Nassau DA To Probe L.I. Kosher Caterer
It’s a kosher consumer’s worst nightmare: charges that pork, shrimp were prepared in temple kitchen.
Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Staff Writer (Jewish Week)
The office of Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice has opened a criminal investigation into allegations that Morrell Caterers of Woodbury, L.I., prepared shrimp, lobster, pork and other non-kosher food in the same kitchen in which kosher food was prepared.
And the three Nassau synagogues at which Morrell is the caterer have been deluged with calls from frantic congregants who have booked upcoming affairs with Morrell.
Chris Munzing, a spokesman for Rice, said the investigation started last week after it was reported that two of Morrell’s former employees had filed a civil suit alleging that Morrell started a non-kosher business in the kitchen of Temple Beth Torah in Melville, L.I. The two employees claimed the non-kosher sideline was begun in September 2010 in conjunction with a high-end event-planning company, Pat Glenn Productions.
Munzing declined to characterize the nature of the investigation except to say that prosecutors are exploring “possible criminal activity.”
Included in the court suit was an affidavit from Pat Casarona, a co-founder of Pat Glenn Productions, who stated that Scott Morrell, president of the company that bears his name, “explained that the non-kosher food required for events produced by Pat Glenn could be prepared discreetly in the kitchen of Temple Beth Torah, which as a Reform synagogue did not impose the same stringent rabbinical supervision as Morrell Caterers’ other synagogue venues in Woodbury and Lawrence.”
Casarona added that Morrell brushed aside suggestions that a separate kitchen be used for the non-kosher operation “until it could be determined whether the venture was becoming sufficiently profitable to make investing in a separate facility cost-effective. Mr. Morrell did express great concern during these meetings that, as he put it, ‘there can be no way to trace it back to me.’”
At a press conference last week, Morrell angrily denied the allegations, saying: “I stand here with my integrity intact. I never broke any kosher rules, ever.”
Asked specifically about the allegations, Morrell, with his mother, RoseLee, standing behind him, said: “I have no knowledge of that.”
Morrell’s lawyers, Steven Schlesinger and Ronald Rosenberg, claimed the former employees had threatened to file this suit unless Morrell dropped a $500,000 suit against his former lawyer stemming from a failed overseas investment. Morrell refused to drop that suit, and he and his mother then filed a multimillion-dollar suit against the two former employees, Thomas Cataldo, the former general manager, and Michael Savitsky, the former executive chef. Morrell claims his former lawyer paid the two men to make the allegations; both men deny that.
Schlesinger said that in the wake of news stories about the lawsuit, two customers sent letters to Morrell Caterers asking to cancel their affairs and requesting a refund. But he said Morrell is “now reassuring them … and no one has officially canceled.”
In light of the allegations, the kitchen at Temple Beth Torah is to be thoroughly kashered — brought up to strict kosher standards — by the end of this week, according to Randy Zornberg, the synagogue’s president.
“He [Morrell] claims he is innocent and a victim of blackmail, but my feeling is that kashering the kitchen is not an admission of guilt but something that is needed to prove to everybody that at this point forward it is in compliance with Jewish practices,” he said.
Zornberg said he sent a letter to Morrell on Monday telling him of the need to have an outside organization kasher the kitchen and that the synagogue would select the group to do it. Morrell, he said, would be responsible for the bill.
In addition, Zornberg said he requested that Morrell install security cameras in the kitchen to ensure its integrity. Zornberg said that within hours after the news broke about the civil suit he had received “over 50 phone calls from people who have parties in the near future and in a couple of years.”
Zornberg said also that he was upset with the Vaad Hakashrus of Flatbush for issuing a statement last week attesting to its supervision of the kitchen at the Woodbury Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation in Woodbury, L.I., and claiming no responsibility for Temple Beth Torah and Temple Israel in Lawrence (also Reform), which have separate kosher supervision.
He said he believed the Vaad should have come and kashered his synagogue’s kitchen “to make this right” instead of just distancing themselves from it.
But Rabbi Meir Goldberg of the Vaad Hakashrus of Flatbush said, “There was no action for us to take” because the Vaad is responsible for only the Woodbury Jewish Center. He said he has supervised only three or four parties there in the last four or five years, but has been in Temple Israel of Lawrence more frequently.
