to reschedule a hearing with Wills, they filed the lawsuit to compel his compliance with the subpoena.
The two sides ultimately reached a deal in May 2012 in which Wills would sit for a hearing and hand over charity records in exchange for the state Attorney General and the Comptroller’s office dropping the lawsuit.
Wills, who is also accused of stealing $11,000 in city campaign finance funds, has denied any wrongdoing.
"I'm telling you I'm innocent. We're going to fight these charges in court just like anybody else would. We will address everybody's concerns within the next two weeks," he said in a statement on Wednesday after his arraignment in Queens Criminal Court.
Zissou did not respond to a request for comment.