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LI leaders' role in indicted Bethpage restaurateur Harendra Singh's and family's charity


A Newsday investigation found that the Raj & Rajeshwari Foundation, run by the politically connected restaurateur Harendra Singh and his family, was at the nexus of an unusually close relationship between Singh's business interests and the government officials who gave him lucrative public contracts. These are excerpts from five different YouTube videos from the Raj & Rajeshwari Foundation showing Long Island officials, who lent their names and the credibility of their positions, to help raise money for the foundation, which funded a hospital it had built in an impoverished village in India. (Credit: Raj & Rajeshwari Foundation)

The Raj & Rajeshwari Foundation, which is run by the politically connected restaurateur Harendra Singh and his family, hosted lavish fundraising galas each year that attracted Long Island politicians, judges, union officials, government contractors and other local leaders.

Some supported the foundation by spending between $175 and $5,000 on tickets or sponsorships for the annual dinner, held at the Woodlands at Woodbury. Others also lent their names, and the credibility of their positions, to help raise money for the foundation, which funded a hospital in an impoverished village in Uttar Pradesh, India. Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, Oyster Bay Town Attorney Leonard Genova and acting Nassau Police Commissioner Thomas Krumpter were among the elected and appointed officials who made emotional video testimonials in which they asked for donations on the foundation's behalf.

"Unlike a lot of foundations, every dollar that's donated goes right to the hospital," Krumpter said in one such video posted online before the 2012 fundraiser.

Tax records of the troubled Raj & Rajeshwari Foundation show Krumpter's claim is false. Thousands of dollars raised by the foundation have been diverted to Long Island organizations with political ties, including $5,500 to Safe Center LI, a domestic violence prevention group where Mangano's wife serves on a fundraising committee, and $15,000 to the Rotary Club of Hicksville South, where former Mangano appointee Kamlesh Mehta had served as president. The foundation gave another $3,000 to Friends for Good Health, an organization run by Bobby Kumar Kalotee, the former chairman of the Nassau County Independence Party who once faked his own kidnapping.

A Newsday investigation found that the Raj & Rajeshwari Foundation was at the nexus of an unusually close relationship between Singh's business interests and the government officials who gave him lucrative public contracts and were responsible for monitoring his restaurant empire. The list of individuals chosen as honorees at the fundraising gala include the Oyster Bay officials who signed Singh's concession deals, a state official who audits such municipal agreements and the county health department commissioner, whose office is responsible for inspecting Singh's restaurants.

The annual gala more closely resembled a political fundraiser than a foundation looking to raise money for a good cause, according to those who attended the annual event.

"Just about every political person I knew was there," said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University. Levy added that the gala was a "networking opportunity" because of the amount of "fairly influential people" in attendance.

Former CSEA Local 881 union president Robert Rauff Jr. said contributing to the foundation was part of doing business with Oyster Bay.

"We supported them [the foundation] because we always wanted to make sure that we were where the Republicans could see us," Rauff said. "That made things good for when we negotiated contracts on behalf of the employees . . . We got good contracts."

Newsday found that some of those elected and appointed officials sold tickets to the galas, raising questions of whether vendors seeking public contracts saw donating to the foundation as a way to earn favor with the administrations of Mangano and Oyster Bay Supervisor John Venditto, who supported the foundation and maintained close ties to Singh. Unlike contributions made by a vendor to a political campaign, contributions to a nonprofit are not publicly disclosed.

There were indications that government officials should have been wary of linking themselves to Singh's foundation. The organization failed to file a tax return in 2012 -- despite internal documents showing that it raised more than $127,000 at the annual gala -- and it was not registered as an approved nonprofit with New York's attorney general, whose office is responsible for monitoring charitable organizations. As a result, several Long Island elected and appointed officials solicited money for an organization operating in violation of state law. (After Newsday contacted the attorney general's office for this story, the foundation registered with that office and is now in compliance with state law).

In addition, records show the foundation distributed thousands of dollars to two individuals overseas, despite IRS regulations that prohibit foundations from making such contributions. The records do not indicate a reason for the disbursement.

Ex-India official a recipient

One of the individuals who received money from the foundation is former Chief Secretary of Uttar Pradesh Akhand Pratap Singh -- also known as A.P. Singh -- who currently faces corruption charges in India and was once voted by an Indian civil service association as Uttar Pradesh's most corrupt official.

A.P. Singh, who is not related to Harendra Singh, was among those who gave a testimonial in a foundation video and took a turn at the podium at the foundation's 2012 gala, along with Mangano and Venditto.

