Irma Azrelyant and Joshua Finkle, the former co-owners of New York and New Jersey-based Deaf and Hard of Hearing Interpreting Services Inc. (DHIS), pleaded guilty today to engaging in a conspiracy to defraud the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Video Relay Service (VRS) program of more than $7 million, announced Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer of the Criminal Division.
Today, Azrelyant, 47, and Finkle, 41, pleaded guilty before U.S. District Court Judge Joel A. Pisano in Trenton, N.J., to conspiracy to commit mail fraud. Azrelyant and Finkle were indicted on Oct. 29, 2009, along with DHIS assistant bookkeeper and video interpreter coordinator Oksana Strusa, as well as video interpreters Natan Zfati, Alfia Iskandarova and Hennadii Holovkin.
In pleading guilty, Azrelyant and Finkle admitted that beginning in approximately October 2007 and continuing through approximately July 2009, they conspired with others to pay individuals to make fraudulent VRS phone calls that were processed through DHIS, and that were billed to the FCC through VRS provider Viable Communications Inc. (Viable). According to the guilty pleas, Azrelyant and Finkle made VRS calls to prerecorded messages and other numbers for the sole purpose of generating VRS minutes and also coordinated with others to generate illegitimate VRS minutes that would be billed to the FCC. Azrelyant and Finkle also admitted to processing illegitimate VRS calls that were routed to DHIS by Viable….
According to information contained in the plea documents, Azrelyant and Finkle admitted that their role in defrauding the FCC’s VRS program led to a total of between $7 million and $20 million in fraudulent billing to the program. At sentencing, Azrelyant and Finkle each face a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, a fine of $250,000, as well as mandatory restitution and forfeiture. Sentencing is set for June 29, 2010 at 10 a.m.
The disabled are always ripe for the raping and the ripping off and when the news hit the street today in New York City that big players at DHIS — Deaf and Hearing Impaired Services — were under Federal indictment for defrauding the FCC’s Video Relay Service Program, hands and heads were shaking everywhere as the Panopticonic Gaze of the Federal government rightly blinked to stop a taxpayer rip off.
Here’s how the FCC describes the fraud and the indictment:
“The individuals charged in connection with today’s operation are alleged to have stolen tens of millions of dollars from an important government program that is intended to help deaf and hard-of-hearing Americans communicate with hearing persons,” said Assistant Attorney General of the Criminal Division Lanny A. Breuer. “These defendants are alleged to have generated fraudulent call minutes by making it appear that deaf Americans were engaging in legitimate calls with hearing persons, when in reality, the defendants were simply attempting to steal money from an FCC program that is funded by every single American who pays their telephone bills. The Department of Justice will not stand by and let corporate executives and others line their pockets with money that should be used to help deaf Americans.”
The indictments allege that 26 individuals engaged in a scheme to defraud the FCC by submitting false and fraudulent claims for VRS calls, causing the FCC to reimburse the defendants at a rate of approximately $390 per hour. According to the indictments, VRS is an online video translation service that allows people with hearing disabilities to communicate with hearing individuals through the use of interpreters and Web cameras. A person with a hearing disability who wants to communicate with a hearing person can do so by contacting a VRS provider through an audio and video Internet connection. The VRS provider, in turn, employs a video interpreter to view and interpret the hearing disabled person’s signed conversation and relay the signed conversation orally to a hearing person. VRS is funded by fees assessed by telecommunications providers to telephone customers, and is provided at no cost to the VRS user.
The most shocking news was left for Deaf and Hearing Impaired Services:
In the third indictment, DHIS owners and employees have been charged with generating and processing a large volume of fraudulent VRS calls. According to the indictment, DHIS operated VRS call centers for Viable that generated and processed fraudulent VRS calls. DHIS co-owners Irma Azrelyant, 47, of Basking Ridge, N.J., and Joshua Finkle, 41, of New York; DHIS video interpreter Natan Zfati, 31, of Brooklyn, N.Y.; DHIS bookkeeper Oksana Strusa, 35, of Jersey City, N.J.; DHIS video interpreter Alfia Iskandarova, 29, of Brooklyn; and DHIS video interpreter Hennadii Holovkin, 36, of Philadelphia; have been charged in a six-count indictment with conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government and to submit false claims; submitting false claims; conspiracy to commit mail fraud; and mail fraud.
I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that someone somewhere was getting rich off of processing “free” video calls — but the shocker of it all is DHIS’ alleged involvement in the scam.
DHIS was, and is, own and operated by Deaf people. That was their calling card and their honorable hallmark and it was that fact that endeared them to so many Deaf people.
Now that several of the biggest players at DHIS have been indicted, many in the New York City Deaf Community will have to re-evaluate the object of their devotion and, perhaps, even confess that sometimes Deaf people are perfectly capable of ripping off the disabled.