Larry Hertz • Poughkeepsie Journal
A Rhinebeck Jewish group’s plans to build a cultural and religious center in the town have been temporarily derailed by a real estate agent the organization later learned had filed for bankruptcy, the group’s leader said.
Rabbi Hanoch Hecht, director of the Rhinebeck Jewish Center and co-director of Chabad of Dutchess County, said Rhinebeck real estate agent Lance Lavender had accepted an $8,500 down payment from him for the purchase of some land in the town for the new center. Hecht said Lavender told him the money had been placed in an escrow account and would be returned to the group if the deal fell through.
When negotiations for the land sale broke down last month, Hecht said he asked Lavender for the money and was told it was not available. A short time later, the rabbi said, he learned Lavender had filed under Chapter 7 of the federal bankruptcy law and had no assets.
“Now I’m told I must get in line with the rest of the creditors,” Hecht said Wednesday.
Lavender’s attorney, Michael Wrobel, confirmed Wednesday Lavender was in bankruptcy proceedings.
“Creditors have the opportunity to ask for money if any is found,” Wrobel said. “The judge has extended the period of time for creditors to do that, but at this point, (Lavender) has no assets.”
Hecht said he had met with a Dutchess County assistant district attorney, Edward Whitesell, and asked if Lavender could be charged with a crime.
“He told me Mr. Lavender could not be prosecuted,” Hecht said. “I was very disappointed with that answer.
“He (Lavender) wronged us and he wronged other people,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s an individual or a house of worship. Stealing is still stealing.”
Whitesell said he sympathized with Hecht’s plight, but in order to prove Lavender had committed the crime of larceny, he would have to prove he intended to steal the money at the time he placed it in the escrow account.
“The issue with all these kinds of cases is the issue of intent,” the prosecutor said. “The question is: Is what he did a violation of a contract or is it a crime? And if you can’t prove criminal intent, then the person is stuck having to file a civil suit. In this case, it’s a civil issue, but there’s no money to collect.”
Lee Park, spokesman for state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, said the agency sometimes prosecutes such cases, either in civil or criminal court, if investigators can establish a pattern of such behavior. He said Hecht had discussed his case with Vincent Bradley, assistant attorney general in charge of the Poughkeepsie office.
“It would be helpful if anyone else who feels they have been defrauded (by Lavender) contact our office, because the more complaints we get, maybe we can build a case,” Park said.
In the meantime, Hecht said, his organization was resuming fundraising efforts to build the Jewish Center.
“What happened has inspired us to fight this darkness with a little bit of light, to work that much harder to make the center a reality,” the rabbi said.