A key prosecution witness has been harassed and threatened in an effort to intimidate him from testifying in the trial of Assemblyman Dov Hikind and Rabbi Elimelech Naiman, federal prosecutors claimed this week.
The alleged tactics, by members of the Ger chasidic sect, have not been tied by prosecutors to either of the defendants. And at the judge’s urging, Naiman, a Ger leader, has obtained rulings from Ger religious courts in Jerusalem and Brooklyn demanding that any such actions cease.
Despite the rulings, the harassment of Chaim Brecher continued even after he testified Monday, U.S. attorneys told federal District Court Judge Charles Sifton the next day.
According to Naiman’s attorney, Benjamin Brafman, prosecutors reported that the harassment included threatening phone calls to Brecher’s home in Borough Park and a false alarm phoned into the Fire Department that brought fire engines racing to Brecher’s house late Monday night.Speaking before Brecher’s testimony, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Brown told Sifton that Ger chasidim had warned the witness he would be “devastated” in cross-examination, and that “they intend to distribute flyers and do everything they can to pack the courtroom when he testifies, [so] he’ll be intimidated.”
These and other threats to Brecher and his family had led them “to fear for their physical safety,” Brown told the judge.
After a second conference with Sifton and prosecutors on the problem, Brafman said Tuesday, “On behalf of Rabbi Naiman, I would ask the community, if anyone is involved in this nonsense, to stop it immediately.
“It’s not something we want to see happen or encourage in any way. … On the contrary; it could impact on Rabbi Naiman’s ability to receive a fair trial.”
Brafman stressed the proclamations from the two Ger religious courts instructing community members not to interfere with the proceedings and to respect the law of the land.
A woman who answered the phone at Brecher’s residence declined to comment on the situation.
Hikind and Naiman, a former senior official at the Council of Jewish Organizations of Boro Park, are on trial in Brooklyn for conspiracy, fraud and embezzlement. The government charges that COJO, then Brooklyn’s largest Jewish community council, and several COJO spinoffs provided Hikind with political and personal benefits in exchange for government funds he obtained for the agency. It charges that Naiman misappropriated many of these funds.
Hikind’s attorney, Gustave Newman, argues that his client never controlled the flow of these government funds. Brafman says that while various rules may have been ignored in COJO’s efforts to meet exploding demands for social services, no criminal intent was ever involved.
At his court appearance, Brecher, a slight, balding man with a gray-flecked beard and resigned eyes, did indeed face a courtroom packed with chasidic spectators. A withering cross-examination by Brafman seemed to seriously damage his credibility on some points. On others, however, his testimony seemed to corroborate that of previous witnesses.
Brecher, a professional matchmaker in Borough Park and a Vizhnitzer chasid, told prosecutors that in 1992, he spoke to Naiman about his urgent need for health insurance to cover him, his wife and their three children. According to Brecher, Naiman told him he could get him on to the health insurance plan COJO provided its employees.
But, Brecher said, “Rabbi Naiman told me I must bring him my Social Security number to be on their books, and that I must pay him every month. … I understood that [to] mean that to get insurance, I must be registered to work there.”
In fact, said Brecher, he never worked there, despite receiving an IRS W-2 form each year from COJO saying he received a salary of more than $14,000. Prosecutors also introduced records showing COJO had listed Brecher as an employee for a government-funded program it ran, and had received allocations for him that presumably included health coverage.
Despite these government disbursements, said Brecher, he brought in $750 per month, in cash, to pay for this coverage, and turned the money over to Naiman or his secretary.
Emphasizing his poverty, Brecher said that he was sometimes unable to meet these payments, leading Naiman to press him aggressively for the money. On at least one occasion, he said, his family’s coverage was lifted when he failed to pay. Brecher said that when he asked Naiman if he could cover his shortfalls from the funds COJO was receiving in his name from the government, Naiman refused.
In earlier testimony, COJO bookkeeper Rachel Cooper said that Brecher had never worked at COJO. And Naiman’s secretary, Esther Jacobs, said that either she or Rabbi Naiman regularly received cash payments from Brecher for his insurance.
But questioned by Brafman, Brecher acknowledged that he had failed to declare on his tax returns most of the earnings from his actual source of income — matchmaking. Brafman also brought out that the government had promised Brecher immunity from criminal, though not civil, prosecution on tax evasion in exchange for his testimony. Brecher seemed to be under the impression that he had complete immunity.
The magnitude of Brecher’s tax evasion became an issue when Brafman challenged his claims of poverty, winning an admission from Brecher that his Borough Park home was worth about $1 million. Brecher was unable to explain how his claimed matchmaker’s salary of about $20,000 per year covered his payments on the $300,000 mortgage, his family expenses and other loans.
“Isn’t it true you asked Rabbi [Bernard] Froelich for a job so you could justify living in a $1 million house without having to declare your matchmaking income?” Brafman asked angrily, referring to a COJO employee Brecher said he spoke with before talking to Naiman.
Brecher replied blankly, “I don’t understand.”
Later, Ruthie Schenker, a Hikind staffer, testified that when Hikind reduced her salary by $10,000 in 1994, he advised her she could regain the sum from COJO, for whom she had done voter registration work.
Schenker testified that at her request, Naiman’s COJO affiliate, Community Service and Resource Development, agreed to pay this money to her daughter, Leah. Leah Schenker was then listed as a CSRD consultant on a government-funded contract, though she had performed no work for the group.
The prosecution argues that the COJO voter registration project was, in fact, a voter drive for Hikind often operated from his office. But Naiman and Hikind deny this charge.