The real estate developer who helped prosecutors crack a wide-ranging corruption case involving six prominent New York politicians is reportedly a key Orthodox power broker in an upstate Jewish community.
Moses Stern, a member of the Satmar Hasidic community in upstate Monsey, was the central figure in the FBI sting that led to the April 2 indictment of New York State Senator Malcolm Smith, New York City Council member Dan Halloran and other officials, according to the website DNAinfo.
The biggest headlines in the bombshell case focused on Smith, who is weighing a run for New York City mayor.
But the Orthodox Jewish community is following the involvement of the mayor of an upstate town with even more interest — and worry that the fallout for the ultra-Orthodox community in Rockland County is just beginning.
“People are so nervous because she was very close to a lot of leadership in the [Monsey Hasidic] community,” said a member of the Hasidic community familiar with the situation.
Stern was not named in the indictment. Neither a spokesman for the FBI nor a spokesman for the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York in White Plains would comment on the identity of the witness.
Phone numbers associated with Stern, also known as Mark Stern, were disconnected or did not answer. Stern’s attorney, Stephen R. Stern, told the Forward that he did not know if Mark Stern was the cooperating witness in the Smith case. Stern and Stephen Stern are not related to each other.
The complex chain of events described in the indictment begin with an allegedly corrupt deal between Stern and Noramie Jasmin, the mayor of Spring Valley, N.Y., who was also indicted on April 2.
The upstate ultra-Orthodox population has a major presence in the village of Spring Valley. Spring Valley is near the predominantly Orthodox towns of Monsey and New Square, and it consists of part of the East Ramapo school district, which has been at the center of bitter, ongoing fights between the area’s non-Orthodox and Orthodox communities.
According to the federal indictment, Stern negotiated with Jasmin in February of 2012 to jointly develop a piece of property owned by the village of Spring Valley adjacent. The two agreed that Jasmin’s stake in the project would be hidden, and that in return Jasmin would ensure it received quick approval from the village.
The indictment also alleges that Stern paid off another member of the village’s board of trustees, Joseph Desmaret, for his support of the project. Desmaret was also indicted on April 2.
Unknown to the two local officials, Stern had agreed to cooperate with the feds in exchange for leniency on an unrelated criminal case.
Stern and an undercover FBI agent posing as a developer went on to offer assistance to Smith and Halloran in an alleged plan to buy access to the Republican line on the New York City mayoral ballot in return for state and city cash.
Activists in the Spring Valley area say that the alleged corruption in the village’s political leadership raises broad questions about town business dealings with developers, including other ultra-Orthodox figures.
“I think every single deal the village has made over the past dozen years should be revisited,” said Steven White, a local activist who has been highly critical of the Orthodox community’s control of the East Ramapo school board. “This is exactly what we thought was going on.”
Jasmin and Desmaret are both Haitian Americans. Jasmin was seen as being particularly close to the town’s Orthodox leadership.
Stern, for his part, is said to be an influential Orthodox activist with ties to local politicians and a potent ability to pull electoral strings. His former attorney, Sherri Eisenpress, was elected to serve on the Rockland County family court with broad Orthodox support. That support was surprising, given that Eisenpress is openly gay, usually a non-starter with socially conservative Hasidim.
Stern has also suffered a series of personal setbacks in recent years. Besides the undisclosed case that led to his involvement in the Spring Valley probe, Stern lost a $126 million judgment against Citigroup in 2010. That stemmed from a real estate venture involving malls in the southern United States that went bad. More recently, in February of this year, Stern lost an $117,000 lawsuit to his own former attorneys, who sued for nonpayment of legal bills.
The project on which Jasmin allegedly colluded with Stern was provisionally approved by the town’s trustees at a meeting in October. Spring Valley trustee Anthony Leon was the only member of the town board not to vote to approve the deal.
“It wasn’t kosher,” Leon told the Forward. He said that he had been concerned about drainage issues relating to the parcel, which is currently an empty pit with a stream running through it. Leon said that he had asked to see documents approving the plan from the Department of Environmental Conservation, and that his concerns were not addressed. “Technically, it wasn’t kosher,” Leon said.
In fact, the developers who proposed the plan to the board were all undercover FBI agents. Jasmin allegedly believed that the agents were straw bidders colluding with her to purchase and develop the town’s property.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.