I hope you’ll bear with me in this post. I’m going to tie together some disparate characters ranging from a crooked police chief, to a wonder rabbi, and a mobbed-up Congressman. This will take us geographically from Tel Aviv to New York and Washington DC. I promise it will be a fun, interesting ride.
If you recall the series of posts I’ve been writing about Rep. Michael Grimm and his infamous dirty campaign money, there’s been a new development. Yesterday, the Justice Department charged Diana Durand, a Grimm fundraiser and friend, with violating election laws by creating “straw” donors to Grimm’s 2010 Congressional race. She illegally gave $10,000 above and beyond the $4,800 she was legally entitled to give.
Now, let’s swing back to Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto, the Israeli miracle rabbi, who also played a role in the same Grimm campaign. Pinto and Grimm at one time were friends and the Congressman, due to his background as a former FBI agent, was a paid consultant to the rabbi who offered him security services. Though much about the internal dynamics of their relationship is not known, Pinto appears to have offered Grimm a list of his largest donors. The latter arranged for two Israelis with questionable pasts, Ronn Torossian and Ofer Biton to solicit gifts from these individuals. When they heard the rabbi had asked them to help Rep. Grimm, they ponied up $500,000.
Among other gross violations, they promised non-citizens that their donation would bring help from Grimm in getting a green card. Also, campaign donations from non-citizens are illegal. Finally, the solicitors asked for gifts that exceeded individual campaign limits and told donors they would figure out how to circumvent the limits. Durand’s scheme seems to have been at least one of the ways.
Interestingly, the FBI has not yet charged Grimm with any crime. That is likely because they’ve had trouble till now lining up witnesses. They secured a conviction against Biton for immigration fraud, but he’s refused to testify against Grimm. Israeli media say that Rabbi Pinto is a government witness. But his participation in the case has been hampered by the fact that the Israeli police charged Pinto with bribing a police commander. It would be difficult for the Justice Department to use such a witness at trial since his credibility would be compromised with such a charge hanging over his head.
That may be why the FBI decided to go after a smaller fish like Durand. Perhaps they can pick the lower-hanging fruit which will lead higher up the tree. To do this, they will have to amass a series of convictions of these smaller fry to make up for the lack of bigger fish like Biton or Pinto.
Let’s return to the Israeli part of this saga: after being charged with bribing an Israeli police commander, the rabbi’s circle circulated his version of the story, which noted that his wife had been helping the commander’s wife for years with financial assistance that was wholly unrelated to a bribe.
Israeli reporters like Amir Zohar and publications like News1 reported far more troubling news: that there were wiretaps of Israeli police commanders threatening to harm Pinto if he testified against Grimm. There was even talk of a “former senior minister” (Hebrew) heard making incriminating statements on the tapes.
Zohar reported that it was the FBI who initiated the wiretaps because it was furious with the Israeli justice system for interfering in its case against Grimm. The wiretaps were reportedly passed on to the State prosecutor who investigates police wrongdoing. My question about the wiretap is whether the FBI would wiretap Israeli citizens inside Israeli. In this era of NSA spying, that would seem to open a hornet’s nest that would immensely complicate Israel-U.S. relations.
This may soon be cleared up because Maariv reports that a mysterious ‘interesting’ individual landed in Israel yesterday, who bore tapes and documents that may be those which Amir Zohar spoke of. We shall perhaps find out whether this was an FBI agent or representative of the U.S. government. An Israeli journalist told me a rumor he’d heard identified the figure as Ofer Biton, a former gabbai for Rabbi Pinto and fundraiser for Grimm convicted of immigration fraud. The only reason I doubt this is that first, Biton has refused to cooperate with the FBI investigation of Grimm; and because I doubt Biton would have documents and audiotapes of his own (unless the FBI gave them to him). Intriguingly, Rabbi Pinto himself will be arriving in Israel this weekend. Could there be a dramatic meeting among Pinto, the mystery man with the evidence and State prosecutors seeking to evaluate the evidence and case against Danino and others?
But there is no doubt that Israel’s national police commander, Yochanan Danino, has also become implicated in this investigation. My own Israeli confidential source has confirmed that it is Danino who is the target of the new investigation and his involvement caused the State to seek a gag order to both protect him and prevent Israelis from learning about the case. The new evidence, first brought to the attorney general’s attention by Pinto’s Israeli lawyers, also caused the State to freeze the prosecution of Pinto.
The Israeli police today issued a bizarre, plaintive statement which essentially begged the Israeli media to stop reporting the story. The press release, clearly written at Danino’s behest, warned the media not to besmirch the good name of the entire force. It seemed almost as if Danino resigned himself to the fact that he will be tarnished by the coming scandal.
