Financial scandal continued to rock the James Beard Foundation on Monday when Leonard Pickell Jr., the former president of the foundation, pleaded guilty to stealing more than $50,000 from the prestigious culinary organization.
Pickell faces a maximum sentence of 15 years in jail, according to Brad Maione, a spokesman for New York Atty. Gen. Eliot Spitzer. "We're likely to ask for jail time," he says.
Appearing in state Supreme Court in Manhattan, Pickell, 50, admitted to writing Beard foundation checks to cover personal expenses, stealing money from a petty cash fund and forging documents for bogus reimbursement claims from 1995 to March 2004.
"He took full responsibility for his actions and doesn't want what he did to reflect badly on the organization," says Stacey Richman, Pickell's attorney. "His goal is to make restitution."
Active in the nonprofit foundation since its inception in 1989, Pickell became president in 1994 and continued to hold that office until he resigned in September 2004, after the disclosure of overdue taxes and other financial irregularities at the foundation.
Last month, the foundation announced that an internal audit had found that Pickell had misappropriated more than $1 million in foundation funds.
The finding prompted leading members of the foundation to call for the immediate resignation of the board of trustees.
This is just the latest chapter in an ongoing drama, according to Corby Kummer, senior editor of Atlantic Monthly and a member of the James Beard Restaurant Awards Committee. Kummer and several others on the committee have been among those actively seeking to overhaul the board.
"The board is willing to resign and waiting to resign," he says. "It's a question of having a new board in place."
Although new board members have yet to be announced, Kummer says, "We think the new board will be full of new ideas."
Meanwhile, a civil investigation into the foundation's finances continues.
George Sape, chairman of the foundation's board of trustees, declined to comment on either Pickell's guilty plea or the continuing financial probe.
Pickell pleaded guilty to second-degree grand larceny, a class C felony, before Justice James Yates in New York County Supreme Court.