By Hella Winston (The Jewish Week)
November 5, 2014
Sol Wachtler wasn’t a big fan of The Jewish Week’s coverage of the bribery and extortion prosecution of chasidic child abuse whistleblower Sam Kellner.
Or at least that’s how the former chief judge of New York’s highest court made it sound to his close friend, Brooklyn District Attorney Charles “Joe” Hynes, back in January of 2013, a week after the paper published the first story in what would become a multi-part series on the case.
“[I] forgot to mention the Jewish Week piece,” Wachtler wrote in an e-mail to Hynes, one of many obtained recently by The Jewish Week through a Freedom of Information Law request; in the email, Wachtler addresses Hynes as “Yos,” a Yiddish-y version of Joe.
“I read it twice, and I swear I cannot follow what the hell she’s talking about. …The only people who will have the patience to read and attempt to follow the story are the Hasids, and all but a handful will disagree with her conclusions (whatever they are). I would make three recommendations: 1) They send the story to Guantanamo and have it be read in lieu of water boarding, 2) Bennett Gershman [an ethics expert quoted in the story] be encouraged to retire, and 3) The Jewish Week Investigative Journalism Fund [which supported the reporting of the story] should get its money back.”
The story was indeed byzantine, with a plot even a sharp legal mind like Wachtler’s could not be expected to wrap itself around easily.
But Hynes seemed free of doubt.
“Incidentally, the claimed [sic] that the tape in Yiddish of Kellner’s bribe is ambiguous is nonsense,” Hynes replied to Wachtler, mischaracterizing a key piece of evidence in the case that The Jewish Week story had called into question.
Hynes and Wachtler were equally dismissive of the paper’s second story on the case, published in May 2013, around the time Hynes was ramping up his re-election bid. That story brought to light information that damaged a different aspect of the case.
“Like the last story about the ‘whistleblower’ case, I just can’t follow it,” Wachtler wrote in a June e-mail to Hynes.
“It reads like a paradie [sic] (anonymous calls, a Yiddish tape which is in no one’s possession made by a person who won’t meet with the prosecutor. I don’t think it should be elevated by a response.”
“My practice is simply to ignore the Jewish Week and Helen [sic] Winston,” Hynes replied, before noting his upcoming endorsement by two “powerhouses in Brooklyn’s Carribean [sic] Community.”
As the summer progressed, The Jewish Week continued to report on the case, exposing what appeared to observers to be indications of incompetence, corruption or both in its handling. And in July, Hynes appeared on a Jewish radio show, affirming the strength of that same case.
Then in August, Hynes received advice from another old friend, Barry Kamins, then Chief Administrative Judge for Criminal Matters in Brooklyn. Referencing an upcoming debate between Hynes and his opponent, Ken Thompson, Kamins listed “Expressing opinion on guilt of Sam Kellner” as a possible debate issue. He referred to the Kellner case again under the heading, “Preferential treatment given to orthodox jewish defendants in sex abuse cases.” Of course, Kellner was never a defendant in such a case, but his indictment served to undermine the case of a man (convicted child molester Baruch Lebovits) who was — many believe intentionally.
The case that Sol Wachtler was convinced nobody would care about had come to figure prominently in the DA’s race.
Hynes went on to lose the election and, almost a year later, Kamins resigned his post under the cloud of an investigation that followed revelations he improperly gave campaign advice to Hynes while serving as a sitting judge.
In March of 2014, Kevin O’Donnell, an assistant district attorney, told the court that “the two main witnesses” against Kellner “lack credibility to such a degree” that their “testimony can no longer be trusted.”
And that tape?
“The recording,” said O’Donnell, “which is ambiguous at best, does not prove an extortion plot.”
After almost three years, the case against Sam Kellner was dismissed.