Newsday has reported previously that Harendra Singh arranged and paid for trips for public officials and gave officials free meals. While his businesses were foundering and he owed months of back rent and utilities, Oyster Bay granted extensions to lucrative town concessions agreements. Those extensions helped Singh get millions of dollars in loans to keep his businesses afloat -- and many of the people involved in those transactions bought tickets to the galas.

In September, Singh pleaded not guilty to 13 criminal counts in federal court that included charges that he bribed an Oyster Bay official in exchange for loan guarantees from the town; submitted fraudulent invoices to FEMA for disaster aid; tax fraud; and obstruction of justice.

Federal prosecutors also alleged during Singh's Sept. 9 arraignment that he used foundation funds "in a check-kiting scheme," a type of fraud in which a person exploits the lag between when a check is deposited and when it clears, allowing the use of nonexistent funds for unauthorized credit.

Eastern District Assistant U.S. Attorney Catherine Mirabile said a government witness, whom she did not identify, informed federal investigators of a check-kiting scheme in which Singh allegedly moved "hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions of dollars." Prosecutors have said Singh used 300 bank accounts, some in the names of his family members, to conceal assets. Mirabile offered no further evidence, and Singh has not been charged with any crimes related to the alleged check-kiting scheme.

Joseph Conway, the foundation co-chairman who was also Singh's attorney until stepping aside shortly after Singh's arraignment, did not respond to calls for comment. Singh's current attorney, Anthony LaPinta of Hauppauge, said his client would not comment.

Mangano spokesman Brian Nevin emailed a statement that said: "Ed Mangano had no role whatsoever in the formation or operation of the Foundation. Prior to being elected County Executive, he served as an honoree along with others from both political parties."

The other government officials named in this story declined to comment, unless noted otherwise.

Oyster Bay Town officials issued a statement through spokeswoman Marta Kane, who said they "had no reason at the time to believe that there was anything suspect about this organization. Additionally, any inference that these individuals had any other involvement or 'role' in this organization is inaccurate and misleading."

To be sure, tax records show the foundation spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to deliver on its original mission by constructing a charitable hospital in India that provided free medical care for 50 to 60 people each day. But in perhaps the clearest indication that the foundation lost its way, the hospital closed at the beginning of this summer and has posted an armed guard outside ever since, according to a local government official in India.

Rural roots

The Raj & Rajeshwari Foundation was created by Singh's father, Dr. Rajesh Singh, a retired surgeon who serves as the organization's chairman. After settling in the United States in the 1970s to practice heart surgery, Rajesh Singh and his wife ultimately moved to a duplex in Rockville Centre. Together they own a Bethpage strip mall, appraised at $8.3 million, that includes H.R. Singleton's, their son's flagship restaurant and the headquarters of his restaurant business.

Rajesh Singh, who did not respond to requests for comment, has not been linked to any malfeasance involving the foundation.

In videos played during the annual fundraising galas, Rajesh Singh explained that he viewed the foundation as a way to give back to his home, Uttar Pradesh, a northern Indian state that is roughly the size of Michigan. It is among the poorer states in India today, with a per capita income of $436 in 2011, compared with $1,410 nationwide, according to the World Bank.

The foundation filed incorporation papers with New York State in 2004 to be a nonprofit private foundation, noting that its purpose would be "performing charitable duties and raising funds for underprivileged persons in India." The papers list Rajesh Singh as the organization's head and four other family members as the foundation's board members.

One of the board members is his son, Harendra Singh. Each year since at least 2009, he hosted the foundation's glittering gala at The Woodlands, a restaurant in a mansion on Oyster Bay Town property Singh operates thanks to a contract with the town .

Guests drank top-shelf liquor from an open bar and mingled with top Nassau and Oyster Bay officials, union leaders and police brass, according to former employees and guests of the galas. Attendees could pay to sponsor a cow to send to a poor family in India and then name the cow after an honoree. One year, a guest bought a cow and named it after Venditto.

"Every union in Nassau County, every judge in Nassau County" was there, said Nassau Detectives Association president Glenn Ciccone, who was honored by the foundation in 2013. "Everybody. I can't think of anybody who wasn't there."

Top officials in the Mangano administration also were heavily involved in planning the gala and selecting the honorees. Foundation co-chair Conway typically hosted monthly breakfast meetings at Singleton's that were attended by a range of top police and political officials, including Krumpter, Nassau Chief of Department Steven Skrynecki, then-Deputy County Executive Dr. Victor Politi and Nassau Supreme Court Justice Timothy Driscoll, according to two people who attended the meetings.

The focus of the meeting was selling tickets, and honorees were expected to help raise money, said Mark Lesko, who was honored in 2012 when he was Brookhaven Town supervisor. Lesko said he got involved with the foundation through Conway, who was his supervisor when they both worked in the U.S. attorney's office.

