Prosecutors say Illinois school worker embezzled $1.5 million — in chicken wings


The first sign of trouble at an Illinois school district was when a routine audit found it was $300,000 over its annual food budget midway through the year, prosecutors said. Then a review found invoices for thousands of chicken wings — an item the school never served to students, according to court documents.

The bones in the Super Bowl food staple are not kid-friendly, so they’re not on the menu at Harvey School District 152, just south of Chicago. But records showed the school had ordered 11,000 cases of chicken wings over 19 months, according to court documents.

The findings sparked an investigation by the Office of the Cook County State’s Attorney, which alleges that the chicken wings were at the center of an embezzlement scheme — one that cost taxpayers more than $1.5 million, according to court records.

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Vera Liddell, the district’s former director of food services, has been charged with two felony counts: continuing financial crimes enterprise and theft exceeding $1 million. Liddell, 66, was arrested on Thursday but discharged from jail after posting 10 percent of her $150,000 bond, officials with the county’s state’s attorney’s office and jail said.

The public defender’s office representing Liddell did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Prosecutors say the fraud began in July 2020, when the pandemic had widely shuttered classrooms and brought daily life to a standstill. Though the Harvey school district’s roughly 2,200 students were learning remotely, it still prepared meals that could be picked up, the records state.

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Liddell began placing “hundreds of unauthorized orders for food items, primarily chicken wings,” court documents state.

The chicken wing orders, which allegedly continued through February 2022, were made at Gordon Food Service, a Michigan-headquartered distribution company that serves as the school district’s main food purveyor. According to investigators, Liddell regularly contacted employees at the company, who — believing the orders were authorized — would then bill the school district for the items.

When the orders were ready, Liddell allegedly would make a trip to the food company’s facility to pick up the food. Cases of chicken wings would then be loaded into a cargo van that belonged to the school district, according to the surveillance video investigators say they reviewed.

Employees at Gordon Food Service, which didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment from The Post, “were familiar with [Liddell] due to the massive amount of chicken wings she would purchase,” court records stated.

The school district, which includes six elementary schools and a middle school, paid for all the poultry invoices — until January 2022, when the district’s business manager was completing a midyear audit to ensure each department’s spending “was in line with their individual budget,” according to court documents. The audit found the food department was hundreds of thousands of dollars over budget.

Then, “upon closer review, [the business manager] discovered individual invoices signed by Liddell for massive quantities of chicken wings, an item that was never served to students,” prosecutors said.

A spokesperson for the school district didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. But interim superintendent Lela Bridges told Law & Crime that the district “cannot comment at this time because of an ongoing investigation” and is “fully cooperating with the authorities regarding this matter.”

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Liddell, who has not entered a plea, is scheduled to return to court on Feb. 22.

The whereabouts of the 11,000 cases of chicken wings remain unclear. The case at Harvey School District 152 is not the first alleged crime involving wings.

In 2015, a father and son from Syracuse, N.Y., were accused of stealing $41,000 worth of wings from the restaurant where they worked — sticking their workplace with the bill and then reselling the poultry. And in 2013, two workers at a frozen-food distribution center in Atlanta were accused of taking $65,000 worth of chicken wings.

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