Former Flushing Meadows Park Administrator Estelle Cooper, 82, of Whitestone, was charged Tuesday with second- and third-degree grand larceny for allegedly stealing more than $50,000 from the nonprofit fundraising group Unisphere Inc. that she ran.
Cooper was arraigned Tuesday before Queens Supreme Court Judge Fernando Camacho. She faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted and was released on her own recognizance. Her next court date is Sept.12.
The alleged fraud was discovered last November following an internal audit conducted by Unisphere, which referred the results to the Queens District Attorney’s office in February.
A grand jury charged that Cooper obtained access to Unisphere funds and then stole more than $50,000 between November 2007 and Dec. 31, 2011.
Cooper resigned as executive director of Unisphere last December and the following month resigned as administrator of the park. She said she was pursuing a new career in heading a political consulting firm in Queens with her grandson, Michael Balsamo.
But at the time, insiders said the real reason Cooper left was because of the embarrassment she caused the Parks Department over a day camp run at Flushing Meadows by her daughter, Ilene Balsamo. It was alleged that Balsamo did not pay some staff members and vendors last summer.
Although she was advised not to support the undertaking in her park, Cooper nevertheless did and the camp reportedly only gave the city $1 per camper, despite high tuition that ran from $900 to $2,675 per camper.
Phil Ragusa, a CPA who was hired by Cooper to keep the Unisphere books, told the Queens Chronicle in June that he immediately noticed problems, and that Cooper gave excuses she couldn’t find bank statements over a two-year period.
When he finally got a look at the statements, “You could see the discrepancies,” Ragusa said, adding that he thought more than $90,000 would be found missing in the end.
Ragusa noted that Cooper had a Unisphere credit card and that debits were made multiple times from ATMs and on the same day, in Atlantic City and Empire City Casino at Yonkers Raceway.
The CPA, who also is chairman of the Queens Republican Party, said it was difficult for him to uncover the evidence against Cooper because he’s known her for more than 20 years. She is the county GOP’s former secretary and ran unsuccessfully for the state Senate in 1978 and for borough president in 1986.
Cooper’s salary as park administrator was $101,500. She held the position for 17 years. Unisphere raises money to support park projects.
Several people contacted, who did not want their names used, indicated that if found guilty, they hope Cooper will pay back the funds, even if she has to borrow from friends. The DA’s Office indicated that it’s not uncommon for a judge to request restitution in a case like this.
As one insider said, “The crime is despicable and you have to make an example of people like this. Shame on the Parks Department for keeping her as long as they did.”
Cooper’s attorney, Vito Palmiere, did not return calls for this story.
Legal experts say that despite her age, if found guilty, she is likely to get more than a slap on the wrist.
Some sources believe Cooper has a serious gambling problem. She suffered a second stroke several months ago, and others questioned if she is being manipulated by her family.
Cooper, a Republican, was appointed by Mayor Rudy Giuliani primarily because she was known as a fundraiser and knew a lot of people.