WASHINGTON – Business competitor computers have been hacked. Doctors were bribed to get referrals for their nursing homes.
Another fled the country while on trial for his role in a scam in which an insurance company withdrew $ 450 million, which led to its collapse. Yet another ran a Ponzi program that brought a synagogue into foreclosure.
Everyone won grace from President Donald J. Trump.
They also had something in common, according to a New York Times investigation. Efforts to bring mercy to these affluent or well-connected people have benefited from their social, political, or financial ties with a loose collection of lawyers, lobbyists, activists, and Orthodox Jewish leaders who collaborated with representatives of the Trump administration on the criminal justice code it advocated Jared Kushner had worked together.
This network revolved around two influential Jewish organizations dealing with criminal justice issues – the Aleph Institute and the Tzedek Association – and well-connected people working with them, including attorney Alan M. Dershowitz, Brett Tolman, a former US – Attorney for Utah and Nick Muzin, a Republican agent.
The combination of access, influence and in-depth expertise produced remarkable results.
Of the total of 238 pardons and commutations that Mr Trump granted during his tenure, 27 went to people supported by Aleph, Tzedek and the lawyers and lobbyists who worked with them. At least six of those 27 went to people who were denied clemency during the Justice Department’s official process during the Obama administration.
Over the years, at least four of the beneficiaries or their families had donated to Aleph. Others or their allies and family members had people like Mr Dershowitz, who represented Mr Trump in his first impeachment trial, Mr Tolman and Mr Muzin to discuss their cases before the Trump administration, often in parallel with Aleph and Tzedek, following public records and interviews .
The groups weren’t the only ones who had success with Mr. Trump. Alice Marie Johnson, a fairer conviction advocate who pardoned her own drug abuse conviction of Mr Trump, was blamed by the White House for sponsoring 13 parole grants, many of which went to drug offenders and African American defendants who received disproportionate prison terms .
While Aleph worked with Ms. Johnson on some mercy cases – including those convicted of nonviolent drug crimes – Aleph, Tzedek, and their allies distinguished themselves for their success in gaining mercy on employees who woke up a harmful trail of fraud . The majority of those who obtained mercy with her help had been convicted of financial crimes.
It was a new chapter especially for Aleph, who has long worked for people who are in dire straits in the criminal justice system. For years Aleph has appealed for more lenient sentencing rules and urged judges to shorten prison terms in individual cases while providing social and religious services to prisoners and their families. It only started seeking presidential clemencies during the Obama administration – and failed to receive such grants until Mr Trump took office.
The leaders of Aleph, Tzedek, and their allies helped build support for a major revision of federal condemnation laws in 2018, garner bipartisan praise, and bolster their clout in the administration.
Mr. Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, directed the White House overhaul efforts and also helped oversee the clemency process. He had become interested in criminal justice and established connections with members of the loose network of allies on the matter after his father Charles Kushner was sentenced to two years in prison in 2005 for tax evasion, witness manipulation and lying to the federal election commission.
When Charles Kushner, an Aleph donor, received a pardon from Mr Trump in December, the White House cited Mr Tolman’s support for the decision.
While Mr. Obama granted nearly 1,700 more grace grants than Mr. Trump, he mostly selected cases that were conducted as part of a Justice Department process to identify and verify beneficiaries.
The vast majority of Mr. Trump’s pardons and commutations circumvented this process and were instead awarded through an ad hoc system operated by a handful of White House aides with the assistance of outside advisors.
In the world of defense lawyers and mercy seekers, Aleph, Tzedek, and the people who worked by their side were seen as the most effective avenues to mercy, including, for example, Financial crimes typically less supported by criminal justice activists.
A spokesman for Aleph said the group selected candidates based on factors such as humanitarian concerns, clear demonstrations of remorse, and their commitment to addressing what they often see as excessively long sentences.
He admitted that Aleph had accepted donations from people whose clemencies his officials later supported to one degree or another, but said the group did their grace work for free and would not accept donations from people while they were working on their clemencies . In two cases where the White House had credited Aleph with grace grants for people who donated to the group, the spokesman said rabbis in Aleph merely expressed their support for the petition.
