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Ex-leader gets prison for gambling away funds of teacher's aide union

Ellis Woods liked to gamble and, as the old saying suggests, often did it with other people's money.

Woods' scheme was to steal from fellow union members, all of them low-wage Buffalo teacher's aides, and then turn around and spend the money at local casinos.

More than a dozen of those union members looked on Monday as their disgraced former president was sentenced to a year in prison.

"What Mr. Woods took from us isn't just about money," said Jo Ann Sweat, the new union chief. "It's also about the respect, trust and faith he robbed our organization of. These are things that will take years to rebuild."

Woods' sentencing by U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara came four months after he pleaded guilty to a felony charge of wire fraud.

Woods, 62, who resigned unexpectedly as president of the 800-member Buffalo Educational Support Team in March of last year, admitted stealing an estimated $45,000 from the union.

The former union leader and school district employee -- he spent 41 years with the Buffalo Public Schools -- also admitted gambling most of it away at casinos. "I can't explain what caused me to do what I did," Woods told Arcara. "Ignorance of the law is no excuse."

As part of his plea deal, Woods admitted personal use of a union credit card on eight occasions between November 2008 and February 2011.

Prosecutors said Woods would use the card at automated teller machines and spend the cash at casinos.

Woods resigned from the union early last year amid questions about missing union funds. At the time, a spokesman for New York State United Teachers said the parent union was investigating the allegations.

Woods lawyer Thomas J. Hurley said his client never hid from his wrongdoing once it was discovered by the union. He noted that Woods paid back the $45,000 he admitted stealing.

As president, Woods represented one of the city's largest unions and some of its lowest-paid employees, a fact not lost on Arcara, who spoke at length about the dedication and passion that teacher's aides must have for their work.

"You don't think union members were hurt?" Arcara said at one point Monday. "They don't have fancy cars. They're just hardworking people who have a love for what they do. And thank God we have them."