The only thing better than a nice, juicy sex scandal is a nice, juicy corruption scandal. Bibi Netanyahu has already had his very own sex scandal. But it didn’t manage to wreck his career or his marriage. The brewing corruption scandal threatens to do at least one, if not the other.
I reported yesterday on an investigation that has caught up Netanyahu, his son, Yair, possibly his wife, Sara, and his former chief of staff Ari Harow. Since a portion of the budding scandal involves corrupt dealings regarding the Netanyahu home in the exclusive Caesarea neighborhood (once home as well to the Israelite king, Herod), Israelis have taken to calling them the “Caesarea Gang.” That seems apt.
Today, a Channel 2 news report snares a new player in the scandal, Shlomo Rechnitz. There’s a baseball saying: you can’t tell the players without a scorecard. As this criminal probe expands, I’ll try to keep the players clearly identified and offer some background.
Rechnitz comes from a wealthy, extended ultra-Orthodox family based in California. The scion of the family and Shlomo’s uncle, is Robert Rechnitz, a real estate investor who founded the Bomel Companies and an Israeli subsidiary, Bomel Israel. He has been vice chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition and founded a Congressional lobbying group on behalf of Israel’s Iron Dome anti-rocket system (or should I say, “racket system?) the Iron Dome Tribute. He even developed a branding slogan: “the Humane Defensive Weapon.” I always thought the words “humane” and “weapon” were oxymorons. But not in the topsy-turvy world that is pro-Israel advocacy.
I learned all this not from Wikipedia or Rechnitz’s corporate biography, but from the corporate PR firm Rechnitz hired to polish his image, the Friedlander Group. Unfortunately, he didn’t hire them to monitor the reputation of his children and close family members. Because now two of them are in very hot water.
His nephew, Shlomo owns the largest nursing home conglomerate in California: Brius Healthcare Services (brius is the Yiddish version of the word for “health”). The State of California has investigated his firm numerous times for violations of health regulations. He was the subject of a class-action suit. His Pasadena nursing care facility was accused of recruiting felons as patients. Several employees faced criminal charges from that escapade. He complained once to the Sacramento Bee that the charges against him made him out to be “the Charles Manson of the nursing home business.” I’m guessing no one from Friedlander was available to accompany him to this interview. That image really sticks in your mind.
Not to mention the time he announced that his employees, for whom he’d purchased 18,000 Powerball tickets, had won the Powerball jackpot. The NY Times even featured him in a major story. Well, it turns out it wasn’t true. It was all a hoax, supposedly perpetrated by the son of one of the “winning” employees.
Rechnitz is also reported to have bought the anti-Haredi blog, Failed Messiah, written for years by Shmaryahu Rosenberg. Rechnitz and many of his associates had been skewered in its posts for years. Though conditions of the sale were not made public, they apparently bar Rosenberg from creating a new blog; or at least one covering the same subject as his old one. That online property promptly disappeared from the internet. Clearly, the Haredi community had withstood the slings and arrows of outrageous (mis)fortune from Rosenberg’s pen for too long. The tycoon stepped in to end the attacks. Lately, a new iteration of the blog, Lost Messiah, was launched by readers of the old blog who wished to maintain the service it had done to the Orthodox community and the Jewish world.
Rechnitz appears to be playing a lead role in the Scandal of the Day as a major donor to Netanyahu and the Likud. His uncle, Robert, was the western chair of American Friends of the Likud, which would mean he both donated and raised massive sums from Orthodox Jews on behalf of the Israel far-right. As such, the elder Rechnitz would’ve worked closely with Ari Harow, the man in the spotlight of the current scandal. That’s how Shlomo would’ve come to the attention of the Israeli police investigating the money-laundering operation.
I haven’t dug deeply into the background of Victor Deutsch, Harow’s former business partner. But I wouldn’t be surprised if he too is Orthodox and perhaps a close friend of the Rechnitz family. If this guess turns out to be true, Deutsch would have excellent motive to benefit Harow and the Likud by the sort of fraudulent business transaction they’re accused of arranging, in selling the latter’s company for $3-million in largely unaccounted-for funds.
Another Rechnitz facing the glare of bad PR is Jona, Robert’s son and cousin to Shlomo. Jona attended Yeshiva University and was photographed during his student days visiting the Cave of the Patriarch, a venerates settler holy site where Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 Palestinian worshippers.
Jona began his career in real estate working for Lev Leviev’s Africa Israel. Leviev, who began his own career as a blood diamond merchant to the stars, also maintains vast real estate holdings in the U.S., Britain and Israel. His company has also built Israeli settlements. Jona helped manage the Leviev real estate portfolio in New York until they had a falling out. After that, Rechnitz formed his own company, JSR Capital.
Jona and another wealthy Hasidic Jew have been swept up in the bribery and corruption scandal which has rocked the De Blasio administration in New York City. They did favors for the corrupt head of the city prison officers union, Norman Seabrook, and offered gifts and benefits to senior police officers in the precinct where they lived. Among the crooked deals was a $60,000 payment to Seabrook (paid in a $1,000 Ferragamo hand bag) in return for the union boss’ steering $20-million to a Rechnitz associate’s investment fund. Seabrook was miffed as he’d been told he could net $150,000 from the arrangement.
Among other favors were all-expenses paid gambling junkets to Las Vegas on a private jet. Another part of the entertainment provided was a prostitute dressed as a flight attendant whose “services” included far more than providing drinks and snacks.
Presumably, Rechnitz did this so he could gain favorable service response and attention from local police personnel in Brooklyn Orthodox neighborhoods. But he had even bigger ambitions, which led him and his associate made six-figure donations to various DeBlasio political fundraising vehicles once he’d won the Democratic mayoral primary.
Jona lobbied the City Council and succeeded in gaining a $655,000 “discretionary” allocation to underwrite a “cultural sensitivity” police training seminar hosted by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which was Rechnitz’ pet project. Presumably, part of the curriculum was learning sensitivity to the special interests of the Haredi community. You certainly won’t find any sensitivity to the Muslim community in this program.
All of this paints a portrait of a wealthy Haredi family parlaying money into political clout on a local, national and international scale. Unlike other American families in which wealth is wielded within discrete nuclear families, in the Haredi world extended families (clans) unite to pursue objectives that benefit both their families personally and their extended Orthodox communities. It’s certainly cleaner and less deadly than the old Italian mob. But as the Netanyahu investigation shows, it’s no less venal and corrupt.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.