It was a fall from grace that shocked the Poway community.
Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, 58, pleaded guilty on Tuesday to tax and wire fraud charges stemming from an elaborate scheme involving fake "donations" to the Chabad of Poway synagogue that Goldstein led. Prosecutors unveiled that Goldstein -- who was shot in the hand during a deadly attack on his Poway synagogue in 2019 -- had been under federal investigation for years.
For decades, investigators found Goldstein had carried out a scam that disguised charitable contributions for personal gain. But once his plot was uncovered, prosecutors say Goldstein led federal investigators to others who were involved.
“Without question, his cooperation led to this week's five guilty pleas,” said U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer on Tuesday.
NBC 7 Investigates looked into Goldstein’s co-conspirators and found a local dentist, former executives of a grocery store chain and a realtor are among those who helped him. Here’s more about those who were charged, and their connection in the web of conspiracies.
Local pediatric dentist Bruce Baker, 74, pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge tied to filing false tax returns. Prosecutors say Baker had been involved in the “90/10 fraud scheme” from the mid-1980s to 2018.
That scheme carried out like this: if a donor hypothetically made a $100,000 donation to the Chabad of Poway, Goldstein, who controlled the synagogue's finances, would sign a receipt for the supposed donation but in reality, would funnel $90,000 or 90% back to the donor while keeping $10,000 or 10% for himself.
In Baker’s case, prosecutors said he made millions conspiring with Goldstein and described his part in the scheme as “especially complex and intricate.”
Instead of paying Baker back in cash, investigators found Goldstein would make payments on behalf of Baker to his creditors, relatives, or would pay off bills on behalf of his family like tuition payments for Baker’s son to attend dental school.
According to business registration records filed with the state of California, Baker is a licensed dentist who owns, or at one time owned, several office locations in San Diego County, including a gas station, and several commercial and rental properties, as well as investment firms.
Baker faces up to five years in prison.
Bijan Moossazadeh and Yousef Shemirani
Bijan Moossazadeh, 63, and Yousef Shemirani, 74, are former executives of the local Barons Market grocery store chain and Pacific Natural Foods Distributor company out of Poway.
According to prosecutors, both pleaded guilty for their participation in Goldstein’s tax scheme from 2011 to 2016.
In a news release, prosecutors said Moossazadeh, Shemirani, and Goldstein would use coded language when they discussed the donations, referring to cash payments as “Challah,” a delicacy bread in Jewish cuisine.
“The Baker came today and (it) actually (will) be a nice amount of fresh Challah – you can come by today and pick it up” one text from Goldstein read.
Another text from Goldstein read, “The baker came in earlier and has today 22 Challa ready for pickup,” referring to $22,000 in cash.
A representative for the Barons Market grocery store chain told NBC 7 Investigates, “On July 13th, Mr. Shemirani and Mr. Moossazadeh, former officers, pleaded guilty to filing false personal tax returns. They have cooperated with the government in this matter, have accepted complete responsibility for their actions, and have paid the taxes they owed. With respect to the ongoing business, Barons Market will continue its mission to bring organic, natural, and specialty food to our communities.”
Moossazadeh and Shemirani each face a maximum of three years in prison.
Boris Shkoller, 83, is a co-owner of a real estate investment firm called Dali Investments and was also involved with a biotechnology and medical consulting firm called Brivibas Consulting, according to state business licenses.
A federal indictment reveals Shkoller was also involved in the 90/10 tax evasion scheme.
Prosecutors say Shkoller admitted to “donating” $122,000 to the Chabad of Poway from 2015 to 2016 and secretly received 90% back, or more than $109,000. Shkoller would often use Alexander Avergoon, another co-conspirator, as a middle man to make the payments and receive the kickbacks.
Shkoller pleaded guilty to filing false tax returns and faces a maximum of three years in prison.
Prosecutors say former realtor Alexander Avergoon, 44, used shell companies, including a construction company called “Imagination Construction” to create fake invoices for services and repairs at the Chabad of Poway, such as carpet installation, repairs to the synagogue’s HVAC system, and replacing damaged books and other supplies.
Investigators found Avergoon had “recruited at least nine taxpayers who made more than $275,000 in fraudulent “donations” to the Chabad,” according to the indictment.
“They conspired to create fake invoices from Avergoon’s phony construction company… to repair fire damage from the 2007 wildfires - damage that never happened,” U.S. Attorney Brewer said on Tuesday.
Those invoices were submitted to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Cal OES, who then wrote checks to Goldstein.
Upon learning about the investigation into Goldstein, Avergoon fled to Latvia in August 2019 where he was eventually located by law enforcement and extradited back to San Diego to face a long list of criminal charges.
Avergoon, who's in custody now, was also involved in a separate real estate Ponzi scheme where he cheated retired investors out of $12 million dollars, according to the Department of Justice. He faces up to 20 years in prison for wire fraud and an additional 20 years for money laundering.
While the US Attorney's office says Rabbi Goldstein will not likely spend any time in prison, all of his co-conspirators may.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Allen said each of the defendants has also agreed to, “a substantial financial penalty on top of the other criminal penalties that apply in this case, which includes repayment of the taxes that were owed and not paid to the IRS, as well as a substantial fraud penalty and interest owed on that money.”
NBC 7 Investigates contacted all of the co-conspirators involved for comment Wednesday, but they did not respond.