So the primary questions are: is Danino one of the voices heard on the tapes? And who is the former senior minister also allegedly heard. The second question is especially thorny since I’ve heard rumors, but not been able to substantiate them. Here is my educated guess: the minister is Yaakov Neeman. He was justice minister in 2010 when charges were brought against Pinto. He is also no longer in the cabinet, thus making him a ‘former minister.’ Given the fact that his cabinet portfolio dealt precisely with legal matters, including the Pinto investigation, it makes him a prime candidate.
To test my theory, I called Neeman’s law office and got right through to him. I asked if I could ask him a few questions about the Pinto-Bracha case. His first response was that he doesn’t give interviews since he left government. Then I asked if I could ask him one question. He replied humorously: “You can ask and I won’t answer.” I asked him if he’d read the Maariv story linked above about the “former senior minister.” He professed not to have read it. I told him the article referred to an official who is accused of intervening in the Pinto case. Was was that him? He answered: “You are the first person who has called to ask this question. I have not read the article. I don’t know anything.”
I’d call that a non-response response. If he was not involved he would’ve denied it outright. Of course, this is no smoking gun. But it’s circumstantial evidence that maintains Neeman as one of the most likely suspects.
Let’s return to Danino. Here I’d like to introduce the wife (or “Rebbetzin” in Hebrew) of another Israeli wonder rabbi, Bruriah Z’vuloni. Her husband was ranked 13th on the Forbes list of Israel’s richest rabbis, with assets of $5-million. One of her major roles is as “arbitrator” (if this were The Godfather, she might be called consigliere) of disputes among Israel’s major crime families. Anyone who’s seen a Godfather movie knows that what the mafia often needs is someone who can mediate among rival families before they shoot each other’s brains out. I’m certain she doesn’t do this gratis. Everything comes with a price. After the deal is signed there are certainly good-will donations from all the families involved to the good Rabbi.
Rebbetzin Z’vuloni seems the right woman for the job. First, she’s a woman and hence non-threatening. Second, she’s a Rebbetzin and therefore has the ‘God-Housekeeping’ sign of approval. Third, she’s known and trusted by everyone from the highest to the lowest due to her husband’s sacred stature.
She’s also known to get quite involved in the affairs of her “clients.” She’s even been arrested and accused of interfering in a criminal investigation (of her mob customers).
When I said “highest to lowest” I meant that literally: the typical wonder rabbi’s following ranges from CEOs, to police chiefs, to cabinet ministers, to mafiosi. Imagine the rabbi’s court with hundreds celebrating a Jewish holiday and all seeking his blessing. It’s a mad house, but one the hasidim of such wonder-workers adore.
The Rebbetzin crosses lines. She knows the cops, she knows the mob. And they all love her. In fact, three months before Chief Danino was appointed to his current job and before he was even a candidate, she texted him saying he would be the next Chief. He replied that he wasn’t even a candidate, to which she responded: “Candidate or no, you will be Israel’s next police chief.”
If you are a believer all this seems miraculous and divinely inspired. But if you are like me you wonder whether she knew something or someone who knew something. In fact, you strongly suspect it. Either she knew someone on the good side of the law or the bad who’d determined Danino was their man. And what if it was the mob that wanted and got him? Or a combination of official Israel and the underworld?
I wouldn’t scoff if I were you. Danino and the entire Israeli police force has a sordid reputation. In reporting this story, Haaretz said that Danino’s reign has displayed a “culture of lying and cover-ups to its very roots.” Now, Danino is up to his eyeballs in a scandal that may involve a perversion of justice.
But let’s keep our eye on the prize: while Danino and Neeman are big fish in Israel, Grimm is the one the FBI is after. Imagine, a Congressman who sits in Congress almost a made-man. If not a mafiosi himself, then one studied in the ways of the mob and suffused with connections to it. The Justice Department doesn’t want such people sitting in the U.S. Congress, and for good reason.
But undoubtedly, Grimm is smart. Very smart. He may be so smart that he’s charmed key figures in official Israel (perhaps in the Prime Minister’s residence) who may be going to bat for him. If that is the case, then this becomes a case of international intrigue involving shady political and law enforcement figures on two continents.
I couldn’t help be tickled by Anshel Pfeffer’s over the top tweet on behalf of his Haaretz colleague, who published a new story about Rabbi Pinto today:
— Anshel Pfeffer (@AnshelPfeffer) January 15, 2014
While the story adds some imporant information regarding previous FBI-Israeli police interaction regarding Rabbi Pinto, its author certainly doesn’t “own” the story. Not that Gidi Weitz isn’t an excellent reporter. He just doesn’t own the story, at least in part because he’s bound by a gag order preventing him from reporting important elements of it.
Stay tuned for the next episode: MK Danny Danon and Ronn Torossian’s “beautiful” and lucrative friendship.