Ex-DOE exec convicted of taking bribes, turning blind eye to tainted chicken tenders served to NYC public school kids

By Priscilla DeGregory

June 28, 20235:36pm

A former executive with the New York City Department of Education was convicted Wednesday of taking bribes in exchange for turning a blind eye to tainted food served to public school kids — including chicken tenders laden with plastic, bones and metal.

Eric Goldstein — the former head of the department’s Office of School Support Services — was found guilty by a Brooklyn federal jury of extortion, conspiracy and bribery charges for the kickback scheme involving Texas-based meat supplier Somma Foods.

Goldstein, 55, of New Rochelle faces up to 20 years in prison when he is sentenced at a later date.

Somma owners Michael Turley, 54, of Arkansas, Brian Twomey, 50, of Texas, and Blaine Iler, 35, also of Texas were convicted alongside Goldstein of conspiracy to commit extortion and bribery, and each also face up to 20 years behind bars.

The verdict came after four weeks of trial in which jurors were shown revolting photos of Somma’s chicken drumsticks oozing thick-red liquid. They also heard testimony from Debra Ascher, a former supply manager for school foods, who said she was sidelined at work for expressing concerns about chicken tenders with plastic and bones found inside.During closing arguments Thursday, Brooklyn federal prosecutor Laura Zuckerwise told jurors Goldstein, “cashed in [on] the power and the resources and the influence of his office to enrich himself.”

Eric Goldstein and Blaine Iler.
Eric Goldstein (right) and co-defendants including Blaine Iler (left) were convicted in a bribery scheme Wednesday.

The Somma owners made sure they got Goldstein, “the key decision-maker at school food,” in their pocket so he would guarantee the DOE dished out their products, the prosecutor said.

“Eric Goldstein was for sale” and “Michael Turley, Blaine Iler and Brian Twomey, they bought him,” Zuckerwise said.

Goldstein fast-tracked getting Somma foods into nearly 2,000 schools starting in 2015. But the company struggled to keep up with the sudden demand and fulfill millions of dollars worth of food orders.

Over one million students attend NYC schools — the largest school district in the country — and the DOE receives $40 million a year in federal funding to feed them.

Chicken served to students.
Goldstein turned a blind eye to tainted chicken served to schoolchildren in exchange for bribes from three co-defendants.

Photos of the chicken.
Students and staff at city schools regularly complained that the chicken tenders had plastic, metal and bones in it.

Goldstein told Iler in a meeting in July 2015 “I’m going to buy a lot of f–king chicken from you guys, let’s do the beef,” prosecutors said.

But from Sept. 2016 through March 2017, people reported bleeding from half-inch pieces of “wire-like metal” and blue plastic found in the poultry, according to an incident log shown to the jury.

In one incident, a food service manager needed to receive the Heimlich maneuver after choking on a bone in a chicken tender, jurors learned.

Eric Goldstein.
Goldstein helped rush Somma foods into city schools in exchange for bribes.

In the fall of 2016, complaints of the chicken fingers had reached a fever pitch, causing the food to be shelved temporarily, prosecutors said.

On Nov. 29, 2016, out of desperation, the trio of meat purveyors increased their bribes offering Goldstein total ownership of their side company, Range Meats, as well as another $66,000, prosecutors said.

The next day, on Nov. 30, the dubious food was allowed back onto city school menus, prosecutors said.

Twomey, Turley and Iler also bribed Goldstein by sending money to his divorce lawyer and to his father and by taking him on trips to Chile and Poland, according to prosecutors.

Brian Twomey.
Brian Twomey of Somma foods was also convicted in the bribery scheme.
Michael Turley.
Michael Turley of Somma was also convicted of bribing Goldstein. All four men face up to 20 years in prison at sentencing.

It wasn’t until April 2017 that the DOE removed all of Somma’s products from schools following repeated complaints of foreign objects in the chicken tenders by students and staffers, prosecutors said.

“The defendants’ criminal conduct is a textbook example of choosing greed over the needs of our schools and the well-being of our children,” Brooklyn US Attorney Breon Peace said in a statement.

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“Our children depended on nutritious meals served in schools and instead, got substandard food products containing pieces of plastic, metal, and bones, which is unacceptable.”

Lawyers for all four men didn’t return requests for comment Wednesday.