RAMAPO — On an unusually warm day in March, dozens of FBI agents and other law enforcement officers raided two dozen yeshivas and businesses that had tapped into a multi-million dollar federal program for financing computers and related technology at educational institutions.
More than 300 agents and officers descended on the ultra-Orthodox private schools and companies, seizing payment records, equipment and other documents as part of an investigation on whether the federal money had been misused.
The agents hit additional religious schools in Orange County ultra-Orthodox community of Kiryas Joel and made at least one stop the same day in Brooklyn.
The FBI-led raids, which involved more than 22 separate search warrants in Ramapo, also included detectives with the Rockland District Attorney’s Office and local police departments.
Since then, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and federal agents have been categorizing dozens of boxes of documents and comparing receipts with invoices in their investigation into whether the local yeshivas properly spent money obtained through the federal government’s E-Rate program, overseen by the Universal Service Administration Co. for the Federal Communications Commission.
They are trying to determine what was paid for by vendors with the federal money and what was actually received by the schools.
Rockland District Attorney Thomas Zugibe said the public won’t likely hear more until the FBI investigation is completed, and only if wrongdoing is found.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s office and the FBI don’t comment on investigations, even those involving raids documented by reporters and witnessed by the public.
Zugibe only offered a minimal update on the investigation into what’s called the federal government’s ‘e-rate’ program. His office is part of an anti-corruption task force that works with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan.
“The federal/state probe of the E-Rate program conducted by the Rockland County Public Corruption Task Force is ongoing,” Zugibe said. “Cases of this nature require the analysis of voluminous documents and the pursuit of myriad avenues of investigation by teams of attorneys, investigators and forensic auditors. We cannot predict when this complex investigation will be concluded.”
On the day of the raids, Bharara released a statement saying only: “Today, the FBI, working with our office, conducted searches in connection with an ongoing fraud investigation. If and when charges are filed, they will eventually become public. This remains an ongoing matter, and we are unable to provide any additional information at this time.”
Federal agencies staying silent on an investigation as they work diligently behind closed doors is actually par for the course.
For example, the FBI and Zugibe’s office raided Ramapo Town Hall on May 15, 2013, removing dozens of boxes of documents and computer hard-drives as part of a corruption investigation.
The results of that raid and other subpoenas for documents didn’t bear fruit, however, until nearly three years later when agents and District Attorney’s Office detectives arrested Ramapo Supervisor Christopher St. Lawrence and former Deputy Town Attorney Aaron Troodler on securities fraud, wire fraud and conspiracy charges. Both men have pleaded not guilty and are currently set for trial this spring.
Former Rockland District Attorney Michael Bongiorno said the slow pace of federal investigations was also something he experienced during his 12 years as the county’s top prosecutor.
“They don’t disclose what’s going on,” Bongiorno said of the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office. “It’s not unusual for them to take a year or two to look into a white collar or political crime. But before they bring a case, they have covered all aspects and are hard for defense attorneys to beat in court.”
Bongiorno recalled the federal prosecution of Mordechai Samet and his associates on racketeering, money laundering and other charges in a nationwide conspiracy run out of Kiryas Joel in Orange County from 1995 to 2002. The case had roots in Rockland and Bongiorno’s office was involved in the investigation.
The defendants were convicted of multiple charges involving the use of fictitious identities and fraudulent Social Security and tax-identification numbers to obtain bank loans, death-benefit claims, life insurance policies and at least $800,000 in tax credits for low-income residents through phony income tax returns. But it took time to get the case to court, Bongiorno said.
“We waited a long time for the feds to finish,” Bongiorno said. “Certain types of fraud cases take time and become very complicated investigations. Sometimes as the investigation moves forward, it mushrooms into other areas and that could mean more interviews and subpoenas for documents.”
Government programs are often targets of corruption, whether they are social services programs or education programs.
The E-Rate program has been controversial and tainted by accusations of fraud, with even its own administrators questioning the program’s accountability.
The program came into existence in 1998 and today allocates more than $4 billion annually toward a goal of schools having computer and internet access.
The program reimburses up to 90 percent of the cost of infrastructure wiring, maintenance and other services.
One way the program works is businesses obtain E-Rate grants to install infrastructure — servers, extensive wiring and more — for private schools and libraries to have computer access.
Prior to the raids in March, the Manhattan-based Jewish Week and The Jewish Daily Forward published reports questioning the high percentage of E-Rate dollars in New York state going to Hasidic and other Orthodox schools and libraries, noting many of the schools prohibited student access to the internet.
The Federal Communications Commission didn’t respond to questions of whether the agency has made changes to the E-Rate process in light the federal investigation.
By Steve Lieberman – lohud.com