The president of Temple Israel in Lawrence, Jim Rotenberg, said his congregation is relying on its contract with Morrell to provide kosher food.
“These are purely allegations,” he said. “None of them have been proven or shown, and we hope an investigation will exonerate Morrell. We do not supervise the catering facility; we rely on experts to tell us what is going on. At this point we assume he is living up to his contract and we will live up to our contract. It would be unfair to take any action based purely on allegations … otherwise we would be in breach of our contract.”
Rotenberg said he has received calls from some congregants who have booked affairs with Morrell and “are concerned that we are not locking him out. But we have a contract with him and are living up to it. … In this litigious society, anybody can claim anything. We don’t know the truth and there is no way for us to find out,” pending resolution of the investigation.
Leslie Martin, Temple Israel’s vice president, said the congregation “intends to do the right thing” and would not do anything “that would tarnish our reputation.”
Morrell Caterers has its offices at the Woodbury Jewish Center, where it operates a glatt kosher catering facility whose kosher supervision is provided by the Vaad Hakashrus of Flatbush. Rabbi Raphael Adler, the congregation’s spiritual leader, called the allegations “troubling, of great concern and deeply offensive.”
“We have been flooded with calls from families that have booked parties,” he said. “There is angst and concern from families, who are paying top dollar [for a party]. These allegations have shaken the trust of myself, my congregation and the greater community because hundreds of thousands of people have patronized [this caterer] expecting the highest level of kashrut. We hope these allegations will be proven false.”
In the meantime, Rabbi Adler said, synagogue leaders have “been in close consultation with our legal counsel.”
At the press conference, Morrell said he would “consult with my rabbinical supervisor” to decide what to do about the silverware, pots, dishes and cooking utensils that were allegedly used for both kosher and non-kosher affairs.
“I regard kosher supervision with the highest priority,” Morrell said.
The kosher supervisor, Rabbi Steven Moss, said he was “surprised” to learn of the allegations because “to the best of my knowledge everything they used for parties booked at Temple Beth Torah was used only for kosher items. I will look into this as soon as I can.”
Rabbi Moss, spiritual leader of B’nai Israel Reform Temple in Oakdale, L.I., stressed that he made regular inspections of the kitchens of Temple Beth Torah and Temple Israel in Lawrence, L.I., but was not employed to be there full time.
Rabbi Marc Gellman, spiritual leader of Temple Beth Torah, told The Jewish Week: “If these allegations are true, it is a violation not only of the legal trust but also of a sacred trust.”
Rosenberg, Morrell’s lawyer, insisted that Morrell never directed his staff to prepare non-kosher food in the kitchen of Temple Beth Torah. He said photos that Cataldo and Savitsky took of shrimp and other non-kosher food in the kitchen were “fabricated.”
And Rosenberg questioned why it took so long for the two men to come forward.
“Why did they find God now?” he asked. “There are some orders you don’t follow.”
Both Cataldo and Savitsky said they had complied with Morrell’s orders because they feared for their livelihood.
“He told me in no uncertain terms that this would continue,” Cataldo said, of Morrell’s response to his protests.
Cataldo said that food for between 25 and 30 non-kosher parties costing at least $200,000 were prepared in the Temple Beth Torah kitchen. He said that although the bills were processed through Morrell Caterers, they were concealed from the synagogue to avoid paying the synagogue’s fee.
Savitsky said he recalled that on at least one occasion his staff was preparing both kosher and non-kosher food in the kitchen at the same time.
The two said they acted to blow the whistle now because they could no longer stand the “guilt” of what they were doing.
“I finally decided I couldn’t do it anymore,” Savitsky said, who came to the press conference wearing a white chef’s shirt. “I just finally gave up.”
He added that he and Cataldo had each owned a 5 percent share of the business. And in a court affidavit he said Morrell Caterers “has no cash, is struggling to make payroll” and owes a key supplier more than $250,000.
Cataldo said that although all of the non-kosher food preparation was done at Temple Beth Torah, utensils, pots and pans, plates, glassware, display pieces and other items were routinely taken to Temple Israel in Lawrence for use there.
“A white platter that was used to pass kosher hors d’oeuvres was also used to pass coconut shrimp,” he said. “And sometimes we would bring food back and forth.”