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Marcel Biberfeld, senior vice president of psychiatry and community services at Maimonides Medical Center, which is located in Boro Park, said that the quality of Relief’s reference service is particularly good. “This is an organization that has probably the best and most well-researched referral service that I know,” Biberfeld said. “They’ve become the address to go when one needs a referral.”
Despite the defenses of Relief, it’s also clear why the organization and its closely intertwined network of health care not-for-profits drew the attention of the Moreland Commission: Like many other not-for-profits in New York, the group has ties to operatives who have deep political influence. And in at least two cases, those operatives appear to have used the group in a limited way for political ends unrelated to its charitable mission.
Rabbi Shiya Ostreicher, a member of the group’s board, is one of New York’s most powerful ultra-Orthodox lobbyists and has also been listed on state forms since 2011 as a registered lobbyist for Agudath Israel, an important ultra-Orthodox umbrella group. Ostreicher’s lobbying activities for Relief in these two instances seemed to have had little to do with Relief’s mental health mission, but they were strongly related to causes backed by the Agudah, as the ultra-Orthodox umbrella group is often known.
In Albany, the Agudah has been a prime advocate in recent years of legislation that channels aid to Orthodox families. In 2011 the group supported a controversial bill that made students at Orthodox yeshivas eligible for New York State’s Tuition Assistance Program. Another Agudah-backed bill, the Empire State child credit, which passed a few years earlier, offered hundreds of dollars in tax rebates for families with school-age children.
In the two cases in question, money spent by Relief, Ostreicher’s mental health charity, appears to have gone into political lobbying for the causes Ostreicher was working on with the Agudah. In 2007 and 2008, Relief hired the powerful Albany lobbying firm Malkin & Ross to lobby in support of the Empire State child credit, the Agudah-backed tax rebate. Ostreicher signed the agreements, by which Relief agreed to pay a total of $15,000 to Malkin & Ross, according to copies of the contracts filed with the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics.
In 2009, Relief hired the same firm for $4,000 to lobby for “higher-education related activities.” Ostreicher also signed that contract. (Later in 2009, Malkin & Ross agreed to do the same work for Relief pro bono.) Ostreicher was working during that time on gaining access to TAP for Orthodox graduate yeshivas, according to press accounts.
In an email, Agudah’s executive vice president Rabbi David Zwiebel said that the organization had “worked together closely” with Ostreicher on both TAP and the Empire State child credit.
Avi Schick, an attorney for Relief, said that the lobbying was on issues that affected the community they were serving, and that the payment to lobbyists was done with donor money.