By URIEL HEILMAN
NEW YORK (JTA) — The U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York has arrested 17 people for participating in a $42.5 million fraud at the Claims Conference.
Those arrested include former and current employees of the Claims Conference, which distributes more than $400 million per year from the German government to victims of Nazism. The alleged ringleader oversaw the two funds from which the tens of millions of dollars were allegedly fraudulently obtained.
In a news conference Tuesday, Claims Conference officials stressed that no Holocaust victims were deprived of any funds because of the crime. Manhattan District Attorney Preet Bharara praised the Claims Conference for contacting the authorities as soon as the seriousness of the fraud became apparent and for cooperating with the FBI throughout its investigation.
“If ever there was a cause that you would hope and expect would be immune from base greed and criminal fraud, it would be the Claims Conference, which every day assists thousands of poor and elderly victims of Nazi persecution,” Bharara said. “Sadly, those victims were themselves victimized. Without the extraordinary cooperation of the Claims Conference in ferreting out this alleged scheme to defraud them, it never would have been exposed.”
Claims Conference officials first noticed about a year ago that several claimants had falsified information to receive payments from the Hardship Fund, an account established by the German government to give one-time payments of approximately $3,600 to those who fled the Nazis as they moved east through Germany.
They were tipped off when multiple claimants used the same language and details in forms in which they documented evidence of victimization by the Nazis. That prompted a wide internal investigation that turned up thousands of additional fraudulent claims. The alleged fraud, which dates back to the mid 1990s, remained hidden so long because Claims Conference staffers at various levels conspired to hide and manage the false claims.
In all, 4,957 one-time payments totaling $18 million were obtained from the Hardship Fund through the alleged fraud. Another $24.5 million went to 658 fraudulent pension claims drawing from the Article 2 Fund, through which the German government gives pension payments of roughly $411 per month to needy Nazi victims who spent significant time in a concentration camp, in a Jewish ghetto, in hiding or living under a false identity to avoid the Nazis.
Alleged ringleader Semyon Domnitser oversaw the two funds for the Claims Conference until he was fired in February. Domnitser could not be reached by JTA for comment for this story.Â (Read the charge sheet here.)
The other 16 people involved with the fraud all reside in Brooklyn and have been charged with mail fraud and conspiracy to commit mail fraud. Eleven were arrested Tuesday morning. Charges against five others, four of whom pleaded guilty, were unsealed Tuesday. The charges carry possible sentences of up to 20 years in prison and fines up to $250,000.
Since its founding shortly after the Holocaust, the Claims Conference has processed more than 600,000 individual claims with total payments exceeding $4.3 billion. The money came from the German government following negotiations with Claims Conference officials and Jewish leaders. The Claims Conference continues to negotiate with the German government for the expansion and continuation of various restitution programs.
In addition to processing restitution payments from the German government to Nazi victims, the Claims Conference is the trustee of money from the sale of heirless Jewish properties in the former East Germany that had been seized by the Nazis and are now being restituted to the Jewish community. It uses the money from the sale of those properties to fund institutions that aid survivors and Holocaust education programs, distributing approximately $135 million per year.
About four months after the fraud was discovered, Claims Conference officials went public with the news. In July, the agency announced the discovery of at least $7 million in allegedly fraudulent payments and said it had dismissed three employees in New York. Of those charged this week, six worked for the Claims Conference and 11 did not.
On Tuesday, Claims Conference officials stressed that the fraud represents a minimal amount of the annual payouts to survivors through the Hardship and Article 2 funds.
“The stealing of $40 million is disgusting,” Gregory Schneider, the executive vice president of the Claims Conference, told JTA. “But it’s less than 1 percent of funds distributed under those programs.
“No amount of fraud will be tolerated,” he said. “We identified it, documented it, investigated and brought it to the FBI.”
In recent months, the Claims Conference said, it has taken steps to strengthen anti-fraud safeguards, overhauling procedures and shifting some claims processing away from New York. The Claims Conference also said it retained K2 Global Consulting, an international firm, to review its procedures and make recommendations.
(JTA intern Uri Fintzy contributed to this story.)