When the bribery and extortion charges against chasidic sex-abuse whistleblower Sam Kellner were finally dropped last March by incoming Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson, advocates for abuse victims hailed the decision. At the same time, they urged Thompson to investigate and bring to justice those who allegedly framed Kellner, who was indicted in 2011 under the administration of the former DA, Charles Hynes.
It has now been almost 10 months since the Kellner case was dismissed and the district attorney has taken no action against those who were behind the trumped-up charges.
Now, advocates suggest, there may be at least a partial explanation: Leo Friedman, the son of one of the three witnesses who apparently gave false grand jury testimony against Kellner, Satmar power broker Moses Friedman, was a hefty contributor to Thompson’s campaign.
Moses Friedman, who is known in the Satmar community as Moshe Gabbai for having served as the longtime personal secretary of the previous Satmar rebbe, Moses Teitelbaum, is also a cousin by marriage of Baruch Lebovits, a convicted child molester whom Kellner helped to put in jail.
Both Friedman and Lebovits’ son, Meyer, testified that Kellner had attempted to extort the Lebovits family in return for a promise that he would persuade Lebovits’ alleged victims — who included Kellner’s own son — to withdraw from the case. A third witness, whom sex crimes prosecutors believe was a genuine Lebovits victim who had been pressured into backing out of testifying against him, told the grand jury that Kellner had paid him to fabricate his allegations against Lebovits. When Thompson threw out the Kellner case early this year, his office found the witnesses lacking in “credibility to such an extent” that the case “could not be prosecuted.”
Moses Friedman, who now acts as the gabbai for Zalman Teitelbaum, the Satmar rebbe who presides over Williamsburg (his brother Aaron is the leader of the upstate Satmar community, Kiryas Joel) is also the editor of the influential Zalman-affiliated Satmar paper, Der Yid. He has long been counted on by politicians to deliver Williamsburg’s substantial Satmar bloc vote. A 2009 article in an Israeli magazine described him as being “well known outside of [chasidic] and [haredi] circles in the U.S., with many senators and politicians flocking to his door throughout the year, especially before elections.”
Indeed, according to campaign finance records, Thompson received over $30,000 in campaign donations from companies connected to Leo Friedman last year. Campaign financial disclosures show that in August of 2013, several weeks before the hotly contested Democratic primary, which pitted Thompson against longtime incumbent Hynes, Thompson received $5,000 from Advanced Care Staffing LCC, a nursing care company run by Leo Friedman. (Both Satmar factions endorsed Hynes in the primary, but the Zalis, as members of the Zalman faction are known, did so only the day before the election. In Williamsburg districts with a significant percent of chasidic voters, Hynes received 62 percent of the primary vote while Thompson garnered 13 percent.)
In October of 2013, after Thompson had clinched the Democratic nomination — which, in Brooklyn, all but guaranteed an electoral victory — he received two additional contributions from Advanced Care, for $5,000 and $16,750 respectively. In that same month, he also received $5,000 from Red Star Care LLC, whose president as of 2010 is listed as Leo Friedman. (Before the general elections, in which Hynes unexpectedly decided to run, community endorsements switched to Thompson, who ended up winning 74 percent of the vote in the Orthodox districts of Williamsburg versus Hynes’ 26 percent.)
A few weeks ago, photos of Thompson paying a shiva call to Moses Friedman (his father had died) began circulating throughout the Satmar community and beyond. While politicians often pay their respects to chasidic leaders, these photographs, combined with the campaign contributions, have set off alarm bells among anti-sex abuse advocates both inside and outside the chasidic world. To them, the photos are not merely a record of shared mourning but an unsettling bit of data about the Satmar leadership’s continued power and political influence.
“Thompson cannot claim that he is not aware of … Friedman’s pivotal role acting as a main witness against Sam Kellner in order to free the serial rapist Baruch Lebovits from prison,” sex abuse survivor and victims’ advocate Joel Engelman told The Jewish Week.
“Thompson’s continuing spectacles of support [for] Friedman demonstrates that he condones the intimidation of child sex-abuse victims in the Orthodox community,” Engelman, who grew up in Satmar Williamsburg, continued. “Thompson’s shiva visit to Friedman is akin to a visit to the Gambino family, and is an explicit message to the Satmar community that he is a politician who is willing to be influenced for votes and political power.”
Prosecutorial ethics expert Bennett Gershman, a professor at Pace University Law School, believes Engelman’s concerns may have some merit.
“Moses Friedman is pandering to Thompson, the same way he did with Hynes,” Gershman told The Jewish Week. “Thirty thousand strikes me as quite a hefty campaign donation. He obviously expects [his family’s] money to buy influence with Thompson. What does he want? Kellner has been cleared after being falsely charged by Hynes. If there is an investigation by the DA into how Kellner was framed, then Friedman appears to be a principal target of that investigation.
“If that is so,” Gershman said, “then it would reasonably appear that Friedman may be trying to buy his way out of being a target in any investigation into the Kellner scandal. I’m not suggesting that Thompson should have given back the money, or not made the shiva call. But as one begins to connect the dots, it certainly makes for a troubling picture.”
A spokesperson for Thompson’s office told The Jewish Week that “we do not confirm, deny or comment on investigations.” An attempt to get a comment from Leo Friedman was unsuccessful.
For his part, the elder Friedman, reached by phone at his office at Der Yid, dismissed the notion that the donations or the shiva call were evidence of anything improper.
“I have no special relationship with the DA,” Friedman told The Jewish Week.
“The DA came to visit as other politicians came. I had a visit from other politicians, councilmen, senators. It’s nonsense. It’s a shame even to talk about it.”
Nonsense or not, advocates for victims of sex abuse believe that even the mere appearance of Satmar influence on the DA’s office undermines their cause.
“As long as the power brokers in Satmar demonstrate political influence in the DA’s office, victims of abuse in the community will not speak up,” Rabbi Yosef Blau, the director of religious guidance at Yeshiva University’s rabbinical seminary, told The Jewish Week. (What made Kellner’s case unusual was his willingness to bring sex-abuse allegations to the police rather than to local rabbis.)
“Without complaints,” Rabbi Blau concluded, “the DA’s office will have no one to prosecute.”