A senior official of what was Brooklyn’s largest Jewish community council was sentenced to two years in jail and fined $25,000 last week for misappropriating more than $300,000 in government funds.
Rabbi Elimelech Naiman, former deputy director of the Council of Jewish Organizations of Boro Park, was convicted last July on federal charges of bribery, misapplication of state funds and mail fraud in connection with his activities for the council.
Attorneys for Naiman say they are confident his conviction will be overturned on appeal. Naiman remains free on $500,000 bond.Another top COJO official, Paul Chernick, had pleaded guilty to making payments to Assemblyman Dov Hikind (D-Brooklyn) with an intent to bribe him. Hikind was acquitted of receiving $45,000. The Boro Park COJO shut down in the wake of the scandal.
At the sentencing hearing, Brooklyn District Court Judge Charles Sifton seemed to reserve much of his ire for Chernick, whom he is scheduled to sentence next week.
Naiman, he said, "did not personally benefit from this. Nor was he, I believe, motivated by personal greed." Sifton spoke of the illegal benefits accruing to Naiman being used for "necessities of life."
In contrast, Sifton cited Chernick for "aggressive greediness," noting that government funds he was receiving for COJO were spent on such items as antique furniture and personal expenses.
In a statement to the judge, Naiman emphasized his 20 years of devoted service to the community. "Despite my conviction," he said, "I will try to continue to serve people and the community as best I can."
His attorney, Richard Greenberg, said Naiman’s appeal "will present strong grounds for release."
Greenberg is expected to argue, for example, that the government failed to show that some of the funds Naiman was convicted of misapplying ultimately did not end up at their intended destination: a vocational training school called Syrit College that was under contract to conduct government-funded education programs for COJO.
The government during the trial showed that many checks COJO wrote to Syrit for this purpose were cashed by COJO employees at a check-cashing facility near their office. But Greenberg could argue that does not prove Syrit never received the funds.
On the bribery conviction, Naiman’s attorneys are expected to cite a Supreme Court ruling last April involving a California agricultural cooperative charged with providing illegal gifts to then-Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy. In a precedent, the high court ruled that to be illegal, the gifts had to be tied to specific acts by the official that benefited the giver.
The ruling overturned interpretations of the law in which giving gifts to public officials merely to curry their favor was deemed illegal.
In the end, the jury found Naiman guilty of giving Hikind $8,250 in corrupt gifts: specifically payments from the charity’s funds to the Yeshivah of Flatbush to help cover tuition for one of Hikind’s children.
Prosecutors, however, are likely to point to the judge’s charge to the jury in which Sifton cautioned that mere gifts, or "gestures of kindness," to Hikind from Naiman were not enough to convict the COJO official.
The payments, Sifton told the panel, "must be for the specific purpose of influencing or rewarding" a government official. "A vague expectation of some future benefit or general expression of support is not sufficient."