- Associated Press - Thursday, August 7, 2014

NEW YORK (AP) - An anti-caffeine activist pleaded guilty Thursday in a scheme to make court-ordered community service as easy as taking an online quiz.

Marina Kushner and the Caffeine Awareness Association, a group she founded, each pleaded guilty to a false-filing felony. Kushner’s promised sentence includes a $5,000 fine - and 300 hours of legitimate community service.

“A community service sentence is a public and personal responsibility,” Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said last week in unveiling the case. Kushner’s lawyer, Peter Schaffer, declined to comment Thursday.

Kushner, 47, was arrested recently in Delray Beach, Florida. While Manhattan prosecutors became suspicious after a local defendant filed a letter from the caffeine association to satisfy a community service sentence, questions also had arisen in Washington state and Oregon about a “fast community service” website linked to the group.

Kushner has written various anti-caffeine e-books, and the Seattle-based association’s website echoes her message. The federal Food and Drug Administration advises being aware of how much caffeine one consumes through both beverages and food, but the agency notes that studies suggest moderate amounts of caffeine aren’t harmful.

The Caffeine Awareness Association’s website also links to a page titled “quick community service.” On Thursday, it had a message saying it was down “due to some technical issues.”

The association offered letters certifying community service completion, charging fees based on the number of hours needed and requiring customers merely to take the online test, not pass it, prosecutors said. They said an online payment-processing account associated with the caffeine group and its websites received more than $200,000 over a period of several years.

Customers were told to buy e-books about caffeine, study the texts at their own pace and then answer multiple-choice questions, according to Washington and Oregon news reports from 2012 and 2013.

The arrangement raised eyebrows among authorities in the Seattle area and in Portland, where a judge called the community-service caffeine quiz a “scam” and refused to accept it as community service in a June 2013 case. The Multnomah County district attorney’s office advised its prosecutors to look out for other defendants trying to use the group to satisfy service requirements but hasn’t seen one since, First Assistant DA Jeff Howes said Thursday.

Aware that New York prosecutors were looking into the group, the Portland prosecutors didn’t pursue an investigation of their own, he said.

As part of the New York plea agreement, the Caffeine Awareness Association will disband.


Reach Jennifer Peltz on Twitter @ jennpeltz.

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