One side painted the charity and the assemblyman as partners in a complex web of corruption, deceit and political manipulation.
The other side cited their partnership as the instrument that lifted up the lives of hundreds of thousands, Jews and non-Jews, helping them find jobs, housing and training.
In a clash pitting federal attorneys against two of the most prominent criminal defense lawyers in New York City, Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind and Rabbi Elimelech Naiman of the Council of Jewish Organizations of Boro Park went on trial Tuesday, charged with conspiracy and embezzling hundreds and thousands of public dollars for their personal and political use.
At stake is the political future, if not freedom, of Hikind, once the most prominent political leader in Brooklyn’s Orthodox community, a former confidante of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Gov. George Pataki.
Naiman was formerly the No. 2 man at the largest Jewish community council in Brooklyn, one that received millions in government funds. But the case against Hikind and Naiman has dried up all funds to the agency, effectively destroying it.
The sparks began to fly with the attorneys’ opening statements.
“This case is about two men who give new meaning to the saying ‘Charity begins at home,’ ” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Brown told the jury of six men and six women. Adopting a dry but implacable tone, he said, “The evidence will show the defendants embezzled, stole and misappropriated thousands and thousands of dollars from the Council of Jewish Organizations of Boro Park.”
In an emotional counter-punch bristling with anger and pathos, Naiman’s defense attorney, Benjamin Brafman, termed the work done by COJO “charity in its purest form.”
Conceding Naiman and COJO may have, indeed, crossed some boundaries during frantic efforts to handle the increasing millions of dollars flooding the agency as it responded to rocketing demands for its services, Brafman said, “This case deals not with facts, but with motive. If you’re trying to help the people you’re supposed to service, that is not a criminal conspiracy.”
Brafman cited as an example one of the government’s charges — that a COJO affiliate headed by Naiman used government funds meant for COJO to pay school tuition fees for Hikind family members and for COJO employees’ children. Brafman noted that one of COJO’s mandates was to aid such schools, and that one of the COJO employees whose children was aided was a “pious, pious woman” with 10 children “whose husband was studying and unemployed.”
“So what difference does it make if COJO gave funds to the school, or if it said, ‘Look, credit it to Mrs. Cooper’s tuition, because she’s poor and has 10 kids?” Brafman said. His opening statement did not address directly the benefit to Hikind.
Hikind’s attorney, Gustave Newman, accused the prosecution of grossly misportraying Hikind’s role in obtaining state funds for COJO through the process known as member-item initiatives. Hikind, he said, was simply incapable of directing hundreds of thousands of dollars in these funds to COJO in exchange for favors, as the government charged.
“Dov Hikind had no control over the member-item process and could not give one red cent to these organizations,” Newman asserted.
But Brown, the prosecutor, implied Hikind and Naiman’s motives would be shown as criminal. Among other things, Brown charged, Hikind concealed the benefits he received from COJO on state disclosure forms. And Naiman helped forge phony documents after the fact to prove that individuals who had never done any work for COJO had, in fact, worked as consultants to justify government funds COJO gave them. Naiman, he said, would be shown to have actually cashed many of the checks for these people himself.
“We will show COJO misused government money and that Dov Hikind benefited personally and politically from this misuse,” he said.
The courtroom itself was packed with supporters of the state assemblyman and Naiman. And Hikind worked the room avidly after the session, shaking hands with almost all.
“I feel very good everyday,” he told reporters. “I’m very confident that by the time it’s all over, I will be vindicated.”
Hikind and Naiman could receive up to 10 years if convicted of all the counts against them.
Staff writer Adam Dickter contributed to this report.