Internal documents obtained by Newsday show the foundation had success when it came to selling tickets and garnering donations from an array of vendors that had public contracts with Oyster Bay and Nassau County. Among the contributors were Anthony Gulino of Laser Industries; De Bruin Engineering; N & P Engineers & Land Surveyors (commonly known as Nelson & Pope); Cameron Engineering & Associates; Jim Hirani of the Hirani Group; Schneider Engineering; LiRO Engineers; Nassau Suffolk Engineering & Architecture; and Cashin Spinelli & Ferretti.

Each of those firms, except Laser Industries, also has professional services agreements with Oyster Bay -- agreements under which the town can hire the firms to do work without having to go through the competitive bidding process.

Internal records obtained by Newsday, which only include donations to the 2012 and 2013 galas, show the companies bought at least $4,600 in tickets. The companies did not respond to requests for comment.

Donors at the 2012 gala also included NDH Capital Inc., the Purchase, New York, firm that arranged for $14 million in loans to Singh in 2011 and 2012 that were backed, in case of default, by the Town of Oyster Bay. Those loans, and the guarantee, are at the center of the federal government's bribery charges against Singh.

Officials honored

Public officials responsible for monitoring Singh's businesses were often honored by the foundation and solicited funds for it. That, said Paul Sabatino, former counsel to the Suffolk County Legislature who helped write Suffolk's ethics law, creates a potential conflict of interest.

"If you're a public official who has jurisdiction over an entity or individual, then you should never get involved in that individual's private activities," Sabatino said. "It can create the perception that your judgment is going to be impaired or influenced when it comes time to exercise that oversight."

Both Nassau and Oyster Bay ethics codes bar officials from engaging in any activity that could conflict with their official duties.

Some of the elected and appointed officials who supported Singh's foundation include:

Nassau County Health Commissioner Dr. Lawrence Eisenstein, whose office handles restaurant health code inspections. Eisenstein was honored by the foundation in 2012. He issued a statement through a spokeswoman that said, "The provisions of the New York State Sanitary Code are applied equally by health inspectors to all food establishments in Nassau County."

Top Oyster Bay Town officials with a direct role in negotiating or approving Singh's concession agreements at restaurants, town beaches and the town golf course. Venditto's campaign has contributed at least $12,500. Planning Commissioner Frederick Ippolito and Town Attorney Genova gave videotaped testimonials. Deputy Town Attorney Frederick Mei, who has since been identified by sources as the person allegedly bribed by Singh to secure the loan guarantees, bought tickets to the gala. Mei resigned in August.

Other Oyster Bay Town officials who bought tickets to the annual fundraiser include Councilman Chris Coschignano, whose political club regularly meets at the Woodlands; Public Works Commissioner Richard Betz, who oversaw the Singh concession agreements on town property when he was parks commissioner; Patricia Baranello, former chairwoman of the town Zoning Board of Appeals, whose board was scheduled to hear an appeal from the Singhs about their Bethpage strip mall several months after she donated money for the gala; and Deputy Comptroller Leonard Kunzig, whose office collected rents from Singh.

Mark Lesko, who was the supervisor of Brookhaven Town when Singh secured a no-bid contract to operate a restaurant at the town-owned Cedar Beach. Two years later, the foundation picked Lesko as its honoree, and he gave a videotaped testimonial and a $5,000 donation. Lesko, the only honoree who agreed to be interviewed for this story, said he didn't consider the relationship a conflict because he didn't get anything of value from the foundation.

State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who was honored by the foundation in 2009 and appeared at its 2012 gala. A 2013 audit by DiNapoli's office was sharply critical of the Oyster Bay Town's contracting process, but Singh's concession contracts were not included in the sample audited.

Nassau Supreme Court Justice Timothy Driscoll was among those who helped plan the annual fundraiser and select the honorees. Driscoll declined to be interviewed. Through a spokesman, Driscoll denied soliciting donations from fellow judges who bought tickets to the gala -- Rhonda Fischer, Joy Watson, Colin O'Donnell and James McCormack, who all declined to be interviewed. New York's Canon of Judicial Ethics prohibits judges from "the solicitation of funds or other fund-raising activities."

Red flags

According to charity experts, private foundations typically begin with a donation from a wealthy individual or family that is large enough to sustain the nonprofit's mission. What made the Raj & Rajeshwari Foundation different was its heavy reliance on political-style fundraising.

"A private foundation doing fundraising is a little anomalous," said Marcus Owens, former head of the Exempt Organization Division within the IRS, which developed audit plans for tax-exempt organizations.

The foundation also failed to file any tax return in 2012, a year when internal documents obtained by Newsday show the foundation raised $127,705 at its gala.

