By Paul Berger (Jewish Daily Forward)
November 14, 2013
This is a story about religion, sex abuse, power, extortion, bungled prosecutions and the pitfalls of pursuing justice in an insular Orthodox community where disputes are solved internally and mistrust of outsiders reigns.
It involves a convicted sex offender; a Hasidic multimillionaire oil and diamond dealer; a drug addict; a New York assemblyman; a supporting cast of ultra-Orthodox rabbis, private investigators, victims’ advocates, bloggers and lawyers — including Alan Dershowitz — and a cache of secretly taped conversations.
The story plays out against the backdrop of a bitter 2013 election battle for the post of Brooklyn district attorney in which claims of corruption, connivance and race-baiting abounded.
But it began for me in 2010, in a courtroom in Brooklyn, where Baruch Lebovits, a Boro Park cantor recently convicted on eight counts of child sexual abuse, appeared for sentencing.
On one side of the courtroom sat a phalanx of Lebovits’s black-clad supporters in neat rows. As one of Lebovits’s daughters entered the courtroom, she turned to the mass of advocates occupying the benches opposite and, fixing her red, raw eyes on them, insisted, “My father is innocent.”
The advocates, many themselves victims of other ultra-Orthodox child molesters, were in court that day to show support for the victim and to see if justice would finally be served.
Prosecuting child sex crimes is hard enough in a secular society, but in the ultra-Orthodox world, with its prohibitions against gossip, lashon hara, and ratting out a Jew to the secular authorities, mesirah, it is tortuously difficult.
Parents of ultra-Orthodox victims must get permission from a rabbi before they can report their child’s abuse to the police. Even with permission, they. and their families are often barred from synagogues and schools. They are publicly shamed and denounced, their businesses destroyed, their marriage prospects shattered.
At Lebovits’s sentencing hearing, prosecutor Miss Gregory told the court that on the morning of that very hearing, the victim’s father had been accosted in synagogue, called a traitor and “physically menaced” by a man who threw him out of the synagogue and tried to kick him.
Earlier, the victim told how the horror of being abused, pushed him into drug addiction and petty crime. “Mr. Lebovits showed me no mercy,” the victim told the court. “I know that seeing the man who caused me so much pain being punished will give me hope and strength to rebuild my life.”
Before passing sentence, Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Patricia DiMango noted that Lebovits himself had been a victim of abuse. DiMango said that, according to his probation report, Lebovits was molested by an uncle in London when he was 11 and was abused again one year later by two teenage friends.
DiMango said Lebovits and his victim epitomized “the ultimate harm and havoc” of sexual abuse. Then she sentenced Lebovits to between 10 and 32 years in prison.
Although that three-hour court appearance has stuck with me, during the past few years I have begun to have doubts about the Lebovits conviction.
My doubts are focused not on whether Lebovits sexually abused boys, but on whether Lebovits was denied a fair trial.
The seeds of doubt have been planted during numerous off-the-record interviews with people in law enforcement and in the advocacy community, and with lawyers for and relatives of Lebovits. They are also based on secretly recorded conversations — some already in the public record, others never publicly released — that appear to undermine the case against Lebovits.
The principal reason for such doubts lies with one man: Sam Kellner.
Kellner was arrested in 2011 on charges of extortion and bribery.
The Brooklyn DA, Charles Hynes, accused Kellner of paying a witness in the Lebovits prosecution $10,000 to falsely testify that he had been abused.
Kellner was also accused of trying to extort the Lebovits family for $400,000 by threatening to bring forward more witnesses against Lebovits unless the family paid up.
At first it seemed bizarre that anyone could think that Lebovits, who earned a living as a travel agent, could afford such sums. But it turns out that one of his sons, Chaim Lebovits, is an oil and diamond dealer who has spent much of the past decade in West Africa and Israel. (His latest venture, BrainStorm Cell Therapeutics, is a biotechnology company that specializes in finding a cure for diseases such as multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s.)
If someone hatched an extortion plot, what better target than the multimillionaire son of an alleged sexually abusive cantor in an insular community where wrongs are often righted in private?
But as happens so often in the ultra-Orthodox community when it comes to sexual abuse, this story is not that simple. Because the first victim of Baruch Lebovits that Kellner sought justice for was Kellner’s own son.
