Just two weeks from trial, the federal corruption case against Assemblyman Dov Hikind took a surprising turn last week when one of his two codefendants suddenly pleaded guilty to paying off the Brooklyn political leader.
Paul Chernick, a top official of the Council of Jewish Organizations of Boro Park, then Brooklyn’s largest Jewish community council, told a Brooklyn court last Thursday that he had made illegal payoffs to Hikind in exchange for government grants Hikind secured for the council.
Chernick, 53, also pleaded guilty to embezzling federal and state funds that were supposed to be used by the council for community education and social programs.
His plea has been perceived widely as a serious blow to the defense being prepared by Hikind, the prominent Orthodox community political leader on the very eve of his trial, scheduled for May 18.
But according to several legal experts and sources close to the case, Chernick’s carefully phrased plea could just as easily complicate the case for the prosecution.
That’s because Chernick, who basically admitted guilt to the charges against him without a plea bargain, now is under no obligation to testify against Hikind or his codefendant, Rabbi Elimelech Naiman. The three were to have been tried together.
Government sources said this week they did not expect Chernick to testify. And under federal rules, government prosecutors cannot force him to until a sentencing hearing that is not expected to take place until after the trial is over.
Prosecutors also would be prohibited in the Hikind-Naiman trial from mentioning the guilty plea of Chernick, the man accused of being their crucial partner. According to experts in federal legal procedures, this restriction could only be dropped with a ruling by the judge. Such rulings, government sources acknowledged, are unusual.
As one law enforcement source put it, “I’d rather have Chernick sitting there because we have prepared a very strong case against these three. But now [Hikind and Naiman] can point to that empty chair.”
On the other hand, Chernick could still testify against his erstwhile codefendants in a bid to win a lighter sentence. Under federal sentencing guidelines, he faces four to six years in prison at his July hearing and tens of thousands of dollars in fines.
Neither Chernick’s attorney, Lawrence Goldman, nor government sources would discuss whether having Chernick take the stand is being considered.
“I’m not going to tell you whether he will testify or not” was all Goldman would say. And government prosecutors stressed they were ready to go to trial even before Chernick’s plea, with no expectation of his cooperation.
But one Jewish communal official following the case closely speculated, “What Chernick’s trying to do right now is figure out what level of comfort he has in testifying. So right now, the prosecution is driving the defense lawyers crazy because any possible theory of the case they have might be burst by Chernick showing up.”
Hikind, a Democrat, stands accused of taking more than $45,000 in payoffs from Naiman and Chernick, both senior COJO officials, in exchange for his help in securing state and federal grants for COJO. Naiman and Chernick, meanwhile, were charged with diverting at least $750,000 of the charity’s money to illegitimate uses, including to personally benefit Hikind.
According to the charges, government funds meant for the Jewish charity went to help pay for, among other things, trips by Hikind and his family to Paris and Israel, school tuitions for Hikind family members and a pair of antique chairs delivered to Chernick’s home.
In his guilty plea before Judge Charles Sifton, Chernick did not specify the sums he admitted to embezzling or using to pay off Hikind. But he told the court, “I gave a thing of value to someone who is an agent of the State of New York. … It was in my mind a reward for his assistance in helping the COJO organization.”
Government sources said it was agreed that Chernick would avoid citing Hikind by name in an effort to minimize prejudicial press coverage that could taint the jury pool so close to the trial. But Sifton noted that the agent of the state cited by Chernick was the one referred to in the indictment.
Hikind, who was present at Chernick’s guilty plea hearing, continued to voice confidence in his vindication. “I can’t wait to be in court,” he told the New York Post.
Hikind’s attorney, Gustave Newman, and Naiman’s attorney, Benjamin Brafman, also issued a joint statement in which they declared, “The proceedings today do not impact in any way on the cases” of Hikind or Naiman.
“Both Naiman and Hikind have pleaded not guilty. They are not guilty, and are looking forward to their day in court.”