The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) raided several electronics vendors and ultra-Orthodox private schools in Monsey, Ramapo and Kiryas Joel, N.Y., this week. FBI agents and local police served warrants on the facilities in order to investigate possible fraudulent uses of government funds.
According to The Journal News of White Plains, the agents are investigating the ultra-Orthodox community’s use of the federal E-rate program to install electronic equipment and internet access in yeshivas. The program, which was originally established in 1996 to help needy schools, reimburses them up to 90 percent for equipment purchases.
“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,” the U.S. Attorney’s office said in a statement.
Agents made no arrests this week.
Most of the raids occurred in Ramapo. This community has been rocked by controversy lately, with some parents claiming that the public schools are slowly being bled to death by the ultra-Orthodox dominated school board. An ultra-Orthodox bloc took majority control of the East Ramapo School Board in 2005 and began to siphon money from public schools to support the operations of local Jewish schools. After nine years of ultra-Orthodox control, East Ramapo schools opened the 2014 school year with a deficit of $1.47 million. The school board also cut public school staff by roughly 25 percent.
Also in 2014, a state-appointed monitor accused the school board’s Ultra-Orthodox members of showing explicit favoritism toward religious schools and recommended that the state pass a law appointing a fiscal monitor to ensure the district’s public schools received proper funding. State legislators tried and failed to pass such a law last year; they have indicated they intend to try again this year. Ultra-Orthodox officials have lobbied against the measure.
Ramapo’s zoning board is also controlled by members of the ultra-Orthodox community. That’s another point of contention for Ramapo residents, who say the ultra-Orthodox regularly purchase single-family homes in residential areas and turn them into yeshivas and dormitories, displacing residents and overcrowding neighborhoods.
This is also not the first time ultra-Orthodox schools have been accused of abusing E-rate funds.
In 2013, The Jewish Week reported that an inspector for the Federal Communications Commission’s Office of Inspector General found that New York City’s United Talmudical Academy (UTA) had committed multiple legal violations; he recommended the school return $900,000 of the more than $1 million it had received from the government. It never paid a cent.
That investigation also revealed that UTA billed the E-rate program $81,600 in 2012 for internet access for its male students – even though UTA students are prohibited from using the internet. Twenty percent of the state’s E-rate money went to Jewish schools in 2013: Ultra-Orthodox schools in New York City and Rockland County (home to Ramapo and Clarkston) billed the state for tens of millions of dollars in equipment. The investigation also found that some of these institutions hadn’t paid their 10 percent share of equipment costs, that at least one vendor had billed E-rate for services it never provided and that there was no competitive bidding process among vendors.
The government, of course, could have prevented these problems by restricting E-rate funds to public schools. Although individuals have the legal right to choose to live near their co-religionists, they do not have the right to bleed public schools dry in order to subsidize their religious schools.
People of faith who choose to send their children to religious schools should not be able to force their neighbors to pay for that decision. Ramapo demonstrates why.