The former dean of a Brooklyn-based yeshiva the government charges was fictitious and stole millions in federal subsidies testified in federal court Tuesday that he helped fake documents to obtain state accreditation in order to receive grants from the state and U.S. Department of Education.
Abraham Berkowitz was testifying in the trial of four chasidic men — three from the upstate village of New Square and one from Brooklyn — charged with stealing millions of dollars from federal and state benefit programs during a decades-old conspiracy.
Berkowitz told the court that the Toldos Yakov Yeshiva in reality had no semesters, courses or grades, and did not have a program in Judaic studies, despite attesting to their existence on government applications.
He is one in a series of witnesses the U.S. government is bringing to prove massive fraud by the chasidic village of New Square. The trial at the U.S. District Court in White Plains is expected to continue until the end of the month.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Deborah Landis said Berkowitz is testifying under an agreement guaranteeing he will not be charged with crimes.
In countering Berkowitz’s claims, defense lawyers said their clients are religious men dedicated to charity and raising families, and that Berkowitz will lie to stay out of prison.
Charged with conspiracy to defraud the government, embezzlement, money laundering, making false statements, and wire and mail fraud are Benjamin Berger, 36; Jacob Elbaum, 37; David Goldstein, 51; and Kalmen Stern, 39. They all have pleaded not guilty. If convicted, the defendants face prison sentences ranging from five to 20 years.
Two others are fugitives since being charged last year, and warrants have been issued for their arrests. They are Chaim Berger, one of New Square’s founders and father of Benjamin, and former Village Clerk Avrum David Friesel, the son of New Square’s mayor.
Goldstein’s lawyer, Michael Rosen, cited Berkowitz and Chaim Berger as the culprits in any wrongdoing.
“Am I going to stand here and tell you that everything was 100 percent kosher or 40 percent [kosher] at TYY?” Rosen said. “Absolutely not. The perpetrators are not in the courtroom. They are Chaim Berger and Abe Berkowitz.”
In her opening statement last week, Landis called the alleged massive fraud of federal money by the chasidic village of New Square a “perfected machine” operating since the 1970s.
Landis told jurors in the courtroom, where scores of chasidim came to show support, that New Square residents used lies and phony documents to steal tens of millions of dollars from federal and state programs including student grants, housing subsidies and small business loans.
Defense lawyers, however, impugned the statements about a massive conspiracy. They said the U.S. Attorney’s Office had a vendetta against the village in Rockland County, established by followers of Rabbi David Twersky, head of the Skver chasidim.
Among the programs allegedly defrauded were the $6 billion a year Pell Grant program funded by the U.S. Department of Education and the Tuition Assistance Program funded by the New York State Department of Education.
A federal education spokesman told The Jewish Week the Pell grants scheme is one of the largest cases of fraud in the history of the program.
All six men were accused of fraudulently obtaining tuition aid money for New Square through a Judaic studies program run by Rockland Community College, a two-year school that is part of the state university system.
Landis said they also set up the fake Toldos Yakov Yeshiva to steal more than $10 million in tuition by submitting phony documents for phantom students. Landis said the defendants were all administrators at the fictitious yeshiva.
The defendants were accused of submitting false documents to establish the eligibility of New Square residents to participate in the programs, illegally using the funds obtained from the programs and hiding their fraud by using fake names and secret bank accounts.
Landis cited a woman, Orit Riter, who could not afford a college education because someone had used her name at three different schools over five years and collected $8,600, all the tuition assistance she would have been due.