Amid a tale already bristling with competing allegations of victimization — one by New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey and another by a former aide — the ambitious and rapidly expanding Touro College is also depicting itself as a bystander in the unfolding saga at Trenton’s statehouse.
Just two weeks after it scored a public relations coup with a positive New York Times profile of its pioneering president, Bernard Lander, the New York based-Touro has gained some unwanted publicity via headlines related to McGreevey’s pending resignation over an alleged sex and blackmail scandal.
Touro acknowledged hiring the man at the center of the scandal, Golan Cipel, an Israeli who worked in various capacities for McGreevey, to help win state support for a new medical school in Livingston.
But it ended the relationship last year, and Touro never asked anyone to bring up the matter during negotiations to settle Cipel’s claim of sexual harassment against McGreevey, said Franklyn Snitow, Touro’s lawyer.
“We had nothing to do with this,” Snitow said in a phone interview. “After a very short run last year we ceased having any connection or involvement with anyone on behalf of Mr. Cipel. Accordingly, we had no knowledge [of] his alleged involvement with the governor or that he has contemplated any form of lawsuit.”
Touro officials were unavailable for comment.
The controversy comes at a time when the 34-year-old college, which caters largely to observant Jews and offers Judaic courses, has been raising its profile as it expands its reach to campuses as far away as Berlin and Moscow.
Federal authorities reportedly are investigating whether Cipel, 35, tried to extort McGreevey into paying millions of dollars to avoid a public lawsuit.
The counsels for both sides said they held protracted talks to reach a settlement. But last Thursday, McGreevey launched an apparent pre-emptive strike with his bombshell announcement that he is gay and had an affair with an unnamed man — later identified as Cipel — that threatened his ability to perform his duties. McGreevey said he would resign his office on Nov. 15.
“This affair and my own sexuality, if kept secret, leaves me, and most importantly the governor’s office, vulnerable to rumors, allegations and threats of disclosure,” McGreevey said in a press conference.
As part of settlement talks, which began in July, a lawyer associated with Cipel may have demanded last week that McGreevey aid Touro in obtaining a charter to open what would be the first private medical school in New Jersey.
That project was long sought by mega-philanthropist Charles Kushner, a Touro board member and top McGreevey donor who was under indictment on unrelated federal conspiracy charges. (See Kushner story on page 12.)
According to several media reports, Timothy Saia, a Manhattan lawyer who has an office in Livingston, arranged an 11th-hour meeting between Cipel’s lawyer, Allen Lowy, and McGreevey representatives where the request to help Touro came up. The meeting took place shortly before McGreevey’s announcement on Thursday.
Snitow said no one was authorized to negotiate on behalf of the college.
“No representative of Touro, either through counsel or administration, has ever had any contact with either Lowy or Saia, and if we determine that either lawyer improperly utilized our name we will respond accordingly,” Snitow said.
A call to Lowy’s office on Tuesday was not answered, and a recording said his machine was unable to accept messages. Saia could not be located for comment.
Lowy told The New York Times Saturday that Touro had never been mentioned in the discussions. But the Post, citing unnamed sources, said the talks Saia set in motion “included a demand the governor help Touro College establish a medical school in New Jersey.” The Times also cited sources who said the Touro charter was on the table.
Cipel met McGreevey in Israel in 2000 when McGreevey as the mayor of Woodbridge, a Central New Jersey town of 18,300, was participating in a Jewish federation mission. Cipel was a spokesman for the mayor of Rishon Letzion.
Shortly thereafter Cipel joined McGreevey’s successful campaign for governor. Cipel later was appointed the state’s $110,000-a-year homeland security director, a controversial choice because of his dubious credentials. He later served as a Jewish liaison for McGreevey before entering the private sector.
Cipel worked for two lobbying firms, including a brief stint as vice president of MWW Group, whose clients include Kushner’s companies. Kushner also briefly employed Cipel and reportedly helped him obtain the lobbying jobs. But Kushner’s lawyer, Benjamin Brafman, said the millionaire developer “has had no contact with [Cipel] in years.”
Snitow said Touro approached Cipel because “we understood that he was familiar with New Jersey intergovernmental relationships and might be an appropriate individual” to help. But Snitow insisted that college officials have had no contact with Cipel since January.
A source familiar with the matter said Touro had encountered political opposition to the medical school from existing institutions in New Jersey that did not want competition.
Asked if Cipel, who was unable to gain ground previously on the medical school charter, may have added the Touro matter into the negotiations on his own, Snitow said “anything might be conceivable.” But he added that college administrators would not have knowingly participated in such an arrangement had it come to fruition.
“A medical school would never be born out of the ashes of an alleged sexual harassment lawsuit,” Snitow said.
While recently opening facilities geared toward yeshiva students in Midwood, Brooklyn, and in Forest Hills, Queens, Touro also has programs in Manhattan where a majority of students are non-Jews.
Cipel, who lives in Manhattan, returned to Israel this week to visit his family after having told the Hebrew daily Yediot Achronot that he is not gay and that McGreevey repeatedly made unwelcome advances toward him.
“It got to a point where I was afraid to stay with him alone,” he told the paper, adding that McGreevey resigned because “he knew that the facts surrounding the harassment against me would come to light.”
Cipel has been at the center of the controversy before, when the McGreevey administration presented his qualifications for the security job.
He resigned in August 2002 amid media reports that his role in Israel’s navy and its consulate in New York were exaggerated, and protests from state legislators concerned that he could not obtain the proper security clearance.
It is unclear if Cipel will proceed with the lawsuit, which at press time had not been filed.
Cipel released a statement in Israel that he would return to the United States in a few weeks to “make sure justice will come to light.”