Monday, February 17, 2020

The High Cost of Fraud

Some of the 7 fraudsters (Lohud)
I was outraged at the time.  As is always the case, whenever there is a Chilul HaShem, I get angry. What happened then (in 2013) was that Satmar and similar educational institutions were taking millions of E-rate funds from the federal government.  

That program was designed for low income neighborhoods of which these Chasidc schools surely qualified. What they clearly did not qualify for was the purpose of those funds. Which was to subsidize internet use for the poor. The idea being to provide equipment such as laptops or Ipads - and gain access to the internet - that they could otherwise ill afford.

These schools’ administrators  had no intention of using that money for those purposes. But they were not about to pass up an opportunity to gain millions of dollars of federal help. So  they found a way to get that money by using loopholes in their requirements - to the tune of millions of dollars. Money  that was obviously not used to buy computers or related paraphernalia.

At the time I thought that even if they found a legal loophole to buy things that may have technically fallen within the requirements – to take money and not use it for its intended purpose is at best dishonest – even f it might be technically legal.

Adding insult to injury is the fact that most (if not all) of their schools barely offer any kind of formal secular studies curriculum. To use money designed to help poorer students keep up with their counterparts in wealthier school districts - taking millions out of the limited federal funds available was a Chutzpah of major proportion. Legal though it might have been.

But as it turns out those funds apparently did not all go towards those legal loopholes. Some of it lined the pockets of those administering those funds. For which they have just been found guilty.  Here is the headline from a report released by the Justice Department: 
Seven Defendants Plead Guilty To Defrauding Federal Program That Provided Technology Funding For Rockland County Schools 
And here are some of the details: 
 “Each of these defendants has now admitted his or her role in a massive scheme that stole millions of dollars from the E-Rate program.  That money should have been spent to help educate underprivileged children.  Instead, it went to line the defendants’ pockets…
The schools at issue in this case never received millions of dollars’ worth of these items and services for which the defendants billed the E-Rate program.  In other cases, the schools and the defendants requested hundreds of thousands of dollars of sophisticated technology that served no real purpose for the student population.  
The magnitude of this Chilul HaShem cannot be exaggerated. Had they even used those funds for the school in ways not intended it would have been bad enough. But lining their own pockets with it is a Chilul Hashem of a much higher order.

When a community is so dependent on government financial assistance - the probability for abuse increases. Even when approached with the best of intentions abuse can still occur.  What’s more - the temptation to cheat also increases.

All too often I have heard the ‘logic’ from people that think cheating the government is OK if you don’t get caught. It is a ‘logic’ that makes me sick and goes something like this:

If an amoral drugged out unwed mother from the ‘ghetto’ is worthy of government assistance, all the more so are we - the ‘holy Jewish people.  After all, are we not more deserving than the promiscuous woman that - because of her  immorality got herself pregnant?  Will we not put it to far better use - helping our own poor who desperately need it to help feed their very large families?

What about the fraud that might occur under these circumstances? Again - the response I’ve heard more than once goes something like this:

Isn’t using money – even if retained fraudulently put to better use by feeding a needy Jewish family than using it to feed drug addicted single mothers that can’t even hold a job – even if they are legally entitled to it and we’re not?

What about being caught?

The answer I keep hearing time and again is: 

They will never catch us. Government employees are too dumb to figure out what we’re doing. Did you ever talk to one of them?!

I know that there are non Chasidim - and even Modern Orthodox Jews that think this way, too. I have heard it from their own mouths.  And I also know that not all Satmar and like minded Chasidim think this way. But surely these 7 defendants did.

They thought they would never the caught. Except that those ‘dumb’ government employees ended up being a lot smarter than those 7 ‘brilliant’ thieves. And they are not the first people ever caught cheating the government. Nor are they the first ‘religious’ Jews ever caught doing it. These stories keep popping up in the media all the time.

I’ve said this before but it bears repeating. When the most religious looking Jews among us get caught – the Chilul Hashem increases exponentially. What it tells nonobservant Jewish world - and the non Jewish world - is that exceedingly religious Jews believe that defrauding the government is a perfectly fine thing to do if you don’t get caught. Why would a religious Jew do something they consider sinful? It must be part of the religion. Jews must believe that this is what God expects of them. God condones  Jews stealing from non Jews.

How sick is that?! I cannot condemn  this kind of thing enough.

I have given up hope that I will ever convince some people how immoral, unethical, and unJewish this kind of thinking is. But I hope that I can at least convince them of the likelihood and consequences - of being caught. Which will likely mean substantial prison time. Away from their families.

The only way to make this kind of impression is to make an example of them and support their punishment. Will it hurt their families? Of course it will. Wouldn’t a plea for mercy be in order for a fellow Jew? Not so sure in this case.

Yes, I feel terrible for their families. They surely do not deserve to suffer the consequences of a crime committed by a husband/wife and parent. But these criminals should have thought of that before they decided to steal from the government.

They need to come out of this thoroughly chastised - with a mission to their brethren to never attempt anything remotely like this  Because if they do they will likely get caught and suffer the same consequences they did.