Today’s news:

Ex-School Board 29 super pleads guilty in $6M scam

A former schools superintendent in southeast Queens followed her lawyers into a courtroom in Kew Gardens last week and was given a harsh lesson that will remain with her for years to come.

Celestine Miller, the ex-School District 29 superintendent arrested two years ago on charges of rigging computer contracts, pleaded guilty Friday to fraud and related counts before Justice John Latella in State Supreme Court.

Miller, 61, and her husband, William Harris, 84, joined three other individuals and five companies in admitting that they had engaged in a $6.3 million scheme to rig bids, pay bribes, receive kickbacks and fix lucrative Board of Education contracts.

Although Latella indicated the defendants will not serve jail time under a conditional discharge arrangement, he ordered that they pay an unprecedented $4.85 million in restitution. A sentencing date has been set for Dec. 4.

“I wanted to see her and her husband serve time. To me, this is not a punishment,” said Sheila Pecoraro, a former SB 29 member who voted publicly in 1992 to approve Miller’s appointment as superintendent. “The damage that she and her husband did to the educational system will take a long time to be undone.”

Lawyers outside the courtroom scrambled Friday morning to obtain funds sufficient to cover the $1.5 million due at the hearing. The balance must be paid with interest within six years under the terms and conditions of the plea agreement.

“The defendants have admitted their guilt ... and agreed to pay back a total of $4.85 million in restitution — an amount which, to my knowledge, is without precedent in Queens County,” said District Attorney Richard Brown.

“The defendants’ fraudulent scheme victimized the children of southeast Queens, who lost critically needed classroom resources as a result of the defendants’ greed and corruption,” he added. “This settlement will assist those children in achieving educational excellence.”

Miller’s co-defendants included Thomas Kontogiannis, 53, of Old Brookville, N.Y., Ray Shain, 46, of Williston Park, N.Y., and Kinson Tso, 36, of Dix Hills, N.Y. The five corporations involved in the scam — RJ Computer Consultants, Business Innovative Technology, Olympic Corporation, Emerald Estates and Group Kappa — joined Miller, Kontogiannis, Shain and Tso in pleading guilty to defrauding the school district from 1995 to 2000 by submitting false and collusive bids, gaining insider information and influencing competing bidders to ensure that BIT received District 29 school computer contracts.

Harris admitted acting as a front for his wife and receiving illicit payoffs on her behalf.

Part of the settlement has been secured by a mortgage on a commercial property — 1 Cross Island Plaza in Rosedale — owned by a corporation of which Kontogiannis’s wife is president.

“I feel relief that the district will recoup most of the monies in order to replace inefficient technology,” Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans) said Monday. Comrie served on the board under Miller from 1996 to 2000.

“But I feel saddened that we’ve had two waves of children over the past six years that were denied full opportunity to utilize the technology that should have been in place,” Comrie added. “I don’t know how we repay them for what they were deliberately denied.”

The former superintendent served SB 29 from 1992 until February of 1999, when she was ousted by former Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew after delaying to report a child who brought a loaded gun to a school in Rosedale.

After she left, School District 29 struggled without a permanent superintendent until August, searching for a new leader several times until Michael Johnson was named to the post in August following a long stint as the administrator.

Miller, who earned $140,000 a year as superintendent, bought five two-family homes in Rosedale in 1996 and 1997. Sources said Miller purchased the homes with nominal down payments and mortgages arranged through firms owned by Kontogiannis.

In 1998, Miller ran unsuccessfully for Congress on the Republican ticket, seeking to fill the 6th District seat vacated by former Rep. Floyd Flake.

“She’s a criminal, and the worst kind,” Pecoraro said of Miller. “She was in a position of leadership where the community looked up to her as a minority woman who had made it all the way to the top, and money took her down.”

Reach reporter Joe Whalen by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 146.

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