Incidental Victims of Abramoff's Largess

By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Observers of the political scene got a good chuckle out of this month's spasm of charitable giving by politicians scrambling to unload campaign contributions from Jack Abramoff.

Teachers at the Jewish boys school founded and funded by the notorious lobbyist saw that sudden transfer of hundreds of thousands of dollars and said, Hey, what about us?

As Abramoff's house of corruption started to collapse in 2004, he suddenly shut down Eshkol Academy, which opened in Montgomery County in 2002 and ended up housed in a warehouse zone in Columbia. A few weeks before the end of the school year, the students were sent home, and the faculty was cut loose.

None of the teachers received their last few paychecks. According to a lawsuit 13 ex-Eshkol employees have filed against Abramoff and his wife, the teachers lost about a quarter of their salaries. So their lawyers, Jim Rubin and Mindy Farber, this month wrote to Gov. Bob Ehrlich asking that he pay the teachers himself. After all, the governor got $16,000 in contributions from Abramoff. After the lobbyist pleaded guilty to a slew of corruption charges, Ehrlich announced that he would give the tainted money to the Helping Up Mission in Baltimore.

The Eshkol teachers had a better idea. Why not "give the money to the Marylanders most directly affected by Mr. Abramoff's fraud?" Rubin wrote to Ehrlich.

There's been no response, but as it turned out, state lawyers informed the governor that campaign finance laws wouldn't allow a charitable donation of the money, so Ehrlich sent it back to Abramoff.

Which leaves the Eshkol teachers exactly where they were -- high and dry.

Eshkol "was a noble idea," says Joe Sweeney, who taught English at the school. "Very few people are altogether corrupt. Jack Abramoff had this notion of a new model for an Orthodox Jewish school: the best secular education, the best Judaic studies and sports."

But the school was utterly dependent on the money Abramoff channeled to it. The cash came in fits and starts, often meeting payroll at the eleventh hour, in the form of mysterious payments from the Capital Athletic Foundation, another Abramoff creation.

"Our school was essentially an extension of Jack Abramoff," says Sam Whitehill, who taught Hebrew at Eshkol. "When he left, the school died. He was the benefactor, 'Mr. Abramoff.' When he came by, we all groveled."

Eshkol charged about $12,000 in tuition, but many of its students were on scholarships. The school was heavily dependent on the foundation, which collected money from Indian tribes Abramoff represented and passed along more than $2 million to Eshkol. In e-mails to colleagues, Abramoff referred to Eshkol as "our front group."

But Eshkol was also a school good enough for Abramoff to send his two sons to and good enough to attract students from Orthodox communities in Silver Spring, Baltimore, New York and Montreal.

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