UPDATE:  February 18, 2010:

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.

11 Comments

  1. Here’s the dumbfounding part of the whole scheme, Gordon… these Video Relay Services rely on high tech cameras on each end to facilitate the visually signed communication. The Feds pay for those cameras and if you’re Deaf, you get one for free. Sprint or one of the VRS providers will come to your home and actually install the camera for free.
    So the Feds have a pretty good idea how many Deaf people are using the VRS because they provided the hardware and, as we know, the Feds monitor all internet traffic in and out and around the nation through a secret room at AT&T… so if you’re faking these Video Relays calls and then billing the Feds for fake calls… it would take a pretty simple algorithm to check to see if who you said you were talking to was really online and active and has a camera and a broadband connection and and and…
    I can’t decide if I am more bewildered by the greed, the stupidity, or the fallowness of the whole scam.

  2. I don’t know how to react David, it’s the height of cunningness on everybody’s part who are involved, unfortunately it’s the community who suffers the most.

  3. All 26 indicted seem to be a part of a national core to deceive, Katha. I guess, as most criminal acts, they thought they’d never get caught.
    There have been rumors swirling since August that a Federal indictment was about to hit the Video Relay Service — so the 26 arrests on Nov. 19th were not likely a surprise in any way and everyone was probably already lawyered up.
    I also find it hard to believe that the Feds would not have been so clinically precise in their indictments if they didn’t have these people locked up pretty tightly in the chains of the fraud.

  4. Oh, there’s a lot of money in providing federal services for what is really a never-empty pot for the disabled. You keep scooping and scooping and there’s never an end because you can’t ration the basic right of equal access.

  5. Irma was the mastermind in hiring the Russian and Israelis interpreters. She is the one who persuade her daughter to marry Jason Yeh, so she can get involve in the VRS business. The sign language interpreter business was declining because most agency want to do business with state vendor and they couldn’t get on the state vendor list because they only represent a small percentage of the market share. I can’t wait for them to go to Federal prison. I hope they go to Federal prison away from there family so they really suffer some emotional damage. They cause more harm to there interpreters and good staff employees. All of the abusers should lose their social security or ssdi until all debts are paid back to the FCC.

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