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Anatomy Of A Pardon
How four New Square felons got their sentences commuted, and what Hillary had to do with it.
By Eric J. Greenberg
The New York Jewish Week
January 29, 2001
NEW YORK Several weeks after her historic victory in New
York's U.S. Senate race, First Lady
Hillary Rodham Clinton attended a meeting at the White House with President
Bill Clinton and the Skverer rebbe --
Rabbi David Twersky, spiritual leader of the scandal-scarred New Square
chasidic sect in Rockland County.
But this was not the first meeting between New York's new junior senator
and the 60-year-old grand rebbe
of the 7,000-member village -- the first incorporated Jewish community in the
Clinton first campaigned there last August. That visit launched a series
of events that last week culminated
in a controversial last-minute clemency action on behalf of New Square by
outgoing President Clinton.
His act came 10 weeks after New Square, breaking with most Orthodox
communities, heartily supported
Clinton's Senate campaign, delivered almost all of the village's votes for
The decision by President Clinton to commute the sentences of four
prominent New Square men who stole
tens of millions from the federal government in a phony yeshiva scheme is
being criticized this week by law
Questions are being raised about whether the first lady unduly
capitalized on her relationship with her
husband, who had the unregulated power to pardon or commute prison sentences.
New Square officials and a spokesman for Senator Clinton emphatically
deny that any ``deal" was made
before the election to deliver votes for her in return for the commutations
of the ``New Square Four." Both say the
subject was never even raised until December.
Clinton said Wednesday she played ``no role whatsoever" in the
commutation. ``I had no opinion about it,"
But some critics don't believe it.
``Just look at the math," said a Republican operative familiar with the
Senate race. ``She gets all of New
Square's votes and two months later she [helps commute the sentences of] four
people from the village."
The New Square commutations came among a blizzard of last-minute pardons
and commutations -- many
controversial -- directed by President Clinton on his last day in office. But
New Square seems to be the only one
connected to his wife's unprecedented race for the Senate.
New Square advocates argue the sentences were too harsh and that the
convicted men did not gain personal
profit from ill-gotten federal money -- a claim disputed by the federal judge
during sentencing. New York law
enforcement officials were irate over the New Square commutations.
Manhattan U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White said they bypassed Justice
Department procedures and did not
give her office enough time to prepare arguments against them.
White's office learned of the New Square commutations on Jan 16 -- four
days before the decision to
pardon -- and was given a one-day deadline to reply. ``We found out about the
New Square virtually at the last
moment," said a law enforcement official.
In contrast to New Square, Clinton also publicly expressed concern about
the Jonathan Pollard case, but no
action was taken to commute Pollard's life sentence for spying on behalf of
Israel (see accompanying story).
On Aug. 8, Clinton visited New Square, about 40 miles north of New York
City. She visited the girls
yeshiva and schmoozed with Rabbi Twersky's wife, Chana. She also had a
private meeting with the rebbe.
At the time, Clinton's campaign was desperately trying to boost stagnant
support for her among the state's
key Jewish voters. Her opponent, former Long Island Republican Rep. Rick
Lazio, seemed to be gaining
For Clinton, it was already clear that New York's Orthodox and chasidic
communities would be a hard sell,
as they were expressing their personal dislike for her and her positions,
particularly regarding Israel. She needed to
show she could win some support in Orthodox circles.
Meanwhile, New Square was coping with a series of scandals in which top
village officials were going to
jail or fleeing the country for swindling tens of millions of dollars in
federal education, housing and small-business
subsidies in a decade-long scam.
One widely publicized case included laundering money through a phony
yeshiva set up in Brooklyn.
Rabbi Twersky desperately wanted to win clemency for the four noted New
Square residents who on Jan.
25, 1999 were convicted of 21 charges including conspiracy, embezzlement, and
wire and mail fraud. Kalmen Stern,
42, was sentenced to 78 months; David Goldstein, 54, of Brooklyn, 70 months;
Jacob Elbaum 40, 57 months; and
Benjamin Berger, 30 months. They were ordered to pay back millions of
(In addition, two others fled the country: New Square founders Chaim
Berger, Benjamin's father, and
Avraham David Friesel, son of Mayor Mattus Friesel. Chaim Berger, who fled to
Israel, is awaiting extradition
pending an Israeli Supreme Court hearing, while Abraham Friesel is still
listed as a fugitive, authorities said.)
``The [prison sentences] were weighing heavily upon the rebbe's soul and
mind," said an Orthodox leader
familiar with Rabbi Twersky.
For Clinton, the Aug. 8 meeting was a like a splash of cool water in the
desert. Unlike more hostile
receptions in Orthodox quarters, New Square welcomed her with warmth,
``The rebbetzin and Hillary got along extremely well," a Democratic
campaign source recalled. ``The rebbe
But spokesmen for Clinton and New Square emphatically state that the
issue of the four imprisoned men
was not brought up then or anytime before Election Day.
``It was raised sometime after the election," Clinton spokesman Howard
Wolfson told The Jewish Week
Tuesday. Asked specifically when, Wolfson said he did not know.
