Thursday, March 17, 2016
The FBI conducted raids Wednesday in Rockland County's Ramapo and Orange County's Kiryas Joel to see if millions of federal dollars earmarked for technology in religious schools were misused. Now a state senator from the region is calling on congressional representatives to get involved.
The Journal News reports that investigators asked the schools to provide records of equipment allegedly bought through the federal government's E-Rate program. The program pays for technology—including Internet access—in schools and libraries. The newspaper says FBI agents and investigators from the Rockland County District Attorney's office demanded that vendors and yeshivas provide records and account for equipment allegedly bought by religious schools that receive millions in these federal education technology dollars.
State Senator David Carlucci, whose district includes all of Rockland County, says he met Thursday morning with monitors of the East Ramapo School District to learn more about the E-Rate program, which is administered by the Universal Service Administrative Company under the direction of the Federal Communications Commission.
"I talked to the monitors at the East Ramapo School District to make sure that I fully understood what was going on here. And this is an issue where you have these non-public schools that have directly applied for these funds. And when the funding has been rewarded, it hasn't gone through the school district; it goes right to those schools," says Carlucci. "I think what we need to do is make sure that there's accountability in this funding. Now this is a federal program, so that state, we do not have jurisdiction over this funding, but I'm going to be reaching out to our congressional delegation to make sure they know how serious of a problem this is for us in the community, given the FBI raids that we've seen."
A spokesman for the East Ramapo School District declined to comment, citing having just learned about the raids. He adds that he is unaware of any connection to the public schools. Some 24,000 of the district's 32,000 students attend private schools, mainly yeshivas. About 8,500 attend public schools and are predominantly African American or Latino. In August, a state-appointed three-person monitoring team led by former New York City Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott began examining operations and in December provided a report to the Board of Regents. As for the raids, here's Rockland County District Attorney Thomas Zugibe.
"Yesterday's operation was strictly about an ongoing fraud investigation involving public funds. It was conducted as a joint operation between the Rockland County DA's office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation," says Zugibe. "It was not related in any way to any public corruption investigation. There are no indictments or arrests that are imminent. And it'd basically be irresponsible even to speculate on future action as a result of this investigation."
"There was approximately 260 FBI agents and about 30 officers from my department participating in this as well as uniformed officers from a number of the town and village departments," Zugibe says.
The Journal News reports the raids began at vendor offices in Ramapo as well as a hamlet and village in the town — Monsey and Airmont — spreading to yeshivas in Monsey. Again, Zugibe.
"Twenty-two separate locations in Rockland County were the subjects of search warrants issued," Zugibe says.
"And, of those, how many were vendors as opposed to yeshivas?" asks Dunne.
"I believe it was an even split between vendors and schools," answers Zugibe.
He confirmed that, in addition, two search warrants were served Wednesday in neighboring Orange County as part of the Ramapo investigation. Both were in the Hasidic Village of Kiryas Joel. Zugibe declined to comment on the items seized. However, in local television news footage from Rockland, FBI agents are seen carrying computers.
An emailed statement from the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York says, "Yesterday, 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."
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