These donations made up a tiny fraction of the total budget nearly $ 6.9 million For the twelve months that ended in the fall of 2019, the spokesman added that neither money nor religion played a role in his decisions on grace cases.
Aleph minimized his connection with Tzedek’s grace work, saying it was misleading to describe the organizations as part of a grace network while realizing that grace was only a small part of the group’s work.
“Over 40 years, Aleph has served as a lifeline to more than 30,000 people – the vast majority of whom are indigent – through dozens of programs,” Aleph’s founder Rabbi Sholom D. Lipskar said in a statement.
Moshe Margaretten, an Orthodox rabbi who founded Tzedek, said most of whom he sought mercy were non-violent drug abusers. He cited humanitarian reasons, such as illness and family considerations, to support the successful pardon petitions of two men sentenced to long prison terms for financial crimes.
Activists advocating the condemnation of Forbearance and Forbearance for nonviolent drug offenders have praised Aleph and Tzedek’s efforts. However, some of these activists said the network’s support for wealthy or well-connected scammers exacerbates the inequality that has permeated grace decisions under Mr Trump.
Ari Weisbrot, a New Jersey litigation attorney, said he saw both sides. The humanitarian work Aleph has done in prisons has been overshadowed by advocacy from people like Eliyahu Weinstein, who has been convicted of running a Ponzi program that stole millions of dollars from customers represented by Mr Weisbrot – money it has never been returned.
Aleph asked for forbearance for Mr. Weinstein when he was convicted in 2014. When Mr. Trump commuted Mr. Weinstein’s 24 years imprisonment in JanuaryThe White House attributed the decision to Mr Tolman, Mr Dershowitz and the Tzedek Association, as well as a number of lawmakers and activists.
“I’ve looked at groups like Aleph in other situations where they have been amazing and incredibly helpful,” said Weisbrot. “But when you move from helping people in need to helping people who have proven themselves helpless, you are no longer a public service, but an instrument that enables wrongdoing.”
A religious mission and powerful patron
The Aleph Institute, which takes its name from the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, was founded in Surfside, Florida, in the early 1980s by Rabbi Lipskar, a supporter of the Chabad-Lubavitch group of Hasidic Jews, on the instructions of the movement’s then leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
Rabbi Schneerson taught that imprisonment is inhumanand worse than death in some ways because it robbed prisoners of their ability to contribute to society, despite recognizing the need to imprison people who were dangerous to others.
Aleph has worked for years to limit prison terms in certain cases.
Some of this work has been criticized by crime victims, legal experts and some prosecutors.
Aleph urged a judge Sheldon Silver, the disgraced former chairman of the New York State Assembly and one of the most prominent Orthodox elected officials in the country, imposed an intensive program of “public service rehabilitation” in lieu of a long prison sentence on allegations of corruption following Mr. Silver’s conviction.
Rabbi Margaretten of the Tzedek Association later became one of the influential figures urging Mr. Trump to pardon Mr. Silver; Mr Trump abandoned plans to do so after reporting from The Times.
Over the years, Aleph also built a strong network of prominent supporters and allies in the legal community. The website contains testimonials from the former F.B.I. Director Louis Freeh and former Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey – both supported the group’s appeals for clemency.
One of the country’s best-known criminal defense lawyers, Mr Dershowitz began volunteering his legal services for the group in the 1980s, he said. When Mr Dershowitz turned 80 in 2018, Aleph honored him with a star-studded dinner party in Manhattan.
Dinner was hosted by Harry Adjmi, a wealthy real estate investor. His brother Alex Adjmi, convicted of money laundering for a Colombian drug cartel in the 1990s, was pardoned by Mr Trump in January. Aleph said it did not press for Mr. Adjmi’s apology. Harry Adjmi declined to comment.
“Virtually every clergy I’ve dealt with, I’ve had contact with Aleph,” said Dershowitz.
Mr Dershowitz also began working with the Tzedek Association in the final weeks of Mr Trump’s presidency. While searching for clemencies under multiple presidents, Mr Dershowitz had more success under Mr Trump than any previous president combined.
