Four former owners and employees of three different video relay service companies pleaded guilty today and yesterday to engaging in conspiracies to defraud the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Video Relay Service (VRS) program of more than $2.5 million, announced Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer of the Criminal Division.
The following defendants each pleaded guilty before U.S. District Court Judge Joel A. Pisano in Trenton, N.J., to one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud:
- Kim E. Hawkins, 46, an owner of Nevada-based Master Communications, Arizona-based KL Communications and Texas-based Mascom LLC;
- Larry Berke, 62, Hawkins’s partner in KL Communications and employee of Master Communications;
- Alfia Iskandarova, 29, a former video interpreter (VI) for New York and New Jersey-based Deaf and Hard of Hearing Interpreting Services, Inc. (DHIS); and
- Robert Z. Rubeck, 34, of Surprise, Ariz.
Hawkins, Berke, Iskandarova and Rubeck were charged with engaging in schemes to steal millions of dollars from the FCC’s VRS program, along with 22 other people and one company, in six indictments unsealed on Nov. 19, 2009. 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 VRS users. The FCC reimburses VRS providers at a rate of approximately $6.50 per minute, which amounts to approximately $390 per hour.
In pleading guilty, the four defendants admitted that they conspired with others to pay individuals to make fraudulent VRS phone calls and to process fraudulent VRS phone calls that were billed to the FCC through VRS provider Viable Communications Inc. Each defendant admitted to generating or processing thousands of illegitimate VRS minutes that were billed to the FCC. According to information contained in the plea documents, Hawkins, Berke and Iskandarova admitted that their role in defrauding the FCC’s VRS program led to a total loss of between $2.5 and $7 million. Rubeck admitted that his role in defrauding the FCC’s VRS program led to a total loss of between $1 and $2.5 million.
At sentencing, the defendants each face a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, a fine of $250,000, as well as mandatory restitution and forfeiture. Sentencing is scheduled for June 28, 2010.
Hawkins and Berke were indicted along with Lisa Goetz and Dary Berke, employees of KL Communications; and David Simmons, an employee of Mascom LLC. Iskandarova was indicted along with Joshua Finkle and Irma Azrelyant, co-owners of DHIS; Oksana Strusa, DHIS bookkeeper and VI; and Natan Zfati and Hennadii Holovkin, both DHIS VIs. Rubeck was indicted along with Benjamin Pena, a consultant for Maryland-based Viable Communications Inc.; and Tamara Frankel, an employee of Pena. Finkle and Azrelyant pleaded guilty on Feb. 18, 2010, for their roles in the scheme and are scheduled to be sentenced on June 29, 2010.
The indictments charge owners and employees of the following six companies with engaging in a scheme to defraud the FCC’s VRS program:
- Viable Communications Inc., of Rockville, Md.;
- Master Communications LLC, of Las Vegas;
- KL Communications LLC, of Phoenix;
- Mascom LLC of Austin, Texas;
- Innovative Communication Services for the Deaf Corp. (ICSD), of Miami Lakes, Fla.; and
- Deaf Studio 29 of Huntington Beach, Calif.
An indictment is merely an accusation, and defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty at trial beyond a reasonable doubt.
These cases are being prosecuted by Assistant Chief Hank Bond Walther and Trial Attorney Brigham Cannon of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section. The cases are being investigated by FBI’s Washington Field Office, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the FCC Office of Inspector General.