Wagswoofs – A scheme to defraud programs that were designed to help victims of crimes was run by a group of individuals and corporations.
Nine individuals and corporations have pleaded guilty and been sentenced for operating a bid-rigging scheme that lasted for two decades. The scheme involved submitting thousands of false and inflated bids that charged up to three times the fair market value for moving services to the New York State Office of Victim Services (OVS) and the New York City Human Resources Administration (HRA). As a result, government agencies were defrauded of funds that were meant to help public benefits recipients, domestic violence survivors, and other crime victims in urgent need of relocation services. The New York Attorney General, Letitia James, and the New York City Department of Investigation (DOI) Commissioner, Jocelyn E. Strauber, made this announcement. The guilty individuals will pay damages to New York state and New York City and will be prohibited from conducting any further business with state and city agencies.
According to Attorney General James, it is critical that susceptible New Yorkers have prompt and secure access to the assistance they require to flee perilous situations. The fraudulent scheme robbed funds from crucial programs that offer relocation services to those who require it the most. The culprits of this deceitful act prioritized profits over people, endangering victims of crime and low-income individuals in New York. The Attorney General expressed gratitude to Commissioner Strauber and DOI for collaborating in thwarting this scam and their unwavering dedication to eradicating corruption.
According to DOI Commissioner Jocelyn E. Strauber, the individuals in question engaged in a bid-rigging scheme that lasted for two decades, targeting programs for crime victims and recipients of public benefits, resulting in fraud against city and state agencies. As a result of the guilty pleas, all defendants have accepted responsibility for their criminal behavior, and Avi Cohen, Derek Barney, and Frank Lopez have agreed to pay restitution totaling $850,000. The majority of the amount will go to the city, and Avi Cohen and his company are banned from doing business with DSS and its related agencies for one year, while the remaining defendants and their businesses are banned until the fall of 2024. The HRA assisted with the investigation, and the Office of the Attorney General is committed to pursuing this type of corruption to the fullest extent of the law.
The scheme involves the following individuals:
- Derek T. Barney of Carteret, New Jersey;
- Avraham “Avi” Cohen of Great Neck, New York;
- Frank Lopez, Jr. of Queens, New York;
- Cynthia Yeje Ramsaroop of Winter Haven, Florida; and
- Gennovee Yeje of Land o’ Lakes, Florida.
There are several corporate entities involved, including:
- Avi Moving & Trucking Inc. (Avi Moving) of Queens, New York;
- Baya Inc. of Queens, New York;
- Fastrac Processing LLC of Queens, New York; and
- Prime Moving & Trucking LLC (Prime Moving) of Delaware.
From around 2001, the accused have been running a fraudulent scheme to swindle OVS and HRA. These organizations provided moving and storage services to public benefit recipients and crime victims, and to ensure that the government paid the lowest price, clients were required to submit three competitive bids. However, the defendants used fraudulent tactics to manipulate the market and inflate the prices of these services by submitting rigged and false bids.
Introducing the United Movers Association
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Barney, Cohen, and Lopez, who respectively co-own Prime Moving, Avi Moving, and Baya Inc., established a fraudulent trade association named the “United Movers Association.” The trio exchanged blank signed bid sheets and conspired to submit bogus bids to OVS and HRA.
Lopez, Barney and their accomplices resorted to submitting a fraudulent letter to HRA to appear credible. The letter claimed that they had formed an association to fight against fraud committed by other moving companies, who allegedly submitted estimates without approval. However, the truth is that the association was created with the sole purpose of aiding the defendants in carrying out their fraudulent activities and submitting fake bids.
The moving companies assured OVS and HRA clients that they would acquire all three bids on their behalf, as per their trade association. However, it was discovered that the defendants would fabricate two higher-priced bids and present them, alongside their own lower bid and the United Movers Association coversheet, directly to OVS or HRA.
Eviction Services Office
The “Office of Eviction Services” was a fraudulent entity run by the defendants, who specifically targeted OVS and HRA clients. They tricked these individuals into believing that they were a government or non-profit organization that provided assistance to those in need with emergency relocation applications. Yeje and Ramsaroop used fake titles, such as “Program Director” and “Senior Case Manager” to deceive public benefit recipients and their caseworkers into thinking that they were legitimate representatives of the Office of Eviction Services.
