Attorney General Elliott Spitzer’s investigation of the World Jewish Congress has focused of late on statements attributed to Israel Singer suggesting that the chairman of the group’s governing board had a personal $2 million “slush fund” provided to him each year by Edgar Bronfman, the WJC president.
The subject came to light recently through an e-mail written Jan. 9, 2002 by Larry Cohler-Esses, then an investigative reporter with The Daily News, to Singer, who was then secretary general, the top professional post at the WJC.At the time Singer had offered Cohler-Esses the position of head of the North American section of the WJC, the international defense agency currently under scrutiny for alleged financial improprieties.
In the e-mail, Cohler-Esses summarized his prior meetings and conversations with Singer, and asked him a series of questions.One of the questions: “Are there any skeletons in WJC’s closet of which I should be aware before I take this position?”
Apologizing for any possible perceived “impudence” in the nature of the questions, Cohler-Esses wrote: “As we discussed on Friday, WJC officials publicly describe their annual budget as approximately $5.5 million, but its 1999 IRS tax report lists a budget of $11.1 million on income of almost $12 million. Of this, $8.1 million is listed as going to program services; about $741,000 to administration and management; and $2.2 million to fundraising.“When we spoke on Monday, you mentioned that Edgar [Bronfman] has established a ‘slush fund’ of about $2 million for use at your personal discretion. If you subtract this sum and the amount devoted to fundraising, that leaves about $6.9 million, or still an extra $1.4 million.”
Cohler-Esses then asked if Singer’s “personal discretion fund” explained “some of the extra money,” where the rest of the money went, and if Singer was certain the funds were handled and reported legally.The correspondence was shared with The Jewish Week recently, but not by Cohler-Esses, who was a Jewish Week staff writer from 1993 to 2000. He was hired by The Daily News in 2000 and left the paper earlier this year. He is now editor at large at The Jewish Week.Cohler-Esses’ copy of the correspondence was subpoenaed by the Attorney General’s Office, and he was questioned about it and his relationship with Singer for more than 90 minutes on Sept. 30. Cohler-Esses appeared before Gerald Rosenberg, head of the charities bureau, and Carolyn Ellis, chief investigator.Cohler-Esses said he affirmed the contents of his communique, a copy of which the Attorney General’s Office already had, as accurate. He said the questioning by the investigators was “very focused,” and that they were “keenly interested” in his references to the possible discrepancy in the WJC’s tax report and the mention of the “slush fund.”
“They wanted to know what I thought Rabbi Singer meant by that term when he used it,” Cohler-Esses said, “and I told them his use of the term concerned me and I wasn’t sure whether he used it facetiously, jokingly or subconsciously.”Cohler-Esses said he subsequently turned down the WJC job offer.Singer, through spokesman Hank Sheinkopf, told The Jewish Week he denied receiving a letter and said there was no such fund. Singer acknowledged that he had met with Cohler-Esses about the position at the WJC, but Sheinkopf said that “no such letter exists in the WJC files, nor did Singer receive such a letter.”
Sheinkopf added that the Attorney General’s Office “has inquired about this document, and we have responded appropriately.” He would not elaborate.Sheinkopf said “no inquiry was initiated by the IRS [Internal Revenue Service], and there was no such [slush] fund.”Darren Dopp, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, would not comment on the specifics of the investigation, which began early this year, but said it was “moving toward conclusion.” Dopp said he expected the probe would be completed next month or, at the latest, by the end of December.In June, sources close to the investigation said it would demand reforms in the WJC’s financial control and board oversight, for which critics of the group have called, though criminal prosecution is seen as unlikely.
The controversy over the WJC began in 2004, precipitated by the discovery of a Swiss bank account that raised questions about accountability at the venerable organization. In recent years the WJC has been known for its success in gaining hundreds of millions of dollars in restitution funds from Swiss banks for Holocaust survivors.The most outspoken critic of WJC practices, Isi Leibler, was ousted as senior vice president of the WJC earlier this year. Bronfman, who had pledged to step down as president after 24 years, decided to run again and was re-elected, and Stephen Herbits, a close business aide of Bronfman’s, was elected secretary general.