Doheny Kosher scandal: What took RCC so long? [UPDATED]

[UPDATE, MARCH 28] Rabbi Yakov Vann, the RCC's director of Kashrut Services, said in an email to The Journal on Thursday that the RCC is reviewing “all aspects of its protocols” and considering “all information relating to what took place at Doheny Meats.” Vann said the RCC will release a full statement on Friday.

[MARCH 27] The Rabbinical Council of California (RCC) abruptly revoked its certification from Doheny Glatt Kosher Meats on March 24, but the RCC, Los Angeles’s leading kosher oversight agency, had first heard about the distributor’s suspicious practices years earlier.

Eric Agaki, an investigator who had been independently monitoring Doheny’s warehouse on Pico Boulevard and another location in the San Fernando Valley for the past six months, told KTLA on Sunday that he had discovered the company was selling meat as Glatt Kosher that had not been certified as such.

In an interview with The Jewish Journal on Wednesday, Agaki said that so far, he could only prove the 53-year-old company had been selling its customers meat that was kosher, but not “glatt kosher,” a higher standard.

But Agaki said that he doubted the meat allegedly repackaged and sold by Doheny was kosher by any standard.

“We think that they were packed with treyf, just regular meat,” Agaki said.

Agaki captured video and physical evidence that he said showed Doheny’s owner was reusing boxes from Agri Star Meat and Poultry, a glatt kosher meat processor, packing them with non-glatt kosher-certified meat, and then resealing them with fraudulent tape and labels that said “Aaron’s Best,” an Agri Star brand.

The investigator’s findings were first reported by KTLA on March 24, the day the RCC revoked Doheny’s certification. But Daryl Schwartz, the owner of Kosher Club, a retailer and distributor of kosher meats that closed its doors on Pico in 2011 after more than 20 years in business, told The Journal that he had known years earlier about everything Agaki later found.

Schwartz also said that, as early as 2010, he reported seeing the empty boxes, fraudulent labels and fraudulent tape to Rabbi Nissim Davidi, the RCC’s kashrut administrator.

“It was numerous times over the years,” Schwartz said.

Schwartz said he got the same response each time.

“He [Davidi] said, ‘I’ll look into it,’” Schwartz said.

Whether Davidi or anyone in the RCC investigated the suspicious practices Doheny is not yet known.

The RCC’s office is closed until April 4, when Passover ends; attempts to reach multiple RCC staff members by phone and email on Wednesday evening after sundown were unsuccessful.

Doheny’s owner, Michael Engelman, has owned and operated a retail shop in the neighborhood of Pico-Robertson “for over 30 years,” according to the company’s Web site. Everything about that store, from its white enamel refrigerated display case to the white butcher paper in which cuts of meat came wrapped, lent Doheny an upscale ambience absent from other glatt kosher butchers in the neighborhood.

That feeling, coupled with the belief that the meat sold by Doheny was both kosher and organic, may have helped retail customers justify paying Engelman’s premium prices, and helped Doheny become the premier retailer to kosher consumers in this densely populated Jewish neighborhood.

All of that changed on the evening of Sunday March 24 when the RCC, and many Orthodox synagogues in the neighborhood, sent out emails announcing that the RCC had, as of 3 p.m. that day, “removed its kosher supervision, for cause, from Doheny Kosher Meats.”

“The community Rabbis,” the email continued, “upon consultation with a nationally recognized halachic authority, have determined that any meat and poultry purchased at Doheny Kosher Meats through today (until 3pm), is permitted to be eaten and can be enjoyed on Yom Tov.”

Doheny’s retail sales were only part of Engelman’s business. As one of just a handful of distributors of kosher meat in Los Angeles, Doheny’s list of commercial clients stretched from the city to the Valley and reportedly included caterers who worked in the area’s finest hotels, high-end long-term residential facilities as well as other kosher-certified retailers.

“When I shut down the Kosher Club,” Schwartz said, “Doheny started selling to the Beverly Hilton.”

“From me, they [the Beverly Hilton] were buying Rubashkin,” Schwartz continued, referring to the former owners of the glatt kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, which was shut down following an immigration raid in 2008. “From Doheny,” Schwartz said, “your guess is as good as mine.”

Hershey Friedman, the CEO of Agri Star, which now owns and operates the Postville plant, told YeshivaWorldNews in a statement on Monday that the allegations against Doheny were “very disturbing and inexcusable.”

“Agristar had no knowledge of this alleged misuse of its labels, and should these allegations prove to be true, Agristar will discontinue any further relationship with this customer,” Friedman’s statement continued.

“Agristar prides itself in its relentless pursuit of the highest standards of kashrus,” Friedman’s statement continued, “and will use all means at its disposal to prevent a reoccurrence of this unfortunate and illegal behavior.”

Among his findings, Agaki said, are about “5,000 stickers,” labeling the contents as produced and packed by Agri Star. Agaki said he obtained those stickers on Sunday from a relative of Engelman’s outside a non-RCC certified meat distributor located in Reseda.

Agaki also said he obtained the printing plates used to make those fraudulent labels from that same individual.

Whether Engelman and Doheny in fact did anything illegal remains to be seen. An employee at Doheny’s retail shop told The Journal on Monday that Engelman would speak to the allegations after the Passover holiday. Agaki, meanwhile, said that he had conveyed his findings to the United States Department of Agriculture.

The evidence uncovered by Agaki’s investigation appears to have led the RCC to revoke Doheny’s certification, but according to the 41-year-old, Israeli-born private investigator, it was conducted without the knowledge or cooperation of the kosher certification agency.

“It’s a mitzvah,” Agaki said, explaining that while he usually charges $125-per-hour for his services, he had spent about 150 hours since August 2012, working on this investigation on an unpaid basis.

“My client,” he added, “is upstairs.”