"It's a red flag," Owens said of the missing tax return. "It's something the IRS would view as quite interesting. Why aren't you in compliance with federal law?"

There were other signals that the foundation wasn't following rules designed to ensure that the money raised goes to a charitable purpose.

Records show the foundation gave in 2013 a total of $14,000 to A.P. Singh, the former government official in India facing corruption charges, and to Uday Mishra in the Netherlands. Neither could be reached for comment.

William Josephson, a New York City attorney who worked for five years as an assistant attorney general in charge of the office's Charities Bureau, said that giving money to individuals, as opposed to other charities, could cause problems with the IRS.

Josephson said that the sending of charitable contributions overseas is highly regulated, and the IRS "would not permit an emergent charity to transmit charitable funds to an individual overseas."

A.P. Singh, a career bureaucrat with ties to the ruling party in Uttar Pradesh, served as chief secretary, the top administrative post in state government. Tax records show the Raj & Rajeshwari Foundation sent A.P. Singh $4,000 in 2013, although the purpose of the donation is not indicated.

In 2005, India's Central Bureau of Investigation -- the country's equivalent of the FBI -- charged A.P. Singh in what's known as a disproportionate assets case, meaning he is considered to have amassed more money and property than his income would provide.

According to charging documents, A.P. Singh owns 84 properties across India and has more than 100 bank accounts. The charging documents accuse him of forging documents to obtain property or transfer property to co-conspirators. He is also accused of forging documents to open bank accounts and make financial transactions under other people's names. He was arrested and jailed in 2007 and is out on bail awaiting trial.

Juhie Singh, A.P. Singh's daughter, said in an interview in India that her father and Rajesh Singh are not related, but have been close friends for years. She said her father calls Rajesh Singh his "uncle" and that he stays with Harendra Singh when he visits New York.

Juhie Singh said her father was only marginally involved with the foundation. "My father helps Dr. Singh in preparing balance sheets, that's it," she said.

Internal tensions

The foundation's practice of giving money to local politically connected groups led to an internal rift last year between Rajesh Singh and foundation co-chairman Kamlesh Mehta, who is said to have resigned from the foundation because of the dispute.

In 2013, tax filings show the foundation gave $15,000 to the Rotary Club of Hicksville South, sending the funds to the Hicksville office of Mehta, a past president of the club who also had been appointed by Mangano as Nassau County's director of business and economic development.

The funds were supposed to go to the Rotary Club international headquarters in Evanston, Illinois, where they would receive a partial match and be sent on to the Rotary Club in Faizabad, India, which is near the hospital.

But not all the money made it to Illinois, and the hospital in India never got its ambulance. The Rotary Club of Hicksville South sent only $8,375 to the rotary club in Illinois, which provided an additional $4,188, according to Chanele Williams, Rotary International spokeswoman. That total was then sent to Faizabad, Williams said.

Williams said that in "March or April of 2014 the hospital declined to take the ambulance because they said they couldn't maintain all of the high operating costs."

The Rotary Club's funds are still in India and could still be used for a humanitarian project to be determined later, she said.

At the same time some of the Rotary Club money went missing, Rajesh Singh and Mehta got into a heated argument over the ambulance, said Devineni Ratnam, an Oyster Bay businessman who is a past president of the Rotary Club of Hicksville South. "Dr. Singh was really upset," said Ratnam, who said he did not know the details of the dispute.

Mehta wrote in an email to Newsday that the argument was over a misunderstanding on Rajesh Singh's part as to the timing and protocol of the grant. He said only a portion of the foundation's $15,000 grant to the Rotary was earmarked for the hospital and the rest of it would be used for other charitable projects. There are no missing funds, Mehta said.

"The Raj Foundation said they don't want that money anymore," Mehta said of the Rotary Club money in a brief interview. "That money will be spent on other charities."

Mehta resigned from the foundation in spring 2014. He resigned from his Nassau County job in October amid a Newsday examination of his role in the administration.

The tensions within the foundation came as internal documents and emails obtained by Newsday show Harendra Singh scrambled to pay bills and stave off creditors hounding his restaurant businesses in spring 2014. In August of that year, federal agents executed a search warrant for his business records.

Since Singh's arraignment in September, he has been under house arrest, where he must wear a tracking device and is only allowed out three hours a day. He has closed at least two of his restaurants and has faced employee walkouts because of his failure to pay their wages. His 8,000-square-foot Laurel Hollow home is for sale for $2.9 million.

The hospital in India, whose operations were funded by the Raj & Rajeshwari Foundation, remains closed. The annual June fundraising gala was postponed. It has yet to occur.

With Biswajeet Banerjee reporting from India, and Kavita Mehta,

Nirmal Mitra and Leema Thomas

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