Wednesday, March 16, 2016
FBI agents and Rockland district attorney's office investigators fanned out across Ramapo on Wednesday with search warrants demanding that vendors and yeshivas provide records and account for equipment allegedly bought by religious schools with millions in federal education technology dollars.
Agents descended around 1:30 p.m. on vendors at 21 and 29 Robert Pitt Drive, Monsey; 161 Route 59, Monsey; and 386 Route 59, Airmont, among other locations. The raids spread in the late afternoon to yeshivas in the Monsey area.
A group of FBI agents were seen outside a yeshiva at 93, 95 and 97 Highview Avenue, all converted single-family homes. They would not comment.
At the Yeshiva High School of Monsey on College Road on Wednesday afternoon, two investigators standing inside a garage that had been converted into a classroom were looking through an opened safe as they took notes. A reporter was asked to leave the grounds. Students in the backyard tossed a football around as investigators did their work.
FBI and district attorney's office detectives also were at a yeshiva at 72 Route 306, a dark brick building with a small circular driveway.
The FBI-led raids, which involved 22 separate search warrants in Ramapo, are part of an investigation into whether 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. It came into existence in 1998 and today allocates more than $4 billion annually for computer and Internet access across the nation.
Some raids on the same topic were also carried out in the ultra-Orthodox community of Kiryas Joel in Orange County.
In a statement, the U.S. Attorney's Office said: "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."
More than 300 agents and officers were involved in the operation, authorities said, adding that no arrests have been made and none were expected Wednesday.
FBI agents were inside a multi-tenant commercial building at 21 and 29 Robert Pitt Drive for several hours. Agents could be seen occasionally stepping outside. Clarkstown and Spring Valley police were assisting them.
Members of the Orthodox community were milling around the warehouse, talking among themselves and asking members of the media what was going on.
The target at that address is Hashomer Alarm Systems and its owner, Peretz Klein, officials said. In a 2013 interview with The Journal News, Klein credited the E-Rate program with making it possible for many needy yeshivas and other Orthodox Jewish schools to install computers and modern technology for their students.
The E-Rate program reimburses up to 90 percent of the cost of infrastructure wiring, maintenance and other services.
"The government created this program to get technology in the schools," he said. "It's a very big help for many schools. We service the schools, do all we can to help them."
Klein's company brought in millions in E-Rate grants to install infrastructure — servers, extensive wiring and more — at private schools in Rockland County and Brooklyn. His company is one of many across the country that focus their business on the long-controversial E-Rate program, created under the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 to help schools and libraries in low-income communities keep up in the digital age.
On Wednesday, Klein didn't respond to calls for comment. He later got into a gold SUV and drove off.
At 386 Route 59 in Airmont, about a dozen FBI agents and Ramapo police officers gained access to a suite at the back of the brick office building at 1:15 p.m. Wednesday by sending two agents through a window. They questioned a man outside the suite but no arrests were made.
Two of the agents wore jackets with "FBI Cyber Task force" written on the back. After the initial entry, the agents removed their bullet-proof vests.
A Journal News reporter at 161 Route 59, Monsey was told by another tenant that agents' activity was limited to one particular office suite inside. Seven FBI agents eventually walked out of the nondescript office building after a four-hour search. They wouldn't comment.
Rockland District Attorney Thomas Zugibe also had no immediate comment on the raids or the investigation.
East Ramapo school district spokesman Darren Dopp said in an e-mail late Wednesday afternoon that the district was just learning about the raids and had no comment.
"We're not aware of any connection to the public schools," Dopp added.
Questions about the ultra-Orthodox community's use of E-Rate funding were first raised in 2013 articles in the Jewish press.
Subscribe to the Rockland Angle, our Rockland newsletter
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 Jewish Week's first article outlined how the religious schools in Rockland and New York City obtained the federal money, while focusing on the vendors and then the investigation that led one to return $900,000.
The E-Rate program has been investigated for fraud many times, with even its own administrators questioning the program's accountability
Wednesday's raids come as state and federal prosecutors continue jointly investigating potential governmental corruption in Ramapo and Clarkstown. A joint federal-district attorney task force successfully convicted the former Spring Valley Mayor Noramie Jasmin and Deputy Mayor Joseph Desmaret of bribe-taking involving a local development. More recently both a Ramapo councilman and the Spring Valley building inspector have faced state fraud charges.
Robert Rhodes, chairman of Preserve Ramapo, said reports about misused technology grants previously have been posted on the grassroots political party's website. He said he had no information about Wednesday's raids but said his party had given documentation to the FBI over the years about various issues.
"We expect eventually there will be conspiracy indictments and the same people who are involved in different areas of illegal activities are interconnected," Rhodes said.
Comments: Post a Comment