Shalom Lamm and his townhouses in Bloomingburg Photo Kirsten Luce for The New York Times
From The New York Times December 15, 2016
As prosecutors painted it, the scheme seemed logical enough: If a rustic village in upstate New York would not approve a townhouse development that would more than quadruple its size, then bring in new residents, register them to vote and elect a new village board.
But the developers, according to an indictment unsealed on Thursday, took shortcuts that made the scheme easy to pick apart as fraudulent: They placed toothbrushes and toothpaste in apartments when no one was actually living there. They backdated leases to roughly the same period — the 30 days before the 2014 election required to establish legal residency for voting. They opened bank accounts and picked up mail at unoccupied home addresses. They arranged for bribes to scores of people to travel to the community to register to vote.
Indicted on a charge of conspiracy to corrupt the electoral process were Shalom Lamm and Kenneth Nakdimen, who are building 396 townhouses in Bloomingburg, a village of 420 inhabitants in Sullivan County in the foothills of the Catskills. Also indicted was Volvy Smilowitz, described as a business associate of the developers. Harold Baird, the former supervisor of the Town of Mamakating, which embraces Bloomingburg, has pleaded guilty to submitting false voter registrations, said Preet Bharara, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, whose office is prosecuting the case.
Opponents contend that the developers were marketing the townhouses to Hasidic families to accommodate the Hasidim in overcrowded enclaves such as Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and Kiryas Joel, N.Y., a village of 20,000 Satmar Hasidim in Orange County. Given the high birthrate among Hasidim, the development, they said, could more than quadruple Bloomingburg’s population. Opponents of Mr. Lamm’s development, known as Chestnut Ridge, said it would dramatically alter the sleepy pastoral character of the village, creating a locale congested with Hasidic newcomers and no longer as diverse.
Mr. Lamm said that his townhouses were available to the general public and that the opponents had no right to shape the village’s racial and religious profile to their liking. Their effort, he said, smacked of anti-Semitism or, since some of the opponents were Jewish, bias against Hasidim and other Orthodox Jews.
In a statement, Mr. Lamm’s lawyers, Larry H. Krantz and Gordon Mehler, said that their client had known about the investigation for three years and was “eager to defend himself against the unfounded charge.”
Justine A. Harris, the lawyer for Mr. Smilowitz, said, “The charges are unfair and unwarranted.”
Mr. Nakdimen’s lawyer did not respond to a phone message.
The three defendants appeared before Magistrate Judge Judith C. McCarthy of United States District Court in White Plains and pleaded not guilty. Bail was set at $200,000 for all three men.
The indictment suggests a financial motivation. The defendants, the indictment said, “anticipated making hundreds of millions of dollars” on building real estate in the Bloomingburg area, but by late 2013 “the first of their real estate developments had met local opposition, and still remained under construction and uninhabitable.”
“When met with resistance, rather than seek to advance their real estate development project through legitimate means,” the indictment charges, “the defendants instead decided to corrupt the electoral process in Bloomingburg by falsely registering voters and paying bribes for voters who would elect public officials favorable to their project.”
Those recruited to register, the indictment said, “included people who never intended to live in Bloomingburg, people who had never kept a home in Bloomingburg, and indeed some people who had never even set foot in Bloomingburg in their lives.”
An election for the village board was held in March 2014, and 330 people voted, more than 10 times the usual turnout. But the total did not include scores of Hasidic newcomers whose residency had been challenged. Candidates supported by Mr. Lamm lost, but the board, has since made rulings more favorable to the development, lawyers for the defendants said, and many of the townhouse are already occupied.
Days before the 2014 vote, agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation raided more than 20 properties owned by Mr. Lamm in what was said to be an investigation of voter fraud.
At times, the argument over the village’s character seemed moot since Mr. Lamm had bought stores, apartment houses and a church along the one-stoplight village’s main streets and was converting them into a kosher cafe, a Judaica store and a ritual bath.
In April 2015, Mamakating and Bloomingburg filed a lawsuit accusing Mr. Lamm of voter fraud, bribery and racketeering over the Chestnut Ridge development. The lawsuit was eventually dismissed.
For his part, Mr. Lamm filed a federal lawsuit accusing the village and the town of religious discrimination in trying to block his project, to prevent an influx of Hasidic Jews. In October, the municipalities settled and agreed pay $2.9 million to a company linked to Mr. Lamm, Sullivan Farms II.
The indictment on Thursday suggests that the conflict over the character of Bloomingburg will continue for months or years to come.