NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — They’re accused of laundering millions of dollars through international networks that reach back to Israel, yet several of the defendants in New Jersey’s largest corruption sting have been allowed to travel back and forth to that country since their arrests.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office has sought to block the trips, telling a judge the defendants are extreme flight risks. But experts say post-arrest travel is often allowed, as courts recognize that bail conditions shouldn’t interfere with defendants’ livelihood.
Among the 44 defendants arrested last year were five rabbis from New York and New Jersey — including the chief rabbi for the Syrian Jewish community in the United States — and several other Orthodox Jewish defendants. They were caught up in a two-track federal investigation into international money laundering and political corruption.
Since their arrests in July 2009, at least four of the defendants have traveled to Israel, some making several trips. At least two defendants traveled after pleading guilty to corruption charges but before being sentenced.
Defendant Rabbi Eliahu Ben-Haim, the former leader of the synagogue Congregation Ohel Yaacob in Deal, N.J., who was placed under electronically monitored house arrest, asked to travel to Israel in May to perform a bris on his newborn grandson. The courts denied his request.
Ben-Haim, who federal prosecutors have accused of laundering about $1.5 million through religious charities, pleaded guilty in June to a money laundering conspiracy charge. Four months later, the courts granted his request to go to Israel to officiate at his cousin’s wedding, requiring him to sign a waiver of extradition, and increasing his bail collateral.
Prosecutors opposed the requests both times, saying in part; “Contrary to his assertions, defendant Ben-Haim remains a serious flight risk,” and still had “significant ties to Israel” and links to “a powerful international money laundering network with vast financial resources.”
“He (Ben-Haim) is imminently facing serious penalties for his extensive criminal conduct,” prosecutors said in their court filing. “He already has demonstrated a clear willingness to deceive authorities if he deems a matter to be in his own self-interest.”
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s office declined to comment beyond what was in the court filings, citing the ongoing nature of the cases.
Ben-Haim’s attorney, Lawrence S. Lustberg, said his client had shown responsibility by pleading guilty, had met all the court’s requirements, and had returned from Israel as promised. He said it wasn’t unusual for courts to permit defendants to travel overseas. The frequency of travel may seem more pronounced in this case because several of the defendants have ties to Israel, he said.
“Going back and forth to Israel is really kind of part of the landscape for this community,” Lustberg said, adding it’s not uncommon for judges to grant modifications of restrictions imposed at the outset of a case.
“There’s a general rule of thumb that as much as possible, bail conditions should not interfere with a person’s ability to pursue their livelihood,” Lustberg said.
In court filings, Lustberg argued for several modifications to Ben-Haim’s restrictions, such as allowing him greater flexibility during religious holidays.
“Respectfully, the need to protect the sanctity of Rabbi Ben-Haim’s relationship with those whom he serves as a rabbi clearly outweighs the necessity for the conditions that have been currently placed upon him,” Lustberg said in his filing.
Other defendants who have traveled to Israel since their arrests told the court they had to perform religious services, attend family weddings or visit ailing relatives.
Edmond Nahum, a principal rabbi of the Deal Synagogue, has traveled to Israel three times since his arrest on money laundering charges. He also was allowed to visit Florida after asking the court for permission to administer to his congregants who spend winters there.
His attorney, Justin Walder, emphasized that his client had not been indicted, had only traveled to Israel to visit his elderly, ailing father, and had returned each time in full compliance with the court’s conditions. He said Nahum did not pose a flight risk because his children had remained in the U.S. with relatives while he was overseas.
“In general, the federal side requires an individual to stay within the jurisdiction of the court,” Walder said. “But it’s not uncommon for individuals to have reasons to travel, such as family reasons, and I would think it’s not uncommon for people to travel when they have roots here.”
The two seemingly disparate tracks in the federal case — money laundering networks alleged run by members of an insular religious community, and officials from several New Jersey towns who were arrested on corruption charges — are tied together by one man: Solomon Dwek — the government’s key cooperating witness.
Dwek, the son of a prominent rabbi from Deal, N.J., agreed to wear a wire for federal authorities after pleading guilty to a $50 million bank fraud. Alternately posing as a businessman and a corrupt real estate developer, Dwek ensnared several members of his Syrian Jewish community on money laundering charges before branching out to New Jersey officials in what prosecutors say was a cash-for-development assistance scheme.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)