Here’s your story for today about terrible people doing awful things: according to the Queens County District Attorney’s office, four men in Far Rockaway, including a rabbi, have been charged with stealing $12.4 million intended for Jewish special needs toddlers.
The men allegedly used that money for all sorts of other things instead, including home repairs on one man’s residence, redesigning another man’s home from the bottom up, and helping to pay for catering for a third man’s daughter’s wedding and his son’s Bar Mitzvah.
According to an audit conducted by the state last year, exactly zero dollars are believed to have gone to the special needs babies, who were supposed to receive specialized one-on-one instruction.
The indicted men are Ira Kurman, 52 and Rabbi Samuel Hiller, 56, of Queens; Roy Hoffmann, 50, of Long Island and Daniel Laniado, 41, of Brooklyn. All four men, like their victims, are Orthodox. The scandal quickly spread through the haredi community last year after a state audit revealed that Island Child Development Center, a day care center for special needs kids of which Kurman was the director, had received millions in taxpayer funding for the instruction of 200 special needs children, aged 3 to 5.
Instead, according to the New York Times report from last year, “The auditors were unable to confirm that any of the hundreds of children who were supposed to get one-on-one instruction from the agency ever actually did.”
So, who got paid instead? According to Queens County DA Richard A. Brown and the indictment, between 2005 and 2010, Kurman lived large, making more than $143,000 in loans to members of the community with his misbegotten money, then getting repaid in cash. Island Child also purchased $344,000 in food, including $73,000 from Super Sol, a kosher supermarket whose founder, Laurence Garber, led Island Child’s board. That’s despite the fact that special ed funds aren’t supposed to be used for food. Kurman was also repaid in catering for his daughter’s wedding and son’s bar mitzvah, which he received at cost.
Hoffman was hired by Island Child to serve as their independent auditor, something that’s required by the state. Instead, Brown’s office says, he took $300,000 to redesign his house. Another $15,000 went to his wife, who is a “make-up retailer.”
Rabbi Hiller, the assistant director for Island Child, diverted funds to pay for the expenses at several religious schools and camps he was affiliated with, including B’nos Bais Yaakov Academy, a private girls school where he was the principal, and two day camps for Orthodox youth. He also had $30,000 worth of plumbing work done on his home.
The last defendant, Daniel Laniado, wasn’t employed by Island Child in any capacity, but was listed as an “investor” in the day care. He runs a kosher grocery store in Brooklyn, and is accused of cashing more than $1 million in checks for Island Child. The indictment also accuses him of laundering some of the money through Double Play Toys, a toy retailer he owned. (Double Play’s website is still online; however, they’re no longer accepting orders, for some reason.)
The Times did a sweeping investigation into special education funding in 2012, and found that poorly-regulated private contractors were billing the state for more than $1 billion per year, much more expensive than any other state. In the case of Island Child, the state comptroller’s office started to suspect something was fishy, according to the DA’s press release, when they told the center in July of 2012 that they’d be doing a routine audit of how the special education funds had been spent. But when auditors arrived for the meeting, employees told them that Kurman “had left his position and allegedly taken his books and records with him,” per Brown’s office.
Brown has also filed a civil forfeiture action against the four men, asking them to pay $11.472 million. B’nos Bais Yaakov, the school for girls, and one of the day camps has already repaid $1 million of the money Hiller allegedly funneled to them.
New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s office has said previously that this is the worst abuse of special education funds they’ve ever seen. The four men are expected to be arraigned today in Queens Supreme Court. The 42-count indictment, which we’ve included below, charges them variously with larceny, identity theft, and falsifying business records, among other offenses. If convicted, each faces 25 years in prison.
The full indictment and press release from the DA’s office are on the following page.