Councilman Ruben Wills was found guilty of corruption charges last Thursday. Supporters, including LifeCamp founder Erica Ford (right), said that they were disappointed by the verdict. Photo by Trone Dowd
BY TRONE DOWD
Councilman Ruben Wills (D-Jamaica), the Southeast Queens representative caught up in a web of controversy due to allegations that he used $30,000 of taxpayer money for personal use, was found guilty on five criminal counts last Thursday.
The jury made its decision after two days of deliberation, concluding the three-year case that the New York State Attorney General had built against the politician.
Wills was found guilty of one count of a scheme to defraud in the first degree, two counts of grand larceny in the third degree and two counts of filing a false instrument in the first degree. He was acquitted on a single charge for filing false business records.
According to State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, state law requires that the councilman will be automatically expelled from the New York City Council. Wills faces a maximum of seven years in prison.
“Ruben Wills’ crimes were a shameful violation of the public trust. Now, after a conviction by a jury of his peers, Ruben Wills will face the consequences,” Schneiderman said. “Ruben Wills stole taxpayer dollars to buy fancy purses and clothes for himself and his friends. New Yorkers deserved better. Today’s conviction is another important step in our efforts to clean up New York politics and give voters the representation they deserve.”
In a conversation with the PRESS of Southeast Queens shortly after the jury’s decision, Wills said that he was “disappointed in the verdict.”
“I’m innocent,” he said. “We’re going to appeal on this and win. I think there are a lot of constitutional violations that happened.”
Wills pointed to that fact that many of his witnesses, including state Sen. Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans), were dismissed by Queens County Judge Ira Margulis before they could testify before the jury.
Wills’ attorney, Kevin O’Donnell, told the PRESS of Southeast Queens that he is confident in the ability to appeal the decision.
“We’re devastated,” O’Donnell said. “Having got to know Ruben and his constituency, his character. This is a tough one to swallow. I thought with the circumstantial evidence charge that it would be clear that there was another explanation of innocence. I wish the jury had looked at the charge a little deeper.”
State Sen. James Sanders (D-South Ozone Park) said in a statement shortly after the verdict that it was a “sad day for the community.”
“People’s faith in their elected officials has been shaken again,” Sanders said. “Never has there been a greater need for good, clean leadership. The election to fill this seat has become all the more important in light of this conviction. I hope the community will be able to put their trust in someone who can lead them forward with strength and dignity.”
Wills’ colleague and, arguably, biggest critic in the city council, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, had a more stinging response to Thursday’s decision.
“Ruben Wills betrayed the trust of all New Yorkers when he abused his position in the state senate to steal thousands of dollars from the hardworking taxpayers of New York for his own selfish gain,” Mark-Viverito said. “Serving in elected office requires honesty and integrity and today’s conviction makes clear that Ruben Wills is unfit to be a member of the city council. We thank Attorney General Schneiderman for his diligence in investigating and trying this case and the jury for their service in bringing justice to New Yorkers.”
In Southeast Queens, not everyone was pleased with the decision. Erica Ford—founder of the LifeCamp civic group in Southeast Queens, which works to stop gun and gang violence on city streets—was vocal about the decision.
“As a constituent and as someone who goes through this process, the process is barbaric,” Ford said. “When we look at the criminal justice system, there are hundreds of thousands of black men and women inside of these prisons not for the crimes they’ve committed, but because they are black men and women.”
She mentioned that she wanted to see justice in other cases unrelated to Wills, including the killings of Sean Bell and Tamir Rice. She added that the justice system has historically not been fair to black and brown people.
Comrie said that he was “disappointed and saddened by the outcome of the trial.”
“Ruben has massive potential and has served effectively as a member of the New York City Council,” Comrie said. “My prayers are with him and his family during this difficult time.”
The PRESS of Southeast Queens reached out to the office of U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-Jamaica) for comment on the decision, but did not receive a response in time for print. In May, Meeks said that he would support Wills’ bid for re-election as there was no evidence to doubt the councilman’s ability to serve his constituents.
On the campaign trail, one of the candidates looking to replace Wills in November said that he was sad to see the results of Wills’ trial.
“I first met Council Member Ruben Wills in 2010,” community activist and 28th Council District candidate Richard David said. “He has always been respectful, caring and highly personable with a great sense of humor.”
David said that he had worked with the councilman’s office on projects in the past through numerous city agencies and admired his ability to get things done for his constituents.
“Mr. Wills was driven by his desire to transform our district in the way he transformed his own life,” David said. “Mr. Wills was brought up in South Jamaica Houses and rose from humble beginnings to become a leader in our district. His story is one of hope and hard work. Yesterday’s verdict can never take this inspiration away or hinder the dreams of other young people with aspirations to better our community.”
David asked that people not remember Thursday’s jury decision, but instead Wills’ “humble beginnings and all that he sought to do for the community.”
“My prayers are with Mr. Wills, his family and his staff,” David said.
Wills’s trial had been a long time in the making. After more than three years of delays, the trial finally kicked off on July 5. The councilman could face further legal troubles, including a pending trial for his alleged failure to disclose certain aspects of his finances to the Campaign Finance Board.
Sentencing is currently scheduled for Aug. 10.