New Square spokesman Rabbi Mayer Schiller also vigorously assured that
the issue was not brought up in
August. But other Rockland County political insiders dispute their claims.
``From day one [the issue of commutation] was part and parcel of the
whole thing," said one source, who
spoke on condition of anonymity. ``[New Square representatives] spelled out
clearly their interest in her helping
those who were incarcerated."
After the August meeting, New Square officials began campaigning for
Clinton, even outside the village,
though Clinton's positions on such core issues as school vouchers, abortion
and Israel were in opposition to New
Community members drove around in cars with loudspeakers urging -- in
Yiddish -- for Rockland County
Orthodox residents to vote for her. A Yiddish weekly endorsed her based on
lobbying from New Square.
``It's not a secret their support was based on the hope that she would
look kindly towards the people that
are incarcerated," said Rabbi Ronnie Greenwald, a prominent Orthodox leader
who lives in nearby Monsey. ``They
really went out and helped her. It was an honest attempt to get votes and get
support for Hillary Clinton."
On Election Day, Clinton carried New Square, 1,400 to 12. It was a
glaring exception to much of the
Orthodox world and New Square's chasidic neighbors, who voted overwhelmingly
``I would say in general that chasidic voting blocs are motivated
greatly by self interest," explained Rabbi
Schiller when asked about the anomaly. ``New Square tends to vote in blocs,
usually based upon personal
relationships developed with politicians."
Six weeks after the election, Rabbi Twersky and New Square Deputy Mayor
Israel Spitzer found
themselves sitting in the White House map room with President Clinton and
Sen.-elect Hillary Clinton. It was the
first time Rabbi Twersky had ever been in the White House, Rabbi Schiller
said. (Rabbi Twersky does not grant
interviews and Spitzer declined to be interviewed directly.)
During a scheduled 15-minute meeting on Dec. 22 that stretched into 45
minutes, according to New Square
officials, Rabbi Twersky raised the issue of seeking mercy for the New Square
four and help for fugitive Chaim
Berger in Israel.
Rabbi Twersky has never publicly commented about the sins of his
community members, and repeatedly
turned down interviews to explain the scandal.
Spitzer related that Rabbi Twersky told the president about ``a dark
cloud" over the community, referring to
the prison sentences. The rabbi then presented a letter to President Clinton
signed by several Jewish organizations
asking for mercy.
``[Clinton] read the letter and said he would look into it," Rabbi
Schiller quoted Spitzer. Rabbi Schiller said
he could not provide a copy of the letter.
Asked to see any photos taken with the rabbi and the Clintons, Rabbi
Schiller denied they existed. But a
former White House spokesman confirmed photos were taken and sent to New
Meanwhile, following the White House session, New Square hired
Washington attorney Samuel Rosenthal
to file the forms necessary to request presidential pardons and commutations
-- actions an outgoing president
traditionally takes in the last weeks of his term.
On Saturday, Clinton commuted the sentences of the New Square four. In
all Clinton pardoned 140 people
and commuted 36 prison sentences.
Perhaps the most controversial was the pardon of fugitive commodities
trader Marc Rich and his former
partner and Flatbush, Brooklyn, resident Pincus Green, both charged in 1983
with conducting the largest tax evasion
scheme in U.S. history.
Rich, 65, who donates vast sums of money to Israel, is the ex-husband of
Manhattan songwriter Denise
Rich, who has contributed more than $320,000 to Democratic Party causes in
the past two years and is a friend of the
Also under attack is the pardon of Susan Rosenberg, found guilty of
possession of 700 pounds of explosives
and a submachine gun in a 1984 New Jersey case.
In the case of the New Square four, Clinton commuted Benjamin Berger's
sentence to 24 months and the
rest to 30 months. All will serve about another 18 months.
But according to a Justice Department spokeswoman, Clinton's commutation
does not dismiss the court's
order that they repay millions of dollars in restitution and undergo several
years of supervised release. Stern still
owes the government $11.2 million; Elbaum $11.1 million; Goldstein, $10.1
million; and Berger $522,977.
Experts said commutations, unlike pardons, are generally granted to
shorten a sentence that is deemed too
long or otherwise unfair, or to reward cooperation with the government.
White, in a statement speaking of the New York related cases, said:
``The facts of several of these cases in
particular raise significant law enforcement concerns, the seriousness of the
crimes is diminished, and the fact and
the appearance of evenhanded justice is compromised." This apparently
referred to claims by New Square that her
office was overzealous and biased against the village.
But criminal justice experts said the New Square commutations sends a
dangerous message about the
workings of the justice system to a community that in 1996 was fined $1
million by a federal judge for contempt for
refusing to comply with his order to provide evidence.
Observers also fear the commutations will have negative repercussions
among New Square's non-Jewish
neighbors, who believe that Orthodox Jews already receive special treatment
from elected officials.
``This is not justice, this is politics," said Rockland County Sheriff
James Kralik, whose office began the
investigation years ago.
``This was a situation in my opinion that grew out of the election
campaign of Mrs. Clinton and possibly Al
Gore," he told the Rockland Journal newspaper Tuesday. ``And the community
certainly showed their respect for
Mrs. Clinton with their votes.''