According to Kellner, he was dismayed when he reported his son’s abuse to secular law enforcement in 2008 only to learn that the allegation — fondling — was a misdemeanor offense that would not result in jail time.
So Kellner set out to find more Lebovits victims. He contacted the ultra-Orthodox modesty committees — known as the va’adei hatznius — in Boro Park and nearby Williamsburg, looking for young men.
Kellner found two young men, who ultimately testified before a grand jury.
One of those men, the drug addict, continued on to trial, where his testimony convicted Lebovits.
But after Lebovits’s conviction, the other young man reported that Kellner had offered him $10,000 to falsely testify. Soon after, Kellner was arrested.
Hynes maintained that he was confident the conviction would stand, based, as it was, on the untainted testimony of the young man who testified at the trial.
But Kellner’s arrest offered Lebovits’s defense team a golden opportunity. Bolstered by the addition of one of the most high-profile Jewish lawyers in America, Alan Dershowitz, along with his brother Nathan Dershowitz, Lebovits was freed from jail pending an appeal.
One year later, Lebovits’s conviction was reversed by an appeals court, which ruled that a crucial piece of evidence, a note from a detective of the New York City Police Department, had been withheld from the defense at trial.
Hynes insisted that he would win a retrial. But now he was in the unenviable position of pursuing two seemingly contradictory cases at once — the prosecution of a Boro Park cantor for molesting a boy, and the prosecution of a father of one of the cantor’s alleged victims for extortion and bribery.
For two years, the two sides — Kellner and his attorneys and supporters; Lebovits and his attorneys and supporters — have been locked in a battle to control the narrative of both cases, a battle that has been fought out in the courts and in the press.
One narrative holds that Lebovits is a molester, therefore Kellner is innocent. The other holds that Kellner is an extortionist, therefore Lebovits is innocent.
But there is a third possible narrative: that neither of the two men is as innocent as he claims to be.
No journalist wants to be the reporter who questions the motives of an abuse victim’s father or who undermines the prosecution of a sexual abuser. But the more deeply I looked into the Lebovits and the Kellner cases — largely at the urging of Lebovits’s family — the more questions I had. And while many of these questions reflected my growing skepticism about Kellner’s claims, my skepticism about Lebovits, whose supporters were supplying me with much of the material, grew as well.
Kellner admitted to The New York Times that he is “no saint.” But the overwhelming narrative, as it has been conveyed in The New York Jewish Week and in The New York Times, portrays Kellner as a wounded father simply trying to get justice for his abused son.
Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a longtime advocate for abuse victims, remembers vividly the day in 2008 when Kellner came to his office to report that his son had been abused. “He was an extremely distraught father,” Hikind said.
Never mind that the modesty committees that Kellner said he consulted with are often portrayed by advocates as shadowy forces that use intimidation and blackmail to get their way.
Never mind that the NYPD detective’s note that was belatedly submitted into evidence during Lebovits’s trial — the note prosecutors had withheld from the defense — quoted the victim saying that he was being offered $10,000 by intermediaries from Lebovits’s family but that Kellner wanted the victim to hold out for $200,000.
These and myriad other questionable facts are ignored by Kellner’s supporters, who portray him as a man who has been framed by Lebovits’s wealthy and well-connected family.
Kellner is hounded, according to those who hold this view, because of his pursuit of justice, and as a result he faces financial ruin.
But Kellner had already had six legal judgments against him, totaling $200,000, between 1990 and 2007.
And his simple pursuit of justice does not explain many of the recordings recently obtained by the Forward.
The tapes were provided by Lebovits’s family and by his legal team. The Forward tried to verify the recordings as much as possible, and found no substantive inconsistencies in the way the Lebovits team presented the recordings.
The recordings — more than a dozen in total — are enough to make a reporter’s head spin. The Sam Kellner described by these people, including former business associates of Kellner’s and the relatives and acquaintances of abusers and their victims — is a man with ethical and legal standards that would make a true advocate for abusers blanch.
