Gov. George Pataki’s top Jewish liaison has been grilled by a federal grand jury in Brooklyn investigating whether the state gave special treatment to two Israeli drug dealers. The dealers were granted leniency after requests from a leading Pataki fund-raiser, Rabbi Leon Perlmutter, a prominent member of the Satmar chasidic community.
Jeff Wiesenfeld, Pataki’s executive assistant who deals with Jewish affairs, appeared before the grand jury in Brooklyn several weeks ago, sources said.
U.S. Attorney Zachary Carter is probing the early release from prison of two Israeli illegal aliens, Moshe Cohen and Ziv Oved, over the objections of prosecutors in the office of Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes.
The federal probe also focuses on whether the Pataki administration gave preferential treatment to Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, who in a notorious case in 1994, was convicted of kidnapping teenager Shai Fhima Reuven from his mother.
Wiesenfeld, a former aide to Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.) and a former FBI agent, declined to comment about the grand jury.
“To me, the whole thing is Aesop’s fables,” he said. “I told [the grand jury] nothing.”
The federal probe appears to involve Pataki’s campaign fund raising.
The Republican governor is running for a second four-year term in November.
A Pataki spokeswoman told The Jewish Week that the administration strenuously denies that anyone received favorable treatment because of lobbying by fund raisers or campaign contributors.
A spokesman for the state Democratic Committee not surprisingly criticized the Pataki administration. “This growing federal investigation is but the latest evidence that the Pataki criminal justice program … is dictated more by Republican fund-raising than public safety concerns.”
The New York Daily News last month revealed that the Pataki administration released hundreds of major drug dealers from state prison in an early parole program, despite objections from prosecutors and judges.
The state’s early release program called for prisoners who are illegal aliens and convicted of nonviolent, low-level crimes to be deported, in order to free up prison space and save public funds.
But The News found that major drug traffickers from Colombia, the Dominican Republic and Israel were allowed into the program.The paper found that Rabbi Perlmutter, a Satmar businessman who raised thousands of dollars for Pataki in 1994, had asked state officials to support the release of Oved and Cohen.
In 1996, the pair were deported to Israel, and offered freedom, years before their scheduled release date in America.
Cohen, 37, was serving 18 years to life for a 1991 conviction of smuggling 12 ounces of heroin after being nabbed in a Canarsie apartment.
Oved, also known as Avshalom Sarig, was arrested in 1986 after pleading guilty to drug dealing in a $1 million-a-week heroin and cocaine drug ring in Brooklyn.
Oved, 47, worked out a plea bargain, but then fled the country and led investigators on a worldwide chase through South America and Israel before being caught in London in 1993. He was then sentenced to six years to life, and was serving this time when he was released in the early parole program.
Rabbi Perlmutter, who sells cars and business machines in Brooklyn and upstate Monroe, said he met Cohen and Oved while visiting other chasidic inmates in upstate Greenhaven Prison.
He said he had asked Hynes to object to their parole request, but Hynes refused. Nevertheless, they were freed.
“I felt the guy [Cohen] was sitting there [in jail] and taking up space and that other violent criminals could take his place,” Rabbi Perlmutter reportedly said.
Also released from state prison and deported was Luis Cordoba, linked with the Colombian Cali drug cartel, who was arrested with 1,000 pounds of cocaine and sentenced in 1990 to 15 years to life. He was paroled after serving eight years.
Meanwhile, the latest development in the federal probe concerns Rabbi Helbrans, who was paroled by the State Parole Board in November 1996 after serving two years for kidnapping Shai Fhima Reuven, whom he was giving bar mitzvah lessons.
The case became a religious tug-of-war between Rabbi Helbrans who claimed the boy wanted to join the chasidic sect and Shai’s mother, who was not Orthodox.
Rabbi Helbrans, who now runs a yeshiva in Monsey, N.Y., was originally sentenced to four to 12 years in prison, but on June 17, 1996 an appeals court reduced that to two to six years. On June 20, he was placed in the work release program, where inmates are freed from prison if they have a job. The program is for prisoners less than two years away from the possibility of parole.
Rabbi Helbrans is currently appealing a deportation order by a federal immigration judge.