Wife, Mother, Grandmother .... & Convicted Felon: The Rise and Fall of New York State Senator Shirley Huntley

You’ll probably only serve three months with good behavior,” Shirley Huntley recalls her lawyer, Sally Butler, saying.  The defense team was sure the judge would take into account that she was 74 years old, and suffering from severe sciatica.  And surely the judge would factor in her more than 40 years of community service.   

And so with Butler’s words fresh in her mind, Huntley surveyed her closet on the morning of May 9th, 2013 as she prepared for her sentencing hearing.  She settled on a black and white patterned dress she thought most fitting for the occasion.  She decided she would wear her smart black jacket over it, and embellish the lapel with her favorite heart shaped pin.  She combed her short brown curled wig, brushed some blush on her cheeks, and applied a subtle shade of red lipstick.  Driving to the Brooklyn courthouse, Huntley reflected on the conversation she’d had with her family the night before.  She had told them not to worry, and that even if she was sent to jail, their lives should go on as normal. 

Shirley Huntley and her husband Herbert in the sitting room of their Jamaica, Queens home, where she secretly recorded other State Senators in an FBI sting operation

Shirley Huntley and her husband Herbert in the sitting room of their Jamaica, Queens home, where she secretly recorded other State Senators in an FBI sting operation

Outside the courthouse, she lit a cigarette, holding it daintily between her slender fingers as she inhaled deeply.  She ignored the gathered throng of media – she wasn’t going to let them spoil what might be the last cigarette she could enjoy for a while. 

 Inside the courtroom, Huntley stood as Judge Jack Weinstein read his sentence.  He outlined the charges she had by now become very familiar with.  They stemmed from a nonprofit organization called Parents Information Network (PIN) she had founded in 1994.  The organization, which had its registered address at Huntley’s Queens home, was meant to help “educate and assist parents of New York City public schoolchildren.”  Funding had come from state grants through the New York State Department of Education (NYSED).  The federal government indictment said between October 2005 and October 2008, Huntley had “embezzled approximately $87,700 in state funds from PIN.”  The allegation said Huntley had falsified documents, written cheques to herself and withdrawn cash for personal use.  She was also accused of accepting a $1,000 bribe from a local businessman for her part in trying to get him a prime retail lease at JFK Airport. 

Addressing Huntley, Weinstein expressed his disappointment at the abuse of her position of trust in the community.  He recognized this was her first offence, and he acknowledged her many years of community service.  But he was compelled to make Huntley an example for other politicians engaged in corrupt behaviour.

And with that, Weinstein sentenced Huntley to one year and one day of incarceration in a federal prison.  Huntley says her lawyer, who declined to be interviewed for this article, was as stunned as she was.  “You should have worn more matronly clothes, and you shouldn’t have worn heels.” Huntley recalls Butler offering as explanation for the unexpectedly long sentence.  Weinstein ordered Huntley to surrender for incarceration on July 19th, 2013, less than one month after her 75th birthday

It’s not difficult to understand why Weinstein felt he needed to make an example of Huntley.  Since 2006, 9 elected officials from southeast Queens have been investigated for or indicted on corruption charges.  Roy Paul, a political commentator, journalist and lifelong Queens resident, says corruption amongst elected officials has almost become institutionalized.  “There’s so much voter apathy - people are preoccupied with putting food on the table and a roof over their heads.  Albany is a world away from their everyday problems.  And so the same people keep getting elected by stupidly small numbers because no one runs against them,” says Paul.  He thinks this has led to culture of arrogance, and a sense of entitlement amongst elected officials.

As Huntley left the courthouse to a crush of reporters and photographers, she lit another cigarette.  Cigarette in one hand, she reached out her other hand to meet the hand of Herbert Huntley, the man who for 53 years had always been by her side. 

“Oh, he was handsome” Huntley recalls of the first time she saw Herbert.   They met when she was 14 years old.  She was drawn to his tall frame, piercing hazel eyes and skin the color of milky coffee.  But Huntley’s mother was not quite as enamored with the young Herbert – he was from the wrong side of the tracks, and definitely not what she had hoped for her young daughter, who had been raised in an affluent African American home.  When Herbert decided to enlist in the Marine Corp, the headstrong 16-year-old Huntley saw an opportunity to offer her mother a deal – if she would allow them to marry before Herbert was deployed, Huntley would stay home and finish high school.  Her mother acquiesced. 