In one recording — which has been verified by the Forward — Kellner tells the family of a child molester who had pleaded guilty that he can help get the man off and that, citing the Hasidic bloc vote, they should tell the DA, “Hey, you took a Jewish man, you railroaded him into a deal… and we won’t forget it.”
During the conversation, which was longer than one hour and held on the street in Boro Park, Kellner counseled the family on how the self-confessed molester might avoid jail time. He told them that they must appeal to leading rabbis to “put the squeeze” on the Brooklyn DA, who is beholden to the rabbis for communal votes. The goal, Kellner said, “is, he shouldn’t spend one day in jail.”
Kellner recommended that the family contact Asher White, the husband of Henna White, who is an ultra-Orthodox staffer in the DA’s office and is the office’s liaison with the Orthodox community. With White’s husband as the family’s lawyer, the DA will know that the family means business, Kellner said. (There was no suggestion by the parties on the tape that White would act unethically.)
Kellner also told the family they can buy off prosecutors with meals, New York Yankees tickets and other gifts to have the case thrown out. One of the relatives sounded disgusted by the suggestion. “It’s not really bribing,” Kellner said.
Jerry Schmetterer, a spokesman for the Brookyn DA, said the allegations “are too ludicrous to respond to.”
(Kellner’s attorney, Niall MacGiollabhui, said that he preferred to respond after hearing the tape in full. The Forward was unable to send a complete copy of the recording to MacGiollabhui because the molester’s family does not want to be identified. But readers can hear redacted excerpts of this conversation on the Forward’s website.)
This recording permanently altered my image of Kellner, not least because the very tactics he proposed to the molester’s family are the ones that abuse advocates have long suspected of the Brooklyn DA’s office — that it hands out so-called “sweetheart plea deals” to ultra-Orthodox molesters in return for ultra-Orthodox votes come election time.
My image of Kellner was further muddied by another recording in which Kellner, according to a Boro Park rabbi who dealt with him, appeared to push beyond the legal and ethical boundaries of reporting abuse.
In this recording, the rabbi stated that Kellner asked him for money in exchange for not naming one of a victim’s two alleged abusers. Kellner, the rabbi stated on the recording, told him that Lebovits is the only abuser he is interested in getting.
The rabbi said that Kellner told him the money he was demanding would pay for an attorney for the abuse victim, who would name only Lebovits.
The rabbi said that he recorded one of these conversations with Kellner, but he would turn over the tape only if he should be subpoenaed.
The Forward has also obtained a recording of Simon Taub, a sweater mogul famed in New York’s tabloids for his “War of Roses” divorce. Taub and his ex-wife, Chana Taub, split their Boro Park home — literally — by building a wall straight down the middle. Taub was arrested in 2010 on charges that he tried to extort $50,000 from Meyer Lebovits, another of Baruch Lebovits’s sons. Taub threatened to report that Meyer Lebovits had abused Taub’s son unless the family paid up.
Meyer’s brother, Chaim, who handled the negotiations, alerted the Brooklyn district attorney’s office. In a wiretapped conversation conducted in Yiddish, Taub implicated Kellner in the extortion plot by saying that Kellner will appear at a second handover of money only if the first drop-off goes according to plan.
Taub pled guilty to attempted grand larceny by extortion in the second degree and was sentenced to five years of probation.
Finally, there is a secretly recorded conversation between Kellner and Meyer Lebovits.
The conversation took place in the early evening during the spring of 2009. Meyer Lebovits had just parked his van on 58th Street near the corner of 12th Avenue. As Lebovits walked toward his home, Kellner emerged from a parked van and approached.
Lebovits reached into the pocket of his frock coat and pressed the record button on a digital tape recorder.
Kellner told Meyer Lebovits he has come to discuss his father, whom he accuses of sexually abusing his son.
Though the recording is ambiguous, Meyer Lebovits appears to accept that something untoward happened between his father and Kellner’s son, and Kellner appears to suggest that he is willing to withdraw his son from the case and that he has previously attempted to send emissaries to Meyer Lebovits.
So many aspects of this story seem surreal. Do people in this community spend all their time secretly recording each other?
But my sense of just how Byzantine the double-dealing among these actors may get took a quantum leap when I spoke with a blogger who runs a site called Defend Kellner.
