Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice has opened a criminal investigation into allegations that Morrell Caterers of Woodbury, L.I., prepared shrimp, lobster, pork and other non-kosher food in the same kitchen as kosher food.
Chris Munzing, a spokesman for Rice, said the investigation started this week after it was reported that two of Morrell’s former employees filed a civil suit alleging that Morrell started a non-kosher business in the kitchen of Temple Beth Torah in Melville, L.I. They said it was begun in September 2010 in conjunction with a high-end event planning company, Pat Glenn Productions.
Munzing declined to characterize the nature of the investigation except to say that prosecutors are exploring “possible criminal activity.”
Included in the court suit was an affidavit from Pat Casarona, a co-founder of Pat Glenn Productions, who stated that Scott Morrell, president of the company that bears his name, “explained that the non-kosher food required for events produced by Pat Glenn could be prepared discreetly in the kitchen of Temple Beth Torah, which as a Reform synagogue did not impose the same stringent rabbinical supervision as Morrell Caterers’ other synagogue venues in Woodbury and Lawrence.”
Casarona added that Morrell brushed aside suggestions that a separate kitchen be used for the non-kosher operation “until it could be determined whether the venture was becoming sufficiently profitable to make investing in a separate facility cost-effective. Mr. Morrell did express great concern during these meetings that, as he put it, 'there can be no way to trace it back to me.’ "
At a press conference Wednesday, Morrell angrily denied the allegations, saying: “I stand here with my integrity intact. I never broke any kosher rules, ever.”
Asked specifically about the allegations, Morrell, with his mother, RoseLee, standing behind him, said: “I have no knowledge of that.”
Morrell Caterers has its offices at the Woodbury Jewish Center, where it operates a glatt kosher catering facility whose kosher supervision is provided by the Vaad Harabonim of Flatbush. Rabbi Raphael Adler, the congregation’s spiritual leader, called the allegations “troubling, of great concern and deeply offensive.”
“We have been flooded with calls from families that have booked parties,” he said. “There is angst and concern from families, who are paying top dollar [for a party]. These allegations have shaken the trust of myself, my congregation and the greater community because hundreds of thousands of people have patronized [this caterer] expecting the highest level of kashrut. We hope these allegations will be proven false.”
In the meantime, Rabbi Adler said, synagogue leaders have “been in close consultation with our legal counsel.”
Randy Zornberg, president of Temple Beth Torah, said that within hours after the news broke about the civil suit he had received “over 50 phone calls from people who have parties in the near future and in a couple of years.”
“If the facts of this case are true and he violated kosher laws, he would be in violation of their contracts,” he said. “But these are two disgruntled employees who have left. What their game could be I don’t know. … If [Morrell] has broken our trust by violating his contract, the contract will be terminated.”
Zornberg added that his congregation’s executive board would be meeting Sunday to further discuss the situation.
Rabbi Marc Gellman, spiritual leader of Temple Beth Torah, said told The Jewish Week: “If these allegations are true, it is a violation not only of the legal trust but also of a sacred trust.”
At the press conference, Morrell said he would “consult with my rabbinical supervisor” to decide what to do about the silverware, pots, dishes and cooking utensils that were allegedly used for both kosher and non-kosher affairs.
“I regard kosher supervision with the highest priority,” Morrell said.
The kosher supervisor, Rabbi Steven Moss, said he was “surprised” to learn of the allegations because “to the best of my knowledge everything they used for parties booked at Temple Beth Torah was used only for kosher items. I will look into this as soon as I can.”
“We have to make an assessment to determine the next step,” he added. “If there are utensils that have become ‘infected,’ they either have to get new ones or kasher them.”
Rabbi Moss, spiritual leader of B’nai Israel Reform Temple in Oakdale, L.I., stressed that he made regular spot inspections of the kitchens of Temple Beth Torah and Temple Israel in Lawrence, L.I., but was not employed to be there full-time.
Morrell’s lawyers, Steven Schlesinger and Ronald Rosenberg, claimed that the civil suit brought by the two former employees was part of a failed shakedown attempt to get Morrell to drop a $500,000 suit against Morrell’s former lawyer. They said the two former employees, Thomas Cataldo, the former general manager, and Michael Savitsky, the former executive chef, were paid by the former lawyer to make the allegations. Both men denied it.
Rosenberg insisted that Morrell never directed his staff to prepare non-kosher food in the kitchen of Temple Beth Torah. He said photos Cataldo and Savitsky showed of shrimp and other non-kosher food in the kitchen were “fabricated.”
And Rosenberg questioned why it took so long for the two men to come forward.
“Why did they find God now?” he asked. “There are some orders you don’t follow.”
Both Cataldo and Savitsky said they had complied with Morrell’s orders because they feared for their livelihood.
“He told me in no uncertain terms that this would continue,” Cataldo said when he protested what was happening.
He said that food for between 25 and 30 off-site non-kosher parties costing at least $200,000 were prepared in the Temple Beth Torah kitchen. He said that although the bills were processed through Morrell Caterers, they were concealed from the synagogue to avoid paying synagogue fees.
Savitsky said he recalled that on at least one occasion his staff was ordered to prepare both kosher and non-kosher food in the kitchen at the same time.
They said they acted to blow the whistle now because they could no longer stand the “guilt” of what they were doing.
“I finally decided I couldn’t do it anymore,” said Savitsky, who came to the press conference wearing a white chef’s shirt. “I just finally gave up.”
Cataldo said in an affidavit filed with the court that he and Savitsky each owned a 5 percent share of the business. And in a court affidavit, he said Morrell Caterers “has no cash, is struggling to make payroll” and owes a key supplier more than $250,000.
Cataldo said that although all of the non-kosher food preparation was done at Temple Beth Torah, utensils, pots and pans, plates, glassware, display pieces and other items were routinely taken to Temple Israel in Lawrence for use there.
“A white platter that was used to pass kosher Hors d’oeuvres there was also used to pass coconut shrimp,” he said. “And sometimes we would bring food back and forth.”