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Ex-head of educator union admits fraud

When Ellis M. Woods resigned as head of his 900-member union, Buffalo school officials wondered why.

Thursday, they learned the reason.

Woods stole an estimated $45,000 from the union, Buffalo Educational Support Team, and gambled it away at local casinos.

"Why did you do this?" asked U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara.

"I've asked myself that question a thousand times," Woods said. "I have no excuses. It's ruined my life."

Woods, who resigned in March as president of the union for teacher's aides, pleaded guilty Thursday to a single felony count of wire fraud.

The former union president and school district employee -- he spent 41 years with the Buffalo schools -- faces up to 21 months in prison.

As part of his plea agreement, Woods admitted using his union-authorized credit card for personal benefit on eight different occasions between November of 2008 and February of this year.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Russell T. Ippolito said Woods would use the card at automated teller machines and spend the cash at local casinos.

"You like to gamble?" Arcara asked Woods.

"I did," he answered, "but I have since stopped."

Woods, 61, resigned from the union amid a series of questions regarding union funds that were missing. At the time, a spokesman for New York State United Teachers said the parent union was investigating the allegations.

Thomas J. Hurley, lawyer for Woods, told Arcara that his client is now barred from holding union office for 13 years but has no plans to end his retirement and return to the district or the union.

As president, Woods represented one of the city's largest unions and some of its lowest-paid employees.

When his members -- the Buffalo Educational Support Team represents teacher's aides and teacher's assistants -- won approval for new pay raises from Buffalo's state-appointed financial control board three years ago, it was Woods who publicly defended the raises.

Woods, who is married with two college-age children, will be sentenced in April.