The fraud perpetrated in Bloomingburg connected to the construction of the Villages at Chestnut Ridge is perhaps the most blatant case of a corrupt developer working with corrupt officials in the …
The fraud perpetrated in Bloomingburg connected to the construction of the Villages at Chestnut Ridge is perhaps the most blatant case of a corrupt developer working with corrupt officials in the history of Sullivan County.
There was fraud and deception from the beginning. Developer Shalom Lamm and his partner Kenneth Nakdimen sold the development to officials and the community as a retirement development for some 150 homes surrounding a golf course. They presented plans for that type of community at the time knowing full well they were actually planning to build something entirely different.
A document created by Lamm in 2013 and later made public by court order exposed the fraud. It said in part, “The developers of Chestnut Ridge have worked for seven years in complete secrecy to achieve a fully approved project (Phase I). It is intended to be a transformative development; building a secure, affordable, growing Hassidic community that will ultimately accommodate thousands of families….”
Lamm had help and support from a number of local officials who acted corruptly nearly from the beginning. According to a lawsuit brought against the developers by the Town of Mamakating and the Village of Bloomingburg in 2015, Mark Berentsen was elected mayor as a write-in candidate in 2008, and with the support of Lamm and Nakdimen, won by a single vote. Berentsen named his wife Susan to the post of village clerk.
The complaint alleges that Susan and Mark seriously manipulated and corrupted the process of finishing the application and pushing through a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) on the development project, which was still being sold as a low-density community with a golf course. Several times, meetings were short-noticed and improperly scheduled, allegedly to avoid public participation, and to hide the fact that the true high-density development would one day be constructed on the site.
Another local official who supported Lamm was former Bloomingburg mayor Everett Saunders. The complaint said that Everett and his wife Regina, who is a former member of the Mamakating Town Board, sold their hardware store to Lamm for about $150,000 over the market price. Lamm and Nakdimen also promised they would have a trailer park the couple owned annexed to the village and hooked up to the promised water and sewer systems, which would allow more trailers on the property and make it much more valuable.
Another allegedly corrupt official, former Mamakating Town Supervisor Harold Baird, pleaded guilty in 2016 to a conspiracy regarding false voter registration information in a previous village election.
Many of the lawsuits were dismissed or decided in Lamm’s favor; however, the FBI became interested and dozens of agents raided his office and buildings in 2014 and walked away with dozens of boxes.
Ultimately, the U.S. Justice Department indicted the developers and the indictment said instead of pursuing their development through legal means, “the defendants instead decided to corrupt the electoral process in Bloomingburg by falsely registering voters and paying bribes to voters who would elect public officials favorable to their project.”
The indictment said people who had registered “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.”
Ultimately, Lamm, Nakdimen and a third developer Volvy Smilowitz pleaded guilty to voter fraud and served brief prison sentences. All of this remains fresh in the minds of many residents and led to the creation of the Mamakating Board of Ethics in 2014.
On February 6, a large number of residents went to the town meeting to express their opposition to the dissolution of the ethics board. The new supervisor, Janet Lybolt, said ethics complaints would be handled by the county even though Sullivan County administrative code says, “The Board of Ethics may act only with respect to Sullivan County officials and employees.”
We can’t know the intention of the Mamakating Town Board, but we can see the appearance, and from here it doesn’t look good. Either the board failed to adequately research the matter before taking action, or it moved to deliberately deprive the residents of a means to file an ethics complaint against town officials. Either way, the move is not acceptable.