The Office of Eviction Services distributed flyers outside of HRA job centers and operated a website targeting public benefits recipients and HRA caseworkers. The flyers and website advertised the services of the Office of Eviction Services, which claimed to assist clients with obtaining and submitting the required three bids. However, upon calling the Office of Eviction Services, clients were misled as the entity created and submitted false, rigged, and inflated bids for the same movers.
Yeje and Ramsaroop used to work for Cohen and ran the Office of Eviction Services to direct clients to Avi Moving. They achieved this by submitting a single bid for Avi Moving and two fictitious bids that were more expensive. To conceal their dual roles, several employees worked for both Avi Moving and the Office of Eviction Services under fake names and disguised voices when answering the phones for the entities.
Yeje took over the Office of Eviction Services from Cohen in 2016 and operated it alongside Ramsaroop, working remotely from Florida. During their tenure, the company engaged in unethical practices by splitting the OVS and HRA moving business between Avi Moving, Prime Moving, and Baya, Inc. In return for receiving a kickback of 25 percent or more, Yeje and Ramsaroop would create two fictitious competitor bids and submit them, along with the chosen company’s bid, to OVS or HRA under the guise of the Office of Eviction Services.
In the same year, Yeje established Fastrac Processing LLC (Fastrac), a fraudulent entity aimed at covertly accumulating undisclosed kickbacks from the moving companies that received the rigged and exaggerated bids through the Office of Eviction Services. Yeje sent monthly invoices to Barney, Cohen, and Lopez, outlining the awarded jobs and the kickbacks owed to Fastrac due to the deceitful and rigged bids submitted on their behalf.
Barney and Prime Moving have admitted to breaking the law by violating the New York Penal Law and General Business Law. As they await sentencing, they have agreed to pay $50,000 in restitution to OVS. Additionally, they will be prohibited from conducting any moving business with HRA and other agencies.
On October 26, 2023, Lopez and Baya Inc., the defendants, pleaded guilty to violating New York’s Penal Law and General Business Law. As a result, they received a one-year conditional discharge and were ordered to pay $200,000 in restitution to New York City. Similarly, on October 17, 2023, Cohen and Avi Moving also pleaded guilty to violating the same laws. They received a one-year conditional discharge and had to pay $600,000 to New York state and New York City. In addition, all defendants were instructed not to engage in moving business with HRA and other agencies.
On July 18, 2023, the individuals responsible for the Office of Eviction Services admitted guilt to Scheme to Defraud in the Second Degree, which is a violation of New York Penal Law. As a result, each defendant received a one-year conditional discharge with specific conditions. These conditions include performing 100 hours of community service, refraining from any future criminal activity, and avoiding business with HRA and other agencies.
The partnership between the Attorney General and the DOI in this investigation is highly appreciated. Additionally, Attorney General James extends her gratitude to the New York State Office of Victim Services and the New York City Department of Social Services and Human Resources Administration.
The Office of the Inspector General at DOI conducted an investigation into the case with the help of HRA Assistant Inspector General Gabriel Lipker, Investigative Auditor Yanyan Wang, and Director of Audits Laila Jane Yu. The team was supervised by Deputy Inspector General Jeremy Reyes, along with Inspectors General Audrey Feldman and John Bellanie. Additionally, Deputy Commissioner of Strategic Initiatives Christopher Ryan and Deputy Commissioner/Chief of Investigations Dominick Zarrella provided their expertise.
Senior Detective Brian Metz of the Major Investigations Unit led the Attorney General’s investigation, with the guidance and supervision of Assistant Chiefs Michael Leahy, Sam Scotellaro, and Deputy Chief Juanita Bright. Chief Investigator Oliver Pu-Folkes heads the Investigations Division.
Assistant Attorney General Gregory Morril and Senior Counsel Russell Satin from the Attorney General’s Public Integrity Bureau are currently prosecuting this case. The case is being supervised by Bureau Chief Gerard Murphy and Deputy Bureau Chief Kiran Heer, with the assistance of Legal Support Analyst Crystal Bisbano.
Meaghan Scotellaro, a former Principal Auditor Investigator, and Karishma Tukrel, a former Auditor Investigator, conducted a financial analysis. This analysis was conducted under the supervision of Sandy Bizzarro, the Deputy Chief Auditor, and Kristen Fabbri, the former Chief Auditor, both of whom were part of the Forensic Audit Section.
The Chief Deputy Attorney General, José Maldonado, and the First Deputy Attorney General, Jennifer Levy, supervise the Investigations Division and the Public Integrity Bureau, both of which are components of the Division for Criminal Justice.
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