The Federal Bureau of Investigation has raided yeshivas and technology vendors in ultra-Orthodox corners of Brooklyn and Rockland County, serving search warrants as part of a sweeping fraud investigation into religious schools’ use of the federal government’s E-Rate program, the Journal News reported.
The raids began in the Orthodox town of Monsey and the Hasidic village of Kiryas Joel on Wednesday morning, then continued in Williamsburg, Brooklyn on Wednesday afternoon. The website Yeshiva World News posted video on Wednesday evening of FBI agents entering the offices of a Williamsburg yeshiva associated with the Kiryas Joel-based branch of the Satmar Hasidic group.
The raids comes three years after a Forward investigation into ultra-Orthodox institutions misusing the E-Rate program. The Forward reported in 2013 on ultra-Orthodox groups that were taking advantage of loose regulations to claim that they were libraries eligible for E-Rate funds.
The Forward also reported on an ultra-Orthodox town in New Jersey whose schools received a vastly disproportionate amount of money through the E-Rate program.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York confirmed to the Forward that the FBI, working with the U.S. Attorney, had “conducted searches in connection with an ongoing fraud investigation.” The spokeswoman declined further comment.
Michael Tobman, a spokesman for the Williamsburg-based followers of the Satmar rebbe of Kiryas Joel, Aaron Teitelbaum, said that “those in Williamsburg contacted today by authorities are working diligently to reasonably respond to requests for information.”
E-Rate is a government-mandated program that distributes subsidies provided by the telecommunications industry to help schools and libraries pay for internet and phone access. The $4 billion distributed annually by E-Rate is used to subsidize phone and web expenses for schools and libraries around the country.
According to the Journal News, FBI agents and Rockland police set up a staging area for the raids at the Fire Training Center in Ramapo. The Yeshiva World News reported that agents had visited locations Monsey and in Kiryas Joel, which is dominated by the hardline Satmar sect.
The Forward’s 2013 report outlined how, in 2010, a “flurry” of ultra-Orthodox congregations applied to join the library association that served as a local gatekeeper for the E-Rate program. In response, that library association strengthened its guidelines to insure that only legitimate libraries could access E-Rate funds. Orthodox applicants that applied after the new guidelines were implemented dropped their applications after learning of the stricter rules.
The Forward report also highlighted ultra-Orthodox institutions that had little to show for the vast amounts of funding they had received through E-Rate.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.