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 the indictment, 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.
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.
Co-defendants Strusa, Zfati, Iskandarova and Holovkin are scheduled to stand trial on May 24, 2010, on the charges in the indictment. An indictment is merely an accusation, and defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty at trial beyond a reasonable doubt.
In addition to the indictment charging Azrelyant, Finkle, Strusa, Zfati, Iskandarova and Holovkin, five indictments were unsealed on Nov. 19, 2009, charging an additional 20 people with engaging in a scheme to steal millions of dollars from the FCC’s VRS program. In all, 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.
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’s Department of Justice Fraud Team and the FCC Office of Inspector General.