Over the past few months, the Defend Kellner blogger, who goes by the name Sarah Levine, had fed me tidbits of information. About three months ago, Levine told me that, having set up the site to help Kellner, she now doubted some aspects of his story.
During a conversation in October, I asked for her landline number because I could not hear her properly. The number that the putatively self-doubting Kellner defender gave me turned out to be registered to Leah Lebovits, one of Baruch Lebovits’s daughters-in-law.
When I confronted her on this, the woman said that someone had tricked her into using the Lebovits number for her landline. Her husband, Mendel Lebovits, said the number was his family’s, but that the account was discontinued more than a year ago.
The Kellner case is complicated, but this year’s election for Brooklyn DA complicated it even more.
In July of this year, a group of sex abuse advocates gathered outside the district attorney’s office to protest the prosecution of Kellner.
Prosecutors had recently been blindsided when they discovered that the young man who claimed Kellner paid him $10,000 to falsely testify against Lebovits was now giving contradictory testimony and that he was living in Israel at the expense of Zalman Ashkenazi, a close friend of the Lebovits family.
The abuse advocates were joined by two men hoping to unseat Hynes in the looming election for DA, candidates Abe George and Kenneth Thompson.
Thompson told the New York Jewish Week that he wanted to know whether the chief of the rackets division, Michael Vecchione — who has been at the center of controversies over errant prosecutions and wrongful convictions — consulted with sex crimes prosecutors before indicting Kellner.
“What the DA has to explain in the Kellner case is how is it possible that two different units in his office… brought two cases that are diametrically opposed,” Thompson said. “It does not make sense.”
MacGiollabhui said that his client’s prosecution was being dragged out past the September primary election to avoid bad publicity. If that was the case, it was all for naught: Thompson shocked the city by winning the primary.
Soon after, Kellner’s attorneys withdrew their motion to dismiss the case, confident that with Hynes now all but unseated — Hynes ran and lost as a Republican in the November election — the prosecution would not proceed.
In an interview with the Forward, on October 30, Thompson said that he could see why his attendance at the rally outside the DA’s office and his comments could have given the appearance that he had already taken a position on Kellner’s conviction.
But Thompson said that he is keeping an open mind about the case until he assumes office in January and is able to look over all the evidence.
In the meantime, prosecutors Joe Alexis and Nicholas Batsidis refused to continue fighting the Kellner case.
According to an anonymous law enforcement source quoted in the New York Post, the prosecutors were reassigned and new assistant DAs were assigned to the case. At a November 11 hearing in Brooklyn Supreme Court, Judge Ann M. Donnelly set a trial date for the first week in January.
Baruch Lebovits is next due in court November 19.
As Kellner’s case drags on, his attorneys continue to push the case that Lebovits is a child abuser and that Kellner is a victim, persecuted for pursuing justice for his son.
Lawyers for Lebovits insist that he is innocent of the sex abuse charges and that he and his family are the victims of an extortion plot.
Recordings, translations, victims, abusers, rabbis and advocates are all trustworthy or suspect, depending on the direction in which the evidence appears to point.
Although both sides speak with certainty about their own cases never coming to trial, they both also seem equally certain as to the guilt of their opponents.
Both sides also claim the moral high ground to explain why they are so intent on destroying each other’s credibility.
Mendel Lebovits says that the family feels it was put into this horrendous situation by God for a reason: to prevent Kellner from ever being able to extort another family. Kellner’s attorney says his client is motivated by righteous vengeance and by the desire that Lebovits should never be able to molest again.
Neither side comes out of this clash well. Nor does the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, which is still trying to prosecute Lebovits three years on from his first trial, and whose prosecution of Kellner has been called “botched” by the incoming DA, Thompson.
Having read through piles of court papers and transcripts, having listened to recordings and to the arguments of both sides, I’m filled with enormous sorrow for the vulnerable children whose welfare in this community is utterly ignored. But I am still no nearer to believing that I know the truth about the cases of Baruch Lebovits and Sam Kellner.
To the contrary, I have learned to treat with a great deal of suspicion anyone who tells me he is convinced — one way or the other.
Rukhl Schaechter and Eddy Portnoy contributed translation from Yiddish to English for this story.