Two NYC Workers Accused of Stealing 9-11 Funds

Two former employees in the city medical examiner's office were charged with embezzling millions of dollars intended to help identify victims of the World Trade Center attack.

Natarajan R. Venkataram, 41, and Rosa Abreu, 38, were arrested Wednesday.

"These defendants breached their positions of trust and responsibility and took advantage of a national tragedy," said Rose Gill Hearn, city commissioner of investigation.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, the Federal Emergency Management Agency forwarded millions of dollars to help the medical examiner buy computer hardware, software and support services to identify the dead.

Prosecutors said Friday that the defendants, both administrators in the medical examiner's office, steered an $11.4 million contract to a company controlled by an associate of Venkataram's. The company did some work, but most of the money went to companies that did little or nothing and were sometimes controlled by the defendants, prosecutors said.

About $5.5 million was allegedly transferred at Venkataram's direction to bank accounts in India.

A lawyer for Venkataram declined to comment. Abreu's attorney did not immediately return a call.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press.

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[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: I do not know if this is a new record for thievery where municipal employees are concerned or not. I do know that in 1996-97 several employees of the Chicago Transit Authority absconded with several million dollars -- a couple hundred dollars at a time -- from CTA on an almost daily basis. Although you might think the biggest heists each day would be at the money counting room, 77th and Vincennes bus barn where several routes terminated each day -- and workers there were commonly walking away with a fist full of dollar bills routinely -- and not to take them to the bank! -- the subway fare collecting agents had a good racket going also: Sitting in their cage, they'd collect fares from passers by but then fail to register the fare. They were supposed to (older style) pull an overhead strap which caused a bell to ring, flashed a light and unlocked the turnstile. The newer sytem had them punch a button on a keyboard which in turn rang the bell, turned a red light (stop!) to green to allow passengers to walk through the temporarily opened gate, etc. Then each day at the end of their shift they would 'read the meter' in the presence of the employee who was relieving them, take all the money away to be audited elsewhere (probably 77th and Vincennes). That was supposed to be the CTA audit trail on fares collected. Trouble is, the employees learned they could (instead of ringing the 'fare paid' button they could instead ring the 'monthly pass presented' key, or the 'employee pass' key or a couple others which would unlock the turnstile and flash a light but _not_ show up on the fare collected register. That money was of course, their take. The night shift agents at State Street and Jackson/Van Buren downtown between them pulled about a million dollars over two years before they got caught.

For about a year in the time period 1988-90 I was employed as a 'rider' -- in CTA parlance, a 'rider' is an 'ignorant' old man or an old 'shopping bag' woman, also allegedly too old and mentally feeble to know what was happening. Objective: _always_ pay with cash, _always_ rush through the gates, _never_ pay attention to anything, (or so the collection agents were to think) but really, out of the corner of your beady eyes notice if the _right_ lights flashed on the gates, the register incremented your trip, etc. Other 'riders' were to deliberatly find a reason to pick a fight with the collection agent or bus driver, or train conductor, etc and see how they responded. It helped a lot if the 'rider' was unshaven, had body odor, and, just in general, acted ignorant. The CTA employees were not to think that a 'rider' was anyone of any consequence, obviously.

Jackson/Van Buren subway _did_ have a lot of strange people boarding the train there anyway, so I did not look out of place, and I did work downtown on the late shift for that department store (where I took care of their PBX/centrex) so several nights per week I was an ideal person (in CTA's view) to 'ride' through that station. You were _never_ to reveal anything about yourself to the fare collector, etc, just toss your money in at her and shove your way along. If you had anything to talk or snitch about, you were to do that by calling a certain private, non-published direct phone line in someone's office at CTA, the same as Walmart does it now with their 'mystery shoppers'.

But I had this one situation; the fare collector acted _so ignorant_; was _so brazen_ in her thievery (she hit me three times in one week for my fare during the late night hours); I just could not resist telling her off good. A middle-age black lady; she impresed me that she was into drugs as a spare time thing. Monday and Tuesday she grabbed at my money as I stuck it in the cage at her and did 'monthly pass' to open the gate. I said nothing, just catalogued it away, and continued on my trip home. I did not go to work Wednesday, but went in Thursday night, and I do not remember why, exactly, but she did or said something to another passenger which really annoyed me, so when she hit me on my fare again (used the employee free ride) to open the gates that night, I decided to call her on it. I had seen her do the same thing for two riders ahead of me in line that night, so I decided to have fun with her. She rang 'employee free' on my fare, the light turned green, instead of walking through I just stood there and said to her 'why did you ring me like that? do it correctly'. All real nasty and authoritarian she ordered me 'keep moving, do not hold up the line'. I told her when you _ring my fare correctly_ I will move along, not before. She came up with a lame excuse about how she had 'earlier double rang a fare and wanted to make up for the resulting shortage.' I told her 'you have a pad of Form (whatever) in there to be used in that case. On the Form, you write down the money amount (usually 90 cents for one fare), you initial it and ask the passenger to also scribble his initials there, _then_ you open the gate with the mis-ring key and you turn in that scrap of paper with your work for the night, that is how you do it.'

Now she was furious! "You hurry up and get through the gate or I will call the police and have you arrested!" I told her "you just do that ... go ahead and call police, do you want to use the phone there in the cage or would you prefer I call them from the payphone over there on the wall? But if _I_ call, then I will also call the fare collector supervisor over at State/Lake Street and tell her about it also." Now she knew I had to know _something_ about the 'system' and she thought about that for a minute and decided it would probably be best to not get police or her supervisors involved. She ripped off one of the 'fare adjustment' forms from the pad of same, filled in the amount of the fare shoved it out the window at me and said 'put your name on here', with a very angry look on her face (at being caught). I just was _not_ going to let that one go through, so the next morning I called the private, unlisted phone number at the Merchandise Mart (CTA headquarters) and told the man all about it. I told the gentleman about it, he said that he had heard 'other hearsay reports about that same lady' so he figured it was about time to hit her with a bunch of 'riders'; several 'riders' each night for a week or two, so I can 'catch her in the act and she won't be able to deny it.' I guess the collection fare person had never had so many old bag-ladies and smelly, unshaven old men come past her booth in one night before.

About a month later, I got a call from someone at CTA who identified himself as 'the agent supervisor'. It was a very short phone call and got right to the point: "you remember about a month ago when you called here and made a complaint about Agent (number)?" I said I did, and his reply was "you were right. I fired her yesterday, she went to the Union to file grievance. The Union told her, 'we would help you, but CTA has been on our case lately for defending so many people who have been alleged to steal from them.' So, I think the Bitch is out of here, and chances are the Authority will have an indictment for her sometime real soon." NOTE: The CTA is itself a quasi government in the Chicago area. Not a government _agency_ but a _government_, with the power to fine, indict, prosecute, etc. Her, and 'her kind' took CTA for several million dollars as best as anyone was ever able to figure out. PAT]

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