Federal prosecutors have charged Orthodox developer Shalom Lamm and two of his colleagues with conspiring to corrupt local elections in the upstate New York village of Bloomingburg by registering non-residents to vote there.
This story is no longer being updated. Click here for the latest on the Bloomingburg indictments.
According to an indictment filed in United States District Court in the Southern District of New York on Thursday morning, Lamm and two others offered rent-free apartments in return for registering to vote. They created fake leases to make it appear that residents had lived in the village long enough to be eligible. And they put toothpaste and toothbrushes into apartments to make it appear as though voters actually lived there.
Lamm also allegedly agreed to pay an individual $500 for per voter that he procured. His real estate firm eventually paid the person $30,000 per month, according to the indictment.
FBI agents arrested Lamm and his co-defendants, Kenneth Nakdimen and Volvy Smilowitz, on Thursday morning. Harold Baird, the former supervisor of Mamakating, the town that encompasses Bloomingburg, has already pled guilty to conspiracy to submit false voter registrations, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office.
“In pursuit of millions of dollars in profits from a real estate development project, the defendants allegedly hatched a cynical ploy to corrupt the electoral process in Bloomingburg,” said U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in a statement. “As alleged, to get public officials supportive of their development project elected to local government, the defendants concocted a scheme to falsely register voters who did not live in Bloomingburg, including some who had never even set foot there.”
Lamm has bought up hundreds of acres in Bloomingburg, a small village in Sullivan County. According to internal documents revealed in a lawsuit this year, Lamm planned to eventually build 5,000 units of housing around the village for Hasidic Jews. His 396-unit development in town, Chestnut Ridge, is partway built, and some Hasidic families have already moved in. Zalman Teitelbaum, the grand rabbi of Williamsburg, Brooklyn-based Satmar Hasidic group, has signaled to his followers that the Hasidic community in Bloomingburg will be under his spiritual guidance.
The Forward published a feature this morning on the fight for Bloomingburg. The feature was published before this newspaper was aware of Lamm’s arrest.
Lamm’s attorneys, Larry Krantz and Gordon Mehler, denied the charges in a statement. “Shalom Lamm has been aware of this investigation for almost three years, and is eager to defend himself against this unfounded charge,” the attorneys said. “We intend to fight the charge vigorously at trial.”
In a statement, Smilowitz’s attorney, Justine Harris said: “The charges are unfair and unwarranted, and Mr. Smilowitz looks forward to his day in court.”
An attorneys for Nakdimen did not respond to a request for comment.
The indictment charges that Lamm and his co-defendants worked together to register voters in Bloomingburg who did not actually live there in advance of a 2014 mayoral election. According to a press release from Bharara’s office, the alleged scheme to falsely register voters took shape as Lamm’s development met resistance from local activists and officials. In late 2013, the village planning board voted to block Lamm’s projects.
“Rather than seek to advance their real estate development project through legitimate means, the defendants instead decided to corrupt the democratic electoral process in Bloomingburg by falsely registering voters and paying bribes for voters who would help elect public officials favorable to their project,” the statement reads.
Lamm and his colleagues submitted false voter registration forms to the Sullivan County Board of Elections, according to the indictment. The signed and sworn forms falsely attested that the registrants lived in Lamm-owned properties that were empty, and even uninhabitable at the time. In order to back up the documents, the defendants allegedly created back-dated leases, put toothbrushes and toothpaste in empty apartments to make them look lived-in, and picked up mail from mailboxes.
Prosecutors cite a “to-do” list alleged created by Lamm, Smilowitz and others that included the item: “Write leases up for everyone, dated to March 15.” Another to-do list item was, “Pick up home goods and furnishings from Walmart for every apartment.”
A secret internal document revealed in court papers earlier this year showed that Lamm and his associates had chosen to build in Bloomingburg in part because its small local government would be easy to control.
Those internal documents, which were referenced in the indictment, were revealed as part of a lawsuit brought by Lamm’s firm against the town of Mamakating. The attorney who defending Mamakating in that suit, Brian Sokoloff, said that he was gratified to see the documents cited by prosecutors. “Lamm’s lawyers did not want to produce those documents to us, but we fought hard to get them, and then fought successfully to get our federal judge to make them publicly available,” Sokoloff said in an email to the Forward. “Once that happened, and these documents saw the light of day, the jig was up.”Nadkimen is a business partner of Lamm’s. Smilowitz is a Satmar community activist identified in the indictment as a business associate of Lamm and Nadkimen’s.
Lamm and his allies have been dogged with allegations of voter fraud for years. Residents claim that Hasidic non-residents were brought in to vote in village elections. Opponents challenged ballots in local elections. And the FBI raided Lamm’s offices in 2014.
Lamm is the son of Norman Lamm, the prominent Modern Orthodox rabbi and longtime leader of Yeshiva University.
The indictments are shaking the village of Bloomingburg, where tensions have run high for years. “We were in shul [praying] and the news broke out,” said Moshe Meisels, a Hasidic resident. “People are not worried, because we went through so much the last few years.”
A leading opponent of Lamm’s development, Holly Roche, said that she was pleased by the indictments. “I hope that it successfully gets litigated and that they get justice,” she said. “There are a lot of people that have spent a lot of time trying to shed light on what is going on in Bloomingburg.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Bloomingburg is located in Orange County, New York. It is located in Sullivan County.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.