The State’s Attorney for Cook County, Illinois has charged a former public school worker with stealing 11,000 cases of chicken wings and other food items worth $1.5 million in an alleged embezzlement scheme that took place over a span of two years.
On Jan. 26, Vera Liddell, 66, a former director of food services for Harvey School 152, a school district 25 miles south of Chicago, was charged with the felony offenses of Continuing Financial Crimes Enterprise and Class X felony theft, which constitutes the theft of property worth more than $1,000,000 and carries a potential sentence of up to 30 years in prison, a maximum fine of $25,000 and restitution.
Court filings obtained by TODAY.com say that Liddell began working as a consultant for the school district in July 2020 and in the year and a half that followed, the defendant allegedly embezzled over $1.5 million worth of “taxpayer funds” between July 2020 and February 2022. According to Liddell’s LinkedIn profile, she had been an employee of Harvey School District 152 since May 2011.
“The massive fraud began at the height of COVID during a time when students were not allowed to be physically present in school,” reads a bond proffer for Liddell filed by Kimberly M. Foxx, the State’s Attorney for Cook County. “Even though the children were learning remotely, the school district continued to provide meals for the students that their families could pick up.”
TODAY.com reached out to Liddell via phone and email but hasn’t heard back. She is being represented by the Cook County Public Defender’s office, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Barbara Mason, interim superintendent for Harvey School District 152, tells TODAY.com, “The district cannot comment at this time because of an ongoing investigation. However, we are fully cooperating with the authorities regarding this matter.”
According to court documents, from July 2020 through February 2022, the defendant allegedly placed hundreds of unauthorized orders for food using the school district’s account. The bulk of the orders constituted cases of chicken wings and were made with the district’s main vendor, Gordon Food Service, a distributor based in Wyoming, Michigan that serves the Midwest, Northeast, Southeast and Southwest regions of the United States and Canada.
“The defendant placed the unsanctioned purchases separately from the district’s legitimate orders,” reads the bond proffer. “Believing the defendant was authorized to make the purchases, Gordon Food Service would then bill the school district for the items. All of the unauthorized purchases were subsequently paid by the district.”
Sharon Devine, director of communications for Gordon Food Service, tells TODAY.com in a statement, "We appreciate the opportunity to comment, but have nothing further beyond what was provided to authorities during the investigation."
Then, in January 2022, a business manager for the district conducted a routine mid-year audit of individual departments to make sure spending was in line with yearly budgets. The manager then discovered that the food service department had gone over its annual budget by $300,000 — despite it only being halfway through the school year.
Putting the district’s finances under scrutiny, the business manager then discovered individual invoices allegedly signed by Liddell for “massive quantities of chicken wings.” According to the district, chicken wings are never served to students because they contain bones. Once the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office was contacted, an investigation started.
“Defendant had been hired as a consultant after her tenure as Director of Food Services in 2021 to assist in the transition of the new director. The defendant continued to be the only person placing food orders for the district,” reads the filing. “As such, defendant had contact with several Gordon Food Service employees via phone and in person multiple times per week. Interviews of these employees revealed they all were familiar with the defendant due to the massive amount of chicken wings she would purchase.”
The State’s Attorney’s Office says that internal documents reveal that the defendant would call and place “enormous orders for chicken wings” separately from the regular food orders for the school. They also say that there is surveillance video allegedly showing that the defendant would arrive, oftentimes prior to the store opening to pick up food and signed an electronic keypad acknowledging receipt of the chicken wings.
According to the filing, the defendant would then leave with the goods in one of the school district’s cargo vans, and the food was never brought to the school or provided to the students.
The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office tells TODAY.com that on Jan. 30, Liddell was discharged from jail after posting 10% of her $150,000 D bail bond. Her next court appearance will be on Feb. 22 at the Sixth District Courthouse.