 While Herbert was deployed, Huntley graduated high school and enrolled in a local college to study political science.  She dropped out fairly soon thereafter to fully immerse herself in activism for the civil rights movement, becoming good friends with civil rights leader Jesse Jackson.   Herbert’s return from war two years later, and the subsequent birth of their three children, did not dampen Huntley’s activism.  If anything, the children opened the door to new activism for schools and education.  Both Huntley and Herbert became deeply involved in the District 28 School Board – she with the Parent Teacher Association, and he as a guidance counselor. 

This involvement led to Huntley’s first taste of elected office; and her first taste of controversy.  In 1993 she was elected President of the District 28 Community School Board District.  District 28 was unique in that it encompassed affluent and predominantly white neighborhoods, as well as poorer and predominantly black neighborhoods.  The election was bitterly fought, and the resulting board was divided along racial lines.  White board members refused to recognize Huntley’s presidency, “They said I was the president of the black people.” says Huntley.

Shortly after her appointment, the board was further challenged - a white librarian at one of the district’s schools was accused of a racial slur against a black fifth grade student.  The ensuing outrage led to heated exchanges between the white and black school board members.  In a racially divided 6-3 vote, the board voted not to fire the librarian.  Huntley and the black parents in the school district were outraged. This incident set the tone for the rest of Huntley’s presidency, and further cemented the division between the two camps.    

Huntley remained School Board President until 2004, when the board was dissolved.  She was then elected President of the Community Education Council for District 28, where she was involved in education advocacy for the public school system. 

In 2007, emboldened by support from community members, Huntley decided to make a bid for state senate.  The incumbent for the district, Ada Smith, was mired in controversy over allegations of drinking and physical abuse.   When Huntley broached the idea of running for senate with her family, they were opposed - they worried about the physical and emotional toll political maneuvering in Albany would take, especially given her age.  They were also concerned about the financial burden it would place on the family. 

But for Huntley, the decision was an easy one, and one she had already made, “I thought it would be an opportunity to make a difference in my community.  To make changes for the better.”  She resoundingly defeated Smith in the Democratic primaries, and went on to run unopposed in the 2007 senate election. 

Huntley’s time in senate was spent championing improvements for public school education, and disability rights.  The pinnacle of her senate career was being appointed co-chair of the Senate Select Committee for New York City School Governance.  But her time as senator was also marked with controversy.   In December 2009, Huntley, along with seven other Democratic senators, voted against legislation that would have legalized same sex marriage in the state.  Huntley cited her personal religious beliefs.  This outraged many of her constituents, resulting in protests outside her constituency office in Jamaica.  Two years later, when the same legislation was tabled again, Huntley changed her mind and voted in favor.   By that time though, things had begun to unravel. 

Sitting crossed legged on a comfy chocolate colored couch in her living room, Huntley recounts her time in senate, and the events leading to her encounter with Judge Weinstein.  She pauses occasionally to sip from a cup, her fire engine red nails loosely encircling the cup.  The cream colored walls of the living room are adorned with family photographs, as well as memorabilia from Huntley’s time as State Senator.  She points to an autographed photo of herself with Governor Cuomo, “That’s a really good picture of him.  He doesn’t look that good in real life!” she chuckles.  There’s also a photo of Curtis Jackson, popularly known as rapper 50 Cent, tightly embracing Huntley.  “He used to live up there in the projects,” says Huntley pointing, “he used to come and hang out here with the other kids.”

But despite all the community events and hobnobbing with well-know people, Huntley describes her time in Albany as lonely.  She says she never formed close friendships with the other senators; and if anything, she considered herself somewhat of an outsider.  “I was definitely not part of the old boys club,” she says with a wry smile. She says she also didn’t fit in with the other female senators.  “All they were concerned about was buying new high heeled shoes!” she says snidely. 

And so when Eric Schneiderman approached her asking for support for his 2010 election bid for Attorney General, she declined.  “He asked me to provide some black people from my constituency for a photo opportunity.  He wanted me to coach them to say they supported his election.  I was outraged!”  A few months later, she says former State Senator Malcolm Smith contacted her, asking for her support in his bid to be elected majority leader.  She refused to commit one-way or the other.   In hindsight, she says, these were major missteps, which in her mind made her a marked woman in Albany. 

Huntley can’t remember exactly when, but early in 2011, fellow State Senator John Sampson phoned her.  She says she could tell from the urgency in his voice that this was serious.  She says Sampson told her that he had heard from what he described as a “very reliable source” in the Attorney General’s office that she was being investigated.  Schneiderman had been elected Attorney General in January of 2011.  Huntley speculates that Smith, who was good friends with Schneiderman, instigated the investigation as retribution for her not supporting his majority leadership bid.  “Absolutely not! Never did!” is Smith’s emphatic response to the allegation.