The Kushner connection
The Kushner family had long-standing personal connections to the network and the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. Inspired by his father’s case, Jared Kushner became a proponent of the overhaul of convictions. supposed to donate lobbying Rabbi Margaretten to amend federal penal laws after meeting with him in 2012.
Rabbi Margaretten later founded the Tzedek Association and kept Mr. Dershowitz, Mr. Muzin and Mr. Tolman as lobbyists. (Mr. Tolman also stood up for Aleph, who paid him $ 50,000 last year.)
The Kushner family charitable foundation, of which Mr. Kushner was a director, donated more than $ 188,000 to Aleph from 2004 to the end of 2017 VAT returns. The foundation also donated more than $ 254,000 – mostly for the benefit of those in need – to the Shul of Bal Harbor, Rabbi Lipskar’s synagogue in Surfside, which shares an address with the Aleph Institute.
When Mr. Kushner joined the White House, he went to work to revise federal penal laws.
The effort offered Aleph and his like-minded allies a double chance. They could advance a long-standing legislative priority while also leveraging their access to White House officials for individual pardons and commutations.
One of Mr Trump’s first commutations in December 2017 went to Sholom Rubashkin, who was convicted of bank fraud in 2009 after hundreds of undocumented immigrants were arrested in a raid on the meat packaging facility he oversees the previous year.
While Obama’s Justice Department had denied Mr Rubashkin’s pardon, Mr Kushner advised Mr Trump to commute his sentence, according to a former White House official, and Mr Dershowitz stood up personally on Mr Trump’s case, which had also been on for years championed by Aleph and Rabbi Margaretten, among others.
Mr Dershowitz said officials from the White House Attorney’s Office told him they held Aleph in high esteem and took his pardon requests seriously. Therefore “Aleph probably received more commutations than others”.
Rabbi Margaretten hired Mr. Muzin, a former advisor to Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, to demand “mercy for individual prisoners” and changes to the criminal law Lobbying submissions. (Mr. Muzin would state that he received USD 110,000 for the work in 2019 and 2020.)
Mr. Muzin arranged a call to Mr. Dershowitz, Jewish leaders in Texas and others, to support the White House overhaul of Mr. Cruz, a major republican holdout. He stood up for the bill known as the First Step Act, which was signed into law by Mr Trump in late 2018 resulted in the release of thousands of non-violent drug offendersas well as some White collar criminals supported by the network.
At next year’s Hanukkah Party in the White House, Mr. Trump urged Rabbi Margaretten to light the menorah and credited him and an Aleph official, Rabbi Zvi Boyarsky, with assistance in passing the laws.
Mr. Muzin, who worked on behalf of Rabbi Margaretten, and Mr. Dershowitz also pushed for the release of another prisoner, Sholam Weiss, who was convicted in 2000 of withdrawing $ 450 million from an insurance company, leading to his collapse. Mr Weiss spent more than a year on the run before he was arrested in Austria and extradited to the United States to serve an 845-year prison sentence.
“The case had been debated in the White House for years and was a key priority for criminal justice advocacy groups, but it had met resistance and did not move,” Muzin said. He took the request to the White House Chief of Staff, Mark Meadows.
After the remaining hours of his tenure, Mr Trump commuted Mr Weiss’s sentence, and when Mr Weiss was released after 18 years in prison, he was greeted by Rabbi Margaretten.
A dark intervention
On the same day, Mr. Trump also reversed the judgment of Mr. Weinstein, the New Jersey man who stole more than $ 200 million costly real estate fraud. While the White House official announcement credited Mr. Tolman, Mr. Dershowitz, Tzedek, and others, Mr. Weinstein also had behind-the-scenes support from players whose motives were less clear.
Most of Mr. Weinstein’s victims were fellow Orthodox Jews whose traditions of mutual trust and handshake he took advantage of. He paid virtually no refund to his victims and maintained his innocence until shortly before his conviction.
Even so, Rabbi Lipskar, Aleph’s founder, spoke for Mr. Weinstein when he was convicted in 2014 and suggested a five-year sentence of house arrest.
“For some people, house arrest is sometimes worse than prison,” said Lipskar. A judge disagreed Mr. Weinstein was sentenced to more than 20 years.
