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Onetime children’s charity director gets more than 3 years for stealing nearly $1M from program he led

The money paid for more than 80 flights for Stuart Nitzkin and members of his family, according to the feds. It paid for vacations to Scotland, Puerto Rico, Las Vegas, Florida, Arizona and Denver, including stays at Ritz-Carlton hotels in several cities and The Venetian Resort in Las Vegas. 

A sign for the Dirksen Federal Courthouse, 219 S. Dearborn St.
Dirksen Federal Courthouse, 219 S. Dearborn St.
Sun-Times file

Accusing him of “greed” and a “skewed way of looking at the world,” a federal judge handed a three-and-a-half-year prison sentence Thursday to a onetime disabled children’s charity director who prosecutors say stole nearly $1 million from the organization.

U.S. District Judge Sara Ellis handed down the sentence to Stuart Nitzkin of Deerfield, who admitted earlier this year he submitted bogus invoices, receipts and other reimbursement requests to pay for luxury vacations, tickets to NBA games and other personal expenses.

“This was just simple greed,” Ellis said. “And it was your attempt to live a life that you couldn’t afford.”

Before he was sentenced, Nitzkin apologized to the judge and said, “I know that I can bring value to the world, and I pledge to do so.” He added, “Nothing like this will ever happen again.”

Nitzkin served as executive director of American Friends of Israel Sport Center for the Disabled, court records show. Prosecutors say Nitzkin had previously worked as a telemarketer and a salesman before taking the job, which eventually paid a salary of $150,000 a year.

During the summers of 2014 through 2016, prosecutors said he also worked for an unaffiliated camp in Wisconsin. He made $100,000 as the camp’s co-director, they said.

Meanwhile, the feds say Nitzkin stole $831,400 from the disabled children’s charity. They said his fraudulent transactions ranged from less than $100 to thousands of dollars. They said he paid for home and auto insurance, purchases at “a large appliance and television store,” duct cleaning, property taxes, a health club and treatment at the Illinois Bone and Joint Institute.

The money paid for more than 80 flights for Nitzkin and members of his family, according to the feds. It paid for vacations to Scotland, Puerto Rico, Las Vegas, Florida, Arizona and Denver, including stays at Ritz-Carlton hotels in several cities and The Venetian Resort in Las Vegas.

Nitzkin charged the charity more than $7,000 for Chicago Bulls tickets in 2014 and more than $10,000 for Bulls tickets in 2015, and also bought tickets to Cleveland Browns games, prosecutors say. He also spent the money at Bed, Bath and Beyond, Macy’s, Target, and even Dairy Queen.

“[Nitzkin] repeatedly has said that he would ‘never hurt the kids,’ but that is exactly what he did,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Sheri Mecklenburg wrote in a court memo last month.

Nitzkin’s defense attorneys, Adam and Barry Sheppard, wrote in their own memo that Nitzkin raised more than $11 million for the charity, and “gifts, contributions, and grants skyrocketed” under his leadership.

But the prosecutor wrote that the charity “had to spend considerable time and money dealing with accountants and lawyers” to straighten out the mess Nitzkin left behind, and to reassure and rebuild its donor base. Mecklenburg also acknowledged that, “with the help of its donors, the charity is now more successful than ever.”

Still, Mecklenburg wrote that Nitzkin “has been thriving financially and has the means to pay the charity full restitution” — but “has chosen not to do so.” Rather, she wrote that Nitzkin settled a lawsuit from the charity for $315,000, meaning he “still owes the charity more than a half million dollars.”

Mecklenburg said a friend financed Nitzkin’s purchase of a successful staffing company for millions of dollars. She wrote that Nitzkin pays himself “a lucrative salary” there, in excess of what he made at the charity, “as well as regular substantial bonuses and a car allowance that exceeds his car costs.”

Nitzkin owns a home in Deerfield, land in Texas, Colorado and Missouri, has multiple financial accounts and has a net worth in the millions, Mecklenburg wrote.

“Nitzkin has been thriving for the past five years, while the charity has suffered,” she argued.

When she handed down the sentence, Ellis ordered Nitzkin to pay the remaining $516,400 in restitution. She also told him, “There was no reason at all that you could not have paid restitution over the last couple of years.”

“What that would have shown is that yes, you really were remorseful, and that yes, you took responsibility for what you did,” Ellis said.