Huntley says she contacted Governor Cuomo, whom she had known since he was 14 years old, to ask for his help in fending off the investigation.  He told her that because of his difficult relationship with Schneiderman, he couldn’t directly help her.  She also contacted State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.  He said he would get back to her, but never did. 

As the investigation progressed, Huntley realized she was going to be indicted.  In a preemptive move to try and control the messaging, she called a press conference on August 25th, 2012.  She chose the front yard of the two-bedroomed home she and her family had lived in for more than 40 years as the venue.  With the house’s brick red siding and neatly manicured yard as the backdrop, Huntley told the assembled media, and dozens of supporters, that she expected to be indicted on state and federal charges. 

It was less than 3 months before she was due to stand for re-election for her senate seat.

Huntley claims that in the months that followed, her family was continuously harassed by the public, as well as by FBI officers assigned to the case.   Her daughter, Pamela Corley, who was a director for PIN, was questioned multiple times.  Huntley believes this stress led to Corley suffering a brain aneurysm, brought on by high blood pressure.  “I couldn’t have lived with myself if anything had happened to Pam,” Huntley says of seeing her only daughter lying weak in a hospital bed.  The death of her oldest son two years earlier also weighed heavily on her as she made what she felt was the only decision she could. In exchange for what she thought would be a lighter sentence, Huntley agreed to plead guilty to the charges, and to participate in an undercover sting to try and expose other senators suspected of corruption. 

Over a three-month period beginning in June 2012, Huntley invited seven senators and two staffers to her home.  Each conversation was recorded via a strategically placed camera hidden inside a water bottle.  FBI agents monitored the conversations from a parked car close by.  The agents even guided Huntley on what to say and what questions to ask via text messages.  Smith was one of those she recorded, inviting him to her home on four occasions. Huntley chuckles as she recalls when Senator Velmanette Montgomery arrived early for their scheduled meeting.  The FBI had not yet set up the camera, and so Herbert was hurriedly dispatched to get the water bottle from the agents.  Huntley says she has absolutely no regrets about participating in the sting operation.  “My conscience is clear. And I really couldn’t care less what anyone in Albany thinks of me! ” 

On September 13th, 2012, Huntley lost her senate re-election bid by more than 17 points. 

Huntley insists the $87,700 she was charged with embezzling was not spent on personal purchases. But the court documents submitted by her lawyer as part of the sentencing process tell a different story.  Butler’s submissions say that on at least two occasions, Huntley used “the funds to shop for personal items”, which are described as “not extravagant undertakings.”  When asked about this admission, Herbert is defensive, and says Huntley was coerced into making those admissions.  Exasperation in his voice, Herbert sweepingly gestures around their modestly furnished living room, “Does this look like we spend $80,000 on it?”

Huntley describes her time as prisoner number 81931-053 at Federal Correctional Institution Danbury as a time of introspection and reflection.  In some ways, she says, it was like being at a retreat, “Except you can’t leave,” she laughs.  She had prepared herself for the worst.  But instead she found her age and former status earned her respect. “Everyone called me Senator or Miss Shirley,” she says, referring even to the prison wardens.  She also had a famous fellow inmate.  Singer Lauryn Hill, who was serving time for tax evasion, was in the room next to Huntley’s.  Huntley describes impromptu concerts, and late night conversations with Hill, discussing their shared passion for social activism. 

But while Huntley found respite, prison was a much more challenging experience for Herbert.  “It was hard being without her when she was gone” he says; and he worried constantly about her health and wellbeing.  Every week Herbert made the 140-mile round trip to visit his wife.  “I only ever missed one time, and that was because the roads were really bad,” says Herbert, his wife nodding in agreement. 

 Huntley describes her release in June, after 10 months at Danbury, as bittersweet.  “I was happy to be coming home, but I was sad to be saying goodbye to these women that I had grown to know.”  “It was like the Pied Piper,” says Herbert, grinning broadly as he describes the scene on the day of Huntley’s release.  “All the women came to the gate to see her off.  There were lots of tears and hugs.”

Huntley says incarceration gave her an opportunity to reflect on her time in senate.  “It was basically a waste of time.  It just became a job.  You need people to support you.  You need people to vote with you to make change, and that didn’t happen.”  She pauses for a moment, then bursts out laughing, “Besides, I’ll always be a senator!  They can never take that title away from me.”

Prison has not dampened Huntley’s activism.  If anything, she says she’s even more involved in the community since her release. And she’s definitely not in hiding - “I have more friends now than before I went to jail!” 

Sandra Chuma