Mr. Weinstein had years to serve when Barry Wachsler, a Long Island businessman, paid Mr. Muzin and a colleague at least $ 75,000 to lobby the Trump administration for his release. Mr Wachsler said that after meeting Mr Weinstein during visits to the prison where Mr Weinstein was serving, he was outraged by what he saw as the unfair treatment of Mr Weinstein.
Mr Wachsler said he had become part of a broad group of supporters who stood up for Mr Weinstein but said he did not want to name others without permission.
“Together people put the money together and it was paid for,” he said.
But Mr. Wachsler admitted that one of the helpers was a Long Island friend of his named Yitz Grossman, a businessman with his own record of fraud convictions. Late last year, Mr. Grossman began reaching out to Mr. Weinstein’s victims to see if they would consider writing letters to support his pardon.
Ruth Brandt, a Los Angeles philanthropist who lost $ 1 million to Mr. Weinstein, said Mr. Grossman presented himself as someone who had served with Mr. Weinstein in prison and believed his long sentence to be unjust.
When Ms. Brandt signed a letter in support of Mr. Weinstein’s pardon, she said that Mr. Grossman told her Mr. Weinstein’s supporters would see to it that she was paid $ 100,000. Ms. Brandt finally refused the offer.
“I said,” Why are you helping him? “, Mrs. Brandt recalled.
Ms. Brandt was later outraged to learn – from coverage by The Times – that Mr. Dershowitz was also involved in efforts to help Mr. Weinstein obtain grace. She emailed him in January to complain.
Mr Dershowitz defended his work, according to emails from the Times, saying that he had been asked to help Mr Weinstein and that “in Europe and Israel his sentence would have been five years.”
Mr. Grossman also reached out to Harvey Wolinetz, a developer in New Jersey and Florida from whom Mr. Weinstein had stolen approximately $ 70 million. Mr Grossman described himself as someone who works with the Aleph Institute and suggested making a six-figure refund if Mr Wolinetz endorsed the grace, according to two people who were informed of the discussion and asked for anonymity because they did not were empowered to discuss the matter publicly.
Mr. Wolinetz agreed to write a letter to Mr. Trump. In an interview, 78-year-old Wolinetz said that Mr. Grossman had never raised a certain dollar figure, but hoped that with Mr. Weinstein free, “maybe there will be some compensation for me later.”
Mr. Grossman, who received assistance from Aleph during his incarceration, denied that he referred to himself as a representative of Aleph or offered any money in exchange for the letter. The Aleph spokesman said the group was not involved in Mr. Weinstein’s seek for grace.
“I definitely told people that if someone was in the system you wouldn’t have a shot,” Grossman said. “Can a person who is incarcerated make a refund?”
The role of donations
In some cases, the financial links between grace recipients and the network have been direct.
After Philip Esformes was indicted by prosecutors in what the Justice Department named the largest healthcare fraud case in 2016, his father, himself a rabbi, donated $ 65,000 to the Aleph Institute over several years. The father, who also made small donations to the Shul of Bal Harbor, said during the sentencing of his son in 2019 that he would make additional contributions to a mental health organization that Aleph wanted to work with and where Mr Esformes’ lawyers suggested doing community service instead of a long prison term.
The Aleph spokesman said donations to the group ended before they pressed for his son’s mercy. Mr. Trump reversed Mr. Esformes’ judgment just before Christmas.
After Ariel Friedler was released from a two-month prison term in 2014 Hack conspiracy In computer systems from competitors of his educational software company, he made donations to the Shul of Bal Harbor for scholarships and the needy. He also donated to the Aleph Institute and volunteered his time and software management expertise.
An Aleph official wrote to the Florida Bar Association in 2017 To restore Mr. Friedler’s legal license, he stated that Mr. Friedler had recommended changes that would have allowed the organization to grow exponentially and later wrote a letter to the White House supporting a pardon for him. When the pardon came in February 2020, White House officials credit Aleph.
Kenneth P. Vogel reported from Washington and Nicholas Confessore from New York. Alain Delaquérière contributed to the research.