In a coda to the investigation of Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind and various associates, Rabbi Elliot Amsel, a key Hikind fund-raiser, pleaded guilty Wednesday to stealing more than $700,000 from Syrit College, the Brooklyn computer school he ran until his indictment.
Amsel, Syrit’s president, had been scheduled to go on trial next week and could have faced up to 20 years in prison if convicted of all charges against him. But under a plea agreement with federal attorneys, Amsel is now likely to receive no more than 21 months. Money laundering and obstruction of justice charges have been dropped as part of the agreement.
Amsel’s guilty plea before Judge Charles Sifton in Brooklyn federal court makes him the third person to be convicted as a result of a 22-year federal and city probe of the now-defunct Council of Jewish Organizations of Boro Park, once Brooklyn’s largest Jewish community council. In a trial arising from that probe, Hikind was acquitted of bribery charges last July. But two senior COJO officials, Paul Chernick and Rabbi Elimelech Naiman, were convicted of giving the assemblyman gifts with the intent to bribe him.
“This just emphasizes the importance our office and the city place on the integrity of public funds, especially for needy students,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Stuart Altman Wednesday after Amsel’s guilty plea The latest chapter stemmed from a trail of government funds that federal investigators followed from Washington to COJO to Amsel. Amsel’s school, Syrit, was to receive this money under a subcontract with COJO to train some 600 students, most of them Jewish, as accounting clerks. But Amsel is said to have either cashed or deposited some $489,000 of the money into his personal bank accounts in Brooklyn and Israel. Federal investigators said last year that Syrit was unable to identify any of the students who supposedly benefited from the federally funded COJO program.
Amsel embezzled another $239,000 from his school via Syrit contracts he engineered with separate for-profit and not-for-profit entities he controlled.
Meanwhile, Syrit has closed down. Established in 1971 as a not-for-profit, non-degree vocational school mainly serving Brooklyn’s Orthodox and Russian Jewish immigrant communities, Syrit was chartered as a college by the Regents only in 1996 — less than one year before the feds launched their probe of Amsel.
The final nail in the school’s coffin came when the Regents deregistered its curricula last year, after Amsel’s indictment. But numerous questions linger about the Regents’ March 1996 decision to charter the school in the first place.
In fact, even as the State Education Department conducted the review that led it to recommend to the Regents that the school be chartered, two agencies conducting reviews of their own reached dramatically different conclusions — findings that SED officials say they were aware of at the time they recommended Syrit. State Comptroller H. Carl McCall’s audit, done, like SED’s review, in 1995, found that Syrit “did not comply in most material respects with the provisions of the law and … regulations” governing the state’s tuition assistance program, known as TAP. McCall’s audit, which covered the school’s performance from 1991 through 1993, recommended that Syrit be required to return almost $3 million in state funds it received under the program.
Among other things, the audit found that Syrit took TAP funds for unapproved courses. It concluded the education Syrit offered its students failed TAP eligibility standards. And in many cases, the audit said, classes were taught by teachers “not licensed or qualified to teach the courses they were teaching.”
McCall’s audit came just three years after an audit by his predecessor forced the school to return $2.7 million to the state for similar reasons.
Around the same time, in December 1995, Syrit’s accrediting agency, the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges of Technology, made an unannounced on-site inspection of the school.
The following May, ACCSCT threatened to withdraw its accreditation of Syrit, citing serious deficiencies in the school’s student retention and placement rates; problems with its English as a Second Language program; and a lack of qualifications among many of its faculty. But by that point, Syrit was armed with the Regents charter, which made it eligible for the same government funding it had previously obtained through its ASSCST accreditation. Soon after ACCSCT issued its threat, Syrit simply withdrew from ACCSCT.
SED officials, on whose recommendations the Regents acted, vehemently deny that pressure from Hikind, who had long been urging them to charter Syrit, had any influence. They also deny responding to pressure from Gov. George Pataki, though Pataki took credit with Hikind when the two publicly presented Amsel with the Regents charter at Hikind’s 1996 annual political fund raiser.
“We get inquiries [from law makers] all the time,” said Joseph Frey, director of SED’s Division of College and University Evaluation. “But there is no instance in which we would allow that to impact on our decision.”
Amsel, a leading fund-raiser for Hikind, contributed $12,000 of his own money to Hikind’s political committees between 1986 and 1996 while his school gave $33,250 during the same period.
According to Amsel and aides to former Gov. Mario Cuomo, Hikind made chartering Syrit a condition for endorsing Cuomo’s reelection in 1994. “One of the conditions that Dov had put down for giving Cuomo his endorsement was the Syrit application be processed,” Amsel told The Forward in 1995.
The school’s application had been long stalled as various auditing agencies even then cited it for serious failings. Despite Hikind’s meetings with Cuomo, Syrit’s application still foundered. Hikind ultimately endorsed Pataki.Asked earlier this month how Syrit obtained its charter in view of its record, Pataki told The Jewish Week, “The Board of Regents was elected by the state Assembly. I suggest you ask the Board of Regents why they decided to license the school.”
Saul Cohen, a Board of Regents member and former president of Queens College, said board members were told nothing about the existence of the other audits at the time SED recommended they charter Syrit.
“I’m appalled,” he said, learning the SED staff knew of the other audits. When SED staff bring a recommendation to the Regents to charter a school, said Cohen, “they give us a report, generally a very cryptic four or five line report. If we want a more detailed report, they will come back with one later. To my memory that was not done with Syrit. We didn’t discover Syrit until the indictment. … I do not recall that being brought to our attention, because I think that would have been a bright red flag.”
The SED’s Frey, who was personally involved in the Syrit review, said his agency was aware of the scrutiny the school was receiving from McCall and ACCSCT at around the same time, and of their findings about Syrit’s violations.
“We determined that over time, the audit disallowances could be met,” he said, referring to Syrit’s ability to pay back the money McCall ruled Syrit had to return.
As for the faculty shortcomings found by the other examinations, he said, “We looked at the ACCSCT audit and the institution’s response. We had our staff look at the faculty for all the programs they were applying for. And in the judgment of our staff, they were qualified.”
Other issues, such as class size may have constituted violations under the other audits of Syrit as a non-degree granting institution, but they “did not impact Syrit’s rigor for a college,” in the judgement of SED’s reviewers, said Frey. “We decided they met the requirements.”
But a law enforcement official who was involved in the investigation of Hikind, COJO and Amsel said he heard a very different account from SED officials he interviewed during the probe.
“I can tell you they didn’t want to certify the school at all,” he said. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he added, “These guys are pros. They knew. They smelled a rat. They knew this was not a place they should be certifying. … There was political pressure.”