Coroner office duo in 9/11 con

Accused of taking millions in FEMA aid

New York Daily News | December 9, 2005
By Thomas Zambito

Two former top-ranking members of the city medical examiner's office siphoned off millions of federal dollars that flowed into the office after the Sept. 11 attacks, sending at least $5.5 million to overseas accounts as they staged their getaway, federal prosecutors said.
Fearing they were about to flee to India, investigators stepped up the duo's arrest date, snatching them off a Queens street Wednesday with luggage in their hands. 

Natarajan (Raju) Venkataram, 41, and his girlfriend, Rosa Abreu, 38, were charged with a scheme to embezzle more than $10 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency cash meant for a computer system that analyzes DNA and was used after the attacks to identify thousands of bodies.

"After the tragedy of Sept. 11, their greed was unbridled," said Rose Gill Hearn, commissioner of the city Department of Investigation, whose investigators led the probe. "These defendants breached their positions of trust and responsibility and took advantage of a national tragedy."

The scheme's ultimate result mirrors the findings of an ongoing Daily News series probing what happened to the $21.4 billion in 9/11 federal disaster recovery aid: Too little of the money went where it was supposed to.

At least in this case, authorities say the scheme didn't slow the medical examiner's identification process. 

Venkataram, who headed the office's computer systems department for 13 years, resigned after learning of the probe in August. Abreu, director of records, quit about the same time.

Following Sept. 11, the duo steered an $11.4 million contract to Comprehensive Computer Resources, controlled by a close associate of Venkataram, who's been cooperating with investigators in an effort to lessen his punishment.

While Comprehensive Computer Resources did work for the medical examiner, city officials determined it could have been done for a fraction of the cost, and have vowed to recover the millions lost. 

Money was transferred out of Comprehensive Computer Resources accounts by Venkataram with blank checks signed by a Venkataram associate at the company. Some $400,000 was deposited in the account of a shell company controlled by Abreu's stepmother and another $86,000 to a company controlled by Venkataram's roommate, authorities say.

Venkataram's attorney, Mark Potashnick, told a judge at a bail hearing this week that he had documents that would show that higher-ups in the medical examiner's office had signed off on the contracts he's been accused of plundering.

Venkataram was allowed to go free on $1 million bail secured with $450,000 in cash. Abreu is being held pending a hearing.