Once it went to the jury, Dov Hikind’s fate was never in doubt. “We decided pretty quickly he was not guilty” of the bribery charge against him, Lucille Muscarella, a juror in the federal corruption case against the Brooklyn assemblyman, told The Jewish Week. And the jury dispensed quickly, too, she said, with the charge that he had misapplied federal funds.
Muscarella, a British Air employee and wife of a New York police officer, sat through six weeks of testimony on numerous gifts and benefits Hikind received from what was then Brooklyn’s largest Jewish community council or groups linked to it. But she and the other jurors rejected the prosecution’s contention that Hikind obtained thousands of dollars in government funds for the Council of Jewish Organizations of Boro Park as a quid pro quo.To begin with, said Muscarella, the sum that the government alleged was used to bribe Hikind over a five-year period just seemed too small.
“I said, `$40,000? Come on,’ ’’ Muscarella related. “The amount was minute when you look at the period of time they investigated. Would you do something illegal for those amounts?”
In addition, she said, jurors remained unconvinced that Hikind himself necessarily knew about many of the payments, such as tuition payments sent to yeshivas for his children and those of his relatives.
“In the judge’s instructions, he said that gestures of kindness and payments to someone with the Hikind name were not enough, by themselves, to convict him,” Muscarella recalled.
Hikind and his codefendant, Rabbi Elimelech Naiman of the COJO of Boro Park, she said, “were friends. I didn’t feel there was any reason why Rabbi Naiman would have had to bribe [Hikind] to help him because they were a worthy organization.”
But when asked how she and her fellow jurors then found Naiman guilty of bribery for giving Hikind those very same gifts, Muscarella seemed at a loss.
“I had a hard time understanding the rationale of the other jurors,” she told The Jewish Week. “I felt the others didn’t understand that charge.”
Muscarella said she felt strongly that both men were innocent of bribery. In the minority, she also leaned heavily toward acquitting Naiman of the other charges for which he was convicted as well — misapplication of federal funds and a half-dozen mail fraud counts. But in the end, she related, “People said, we have to compromise. …There was a lot of pressure.”
Thus it was that Hikind went free on Monday while Naiman now faces the prospect of jail.
Whatever the jury’s internal dynamics during deliberation, its acquittal of Hikind meant it judged, at the least, that there was a reasonable doubt that Hikind accepted these gifts with the same intent that Naiman gave them. As attorneys involved in the case noted, these divergent states of mind are not mutually exclusive.
It was a clear triumph for Hikind, who exulted not only over his freedom but the prospect of revived political influence. It was also a triumph for his attorney, Gustave Newman, whom Hikind repeatedly praised at a press conference Tuesday in Borough Park. His reputation as a master of white-collar crime cases can only be enhanced.
The broader picture was more ambiguous, however, as Naiman and a third defendant, Paul Chernick, now stand judged guilty of conduct that destroyed a burgeoning center for social services in a community with urgent social service needs — a center with a $4.5 million budget that they did much to build.
Only a small portion of that money has been replaced by other community agencies, though Hikind vowed Tuesday to make re-establishing lost social services in Borough Park a priority.
In the wake of the verdict, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani voiced skepticism over the fact that while two men are guilty for making illegal payments to Hikind, the assemblyman is exonerated.
Asked if he would call Hikind to congratulate him, as Gov. George Pataki, Sen. Alfonse D’Amato and many other political leaders did, the mayor replied: “I would have a hard time doing that because the verdict found one person guilty of making corrupt payments to him. A second person pleaded guilty to making corrupt payments to him. I respect the verdict, but I have to look at this mixed result very, very carefully.” The mayor, whose political friendship with Hikind has soured, was referring to the fact that Paul Chernick, like Naiman a senior COJO official, pleaded guilty just before the trial to bribing Hikind, and of embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from COJO. That meant Chernick and Naiman were both found to have favored Hikind with monetary gifts to influence him to obtain funds for COJO.
In Chernick’s case, this totaled some $40,000, including checks to help pay for the Hikind family’s hotel room in Paris during a vacation; for a Hikind trip to Israel; for his children’s tuition in private schools; and other personal and political benefits.
The jury found Naiman guilty of giving Hikind $8,250 in corrupt gifts — specifically tuition payments to the Yeshivah of Flatbush for one of his children.
During the trial, no mention was permitted of Chernick’s plea under federal rules so as not to influence of the jury. Muscarella said she was unaware of his plea, though Chernick’s name and activities came up often in tandem with Naiman’s.
When pressed by New York 1 reporter Dominic Carter about Giuliani’s stance, Hikind replied, “The mayor seems to think, if you’re found guilty, you’re guilty. And if you’re found innocent, you’re guilty. … I hope the mayor will re-examine his view. He’ll get it, eventually.”
Hikind appeared joyous over his legal victory and the outpouring of affection from friends and supporters, but questions remain about whether this episode will help or hurt his political future. One member of the prosecution team was even known to be examining whether the $450,000 raised for Hikind’s legal defense fund is taxable income — and if so, whether Hikind paid taxes on it.Hikind’s conduct in connection with donors is also certain to come up again when Rabbi Eliot Amsel, the president of Syrit College in Brooklyn, goes on trial next month.
Amsel, a major Hikind fund-raiser, is charged with stealing hundreds of thousands of government dollars that COJO channeled to Syrit for a vocational training program. He has pleaded not guilty.
When Gov. Mario Cuomo ran for re-election in 1994, Hikind reportedly made state certification of Syrit an ironclad condition for endorsing him. Cuomo demurred due to numerous deficiencies found at the school by various auditing agencies, and Hikind went on to endorse Pataki. Soon after Pataki’s inauguration, the state Board of Regents certified Syrit. Pataki has denied exercising influence over the decision.
For all this, however, it is clear that Hikind’s biggest trial is over. Naiman, meanwhile, plans to appeal even as he faces sentencing in September. Chernick will be sentenced next week.
The defendants each could receive up to 10 years. But Naiman is likely to receive much less under federal sentencing guidelines, as the jury found he had misapplied only $10,500 in government funds and made $8,250 in corrupt payoffs to Hikind. Naiman’s lawyer, Benjamin Brafman, meanwhile, plans to appeal what he referred to as “this very weird verdict.”
Still, Brafman said, “One of the ironies is that as a result of the way the jury chose not to find so many misapplications of funds, [Naiman] could receive a substantially lighter sentence than had he elected to plead guilty.”