Voter fraud lawsuit rocks ‘Borscht Belt’ resort in the Catskills

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A tiny Borscht Belt town that beckons Orthodox Jewish vacationers in the summer staged a pivotal election this spring that was anything but kosher, according to an explosive lawsuit that has triggered a state investigation into alleged voter fraud.

Fleischmanns — a leafy hamlet at the foot of the Belleayre ski resort in the Catskills — has been thrown into chaos after two losing candidates for village trustee accused a pair of deep-pocketed Hasidic property owners of rigging the ballot box to install officials to rubber-stamp their development plans, according to the lawsuit obtained by The Post. 

Businesses along the tree-lined Main Street and its 300 year-round locals are taking sides over the election held in March for two of the four trustee seats — a year after the other two seats were won by candidates backed by the same Hasidic residents, Josef Horowitz and Wigdor Mendlovic.

Voters in the historic village, named for the Fleischmann family that built the baking yeast empire, are hurling insults and accusing each other of bullying, anti-Semitism and fraud at public meetings, with some fretting over the future use of municipal facilities including the recently renovated town pool.

‘I believe the end game is to turn this into a religious community where the [Hasidic] lifestyle prevails,” Vicky Szerko, who owns a second home in Fleischmanns, told The Post.

Fleischmanns sign
Fleischmanns — a hamlet at the foot of the Belleayre ski resort in the Catskills — has been thrown into turmoil.
Daniel William McKnight for NY Post

In a March 15 election for two seats on the village’s four-seat Board of Trustees, Yesmin Serabia and Aaron Goldring won convincingly, with 135 votes and 123 votes, respectively. Their rivals, Elizabeth Hughes and Dan Halpren, garnered 54 and 39 votes, respectively.

Both winners, however, each received 120 votes from absentee ballots. That’s versus past elections that have been won with just 30 votes cast in total. The number of registered voters on Feb. 1 was 201. Just five weeks later it grew to 268, according to Hughes.

Hughes and Halpern filed a lawsuit days later, claiming that the votes were at the behest of Horowitz and Mendlovic, who owns large swaths of property catering to Hasidic renters in Fleischmanns. The duo recruited summer renters from New Jersey and New York City to illegally vote via absentee ballots, listing vacant motel rooms among other improbable addresses as their primary residences, the suit claims.

A pavilion next to a Fleischmanns sign.
Voter fraud allegations are upending this bucolic village.
Daniel William McKnight for NY Post

“We think we have uncovered voter fraud,” said Hughes, who moved to Fleischmanns from Brooklyn during the pandemic. “In a small community like this, it’s obvious.”

“The whole thing is so blatant with the absentee ballots,” added Halpren, who notes that the winning candidates never campaigned or offered any public explanation about why they became candidates.

“The only ones who campaigned were Elizabeth and myself,” Halpren said. “We went door to door, put posters up in the village, ads in the paper and sent mailings.”

Goldring himself lives in Lakewood, NJ, where he is registered to vote. He “even handwrote ‘N.J.’ where the ballot application requested information about his residence, the lawsuit claims. But he also provided a Fleischmanns address — “a motel-like structure” that is used seasonally for a few weeks in the summer by the Hasidic community, according to the suit.

Elizabeth Hughes holds an campaign poster.
Elizabeth Hughes says she lost the March election for village trustee due to a preponderance of illegal absentee ballots.
Daniel William McKnight for NY Post

Goldring did not respond to several emails and phone calls seeking comment.

Sarabia resides in Fleischmanns and works in a local convenience store owned by another Mendlovic-backed trustee — Sam Gil — who along with Stewart Cohen was elected trustee in March 2021. Sarabia also did not return calls for comment.

The trustees’ attorney James Curran filed a motion for summary judgment on May 16, arguing that the petition failed to comply with certain filing deadlines. He also argued that many people have more than one property or residence in New York and that there is nothing “inherently unscrupulous or dubious about this practice,” noting that the law allows for people to choose from which location they vote. 

The suit by Hughes and Halpren, filed in March in New York Supreme Court in Delaware County, names their rival candidates, the county board of elections and the village clerk, alleging that a “religious sect” is trying “take control of the village of Fleischmanns government by fraud.”

Fleischmanns in 1925.
Fleischmanns in 1925. The resort town, named for the family that built the eponymous baking yeast empire, traces its roots back to the 19th Century.
Getty Images

In an interview with The Post, Mendlovic called the lawsuit “baloney” and said there was no “organized” effort to recruit voters. “They are making up stories,” he said.

Horowitz declined to comment for this story.

The mayor of Fleischmanns, Winifred Zubin, also declined to weigh in on the controversy.

“I’m trying to protect the integrity of village election,” Zubin told The Post “I don’t have a position on the [election].”

It wouldn’t be the first upstate hamlet to confront voter fraud. In 2016, the FBI arrested three men in Bloomingburg, NY who were later found guilty and did prison time for trying to corrupt a local election by bribing non-residents to register and vote in Sullivan County. Their plan was to ram through a townhouse development to accommodate Hasidic families.

The Valkyrian Motel.
At least two voters, who submitted absentee ballots for a local election, listed the Valkyrian Motel as their residence.
Daniel William McKnight for NY Post

The three men – Shalom Lamm, Kenneth Nakdimen and Volvy Smilowitz – “concocted a scheme to falsely register voters who did not live in Bloomingburg, including some who had never even set foot there,”  former Manhattan US Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement revealing the indictment at the time.

Bharara added that the trio “allegedly back-dated fake leases and even placed toothpaste and toothbrushes in empty apartments to make them appear occupied by the falsely registered voters.”

In the Fleischmanns case, the suit alleges that four voters listed vacant motel rooms as their primary residences. It also claims 24 voters listed the same a tax-exempt religious property as their primary residence.

A house at 556 Main St. in Fleischmanns, NY.
Sixteen voters, who submitted absentee ballots, listed this house as their residence in Fleischmanns.
Daniel William McKnight for NY Post

The “modest single-family home” at 540 Main St. “could not possibly accommodate this number of adults and their children as their permanent home within the meaning of the election law,” the lawsuit states. The home is listed as a Spinka Shul, or synagogue, according to Google maps and the filing.

Another 39 absentee voters listed similarly sized homes in the village that are all owned by the same person and are tax-exempt “shuls” according to the lawsuit. All of the voters listed Horowitz as the agent to pick up the ballots from the same PO Box address in town, according to court papers.

Mendlovic said he has “no connection” to the voters who listed these addresses on their ballots, and offered that people who come to Fleischmanns in the summer have “shares” in the homes.

A small bridge over a brook in Fleischmanns.
There are about 300 year-round residents in Fleischmanns.
Daniel William McKnight for NY Post

He owns about 17 properties in Fleischmanns, including summer rental homes, a motel, a seasonal kosher restaurant and a hotel called The Palace. The hotel is located in a residential neighborhood and had been abandoned for about a decade before Mendlovic purchased it in 2018.

According to court documents, Mendlovic sued to reopen The Palace after village had ruled that the property had lost its zoning status as a hotel, saying it didn’t meet current building codes and would need special permits to reopen in a residential area.

Hughes’ and Halpren’s lawsuit claims the matter got settled shortly after Gil and Cohen won the 2021 election for village trustees. According to court papers, at least 45 absentee voters emerged in that election to support the two men, who “immediately introduced and passed a new village zoning law favorable to a single property: The Palace Hotel, which although styled as a ‘hotel’ primarily caters “to members of the said religious sect,” according to the lawsuit.

The Palace hotel does not have a listed telephone number or website. 

Mendlovic acknowledged that he’s had issues getting projects approved in the village, including a food market.

The Palace Hotel
Plans to reopen The Palace hotel sparked litigation.
DANIEL WILLIAM MCKNIGHT

“They have tried to block me” over the years, he said. He denied, however, that there was a connection between the 2021 election and his Palace hotel being approved.

The suit also alleges that Mendlovic and Goldring are “blood relatives” — a point that Mendlovic disputes.

“Everyone is laughing about that,” Mendlovic said.

Court papers allege it’s the second time in two years that Fleischmanns’ elections allegedly have been tampered with. Last year, however, when Gil and Cohen won with the help of dozens of absentee ballots, there was no formal challenge to the results.

Christine Panas, a Fleischmanns resident who opened Village East Cafe in town last September, complained that Mendlovic has appeared to get special treatment from town authorities.

A park with mountains in the background.
Fleischmanns village is at the foothills of Belleayre Ski Mountain.
Daniel William McKnight for NY Post

“I was put through a blender to get a permit for my store and now these other people are coming in and getting what they want” without following building codes and rules, Panas told The Post.

The frustration, villagers told The Post, is that they are left guessing about Medlovic’s and Horowitz’s motives. An April 11 village board meeting, however, gave them a glimpse. The newly renovated community pool, slated to reopen this summer, was a topic of discussion when Goldring suggested there be segregated swimming times for men and women, according to several villagers who attended the meeting.

One villager who did not want to be identified said “that comment struck a lot of people who made a mental note of it.”

The ballot fracas has caught the eye of authorities. Delaware County District Attorney John Hubbard told The Post, “there were a number of votes that appear to be invalid,” citing a recently completed county sheriff’s investigation. He declined to give details but confirmed as stated in the court papers the probe centered on whether 67 people — 44 of whom registered to vote just weeks before the election and cast absentee ballots – qualify to vote in Fleischmanns.

A synagogue in Fleischmanns.
Fleischmanns is a popular summer retreat for Orthodox Jews
Daniel William McKnight for NY Post

Court papers alleged that as many as 120 ballots may have been cast fraudulently.

Hubbard added, “I’m not sure whether there are consequences for the individuals who cast the ballots.”

The New York Attorney General’s office, whose Public Integrity Bureau focuses on government corruption, confirmed to The Post that it is “looking into the matter,” spokesperson Morgan Rubin said in an email.

The next step is for the New York Supreme Court to “make a determination regarding the ballots that were cast and whether they should be counted,” D. Jeremy Rase, an assistant county attorney in Delaware County, told The Post. The court began looking at the evidence on May 20, when all the affidavits were due.

“It’s possible that [the court’s ruling] changes the outcome of the election,” Rase said.

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