By Brendan J. Lyons (Times Union)
March 7, 2011
Behind the wheel of his dark-colored SUV, Bernard Freilich could pass for a cop.
In fact, people close to Freilich say at times he's presented himself as one.
His black GMC is equipped with flashing emergency lights, a police radio, siren, a State Police placard on the dashboard and special license plates that say "official."
In his pocket Freilich carries a State Police employee-identification card, and occasionally he wears a gold State Police badge on a lanyard that hangs from his neck. But where he got the badge is anyone's guess.
Freilich is not a police officer. He's a rabbi paid $100,730 annually as a politically appointed State Police "special assistant," a job he's had since Gov. George Pataki gave him the title in March 1995. Freilich's job, in part, is to serve as a "community liaison" to the Hasidic Jewish community, according to a job description on file with State Police.
But in a period of government austerity some are questioning whether Freilich, 59, is a necessary asset to the State Police. Meanwhile, in a Brooklyn neighborhood where Freilich lives, his police-like credentials have sparked allegations he parks illegally and harassed motorists who believed he was a cop.
Since being appointed during Pataki's inaugural year, Freilich has held his job through the administrations of Eliot Spitzer and David Paterson, and now Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo's father, Mario, first assigned a rabbi to the State Police payroll, but Andrew Cuomo has pledged to stem unnecessary hiring. Some former troopers said Freilich's job should get a hard look.
"He shows up, but it's really just to keep people from saying he isn't around," said State Police Lt. Keith Forte, who retired from the agency last August after a 25-year career. "This guy's sole purpose is to put forth a face for the Jewish community, and he has no real purpose with the State Police."
Forte was in charge of recruiting troopers. He worked with Freilich at the State Police's New York City headquarters on Randall's Island. Forte said he believes Freilich has kept his job because "in a nutshell, he gets votes for the governor."
"It's a political position," Forte said. "They always appoint a liaison to the State Police, and that person's job is to handle all Jewish-related affairs in the areas where Hasidic families reside ... but why is the Catholic priest or my reverend or my pastor not part of the State Police like this guy? No one else's community gets that same respect."
Aside from Freilich's murky job duties there are allegations he may have, on occasion, acted as if he were a trooper.
State Police officials said last week they did not issue Freilich a badge. Freilich said they gave it to him in 1995. The agency has a policy against issuing so-called "honorary" badges.
A former State Police superintendent, who spoke on condition he not be identified, said the State Police would not have issued Freilich a badge. The badge Freilich wears is blank where there are normally serial numbers indicative of an authentic shield that's unique to each sworn trooper.
An agency spokesman also said they did not sanction the installation of emergency lights and a siren in Freilich's vehicle. The government license plates on his SUV are registered to Kiryas Joel, a Jewish enclave in Orange County that's exclusive to people of Hasidic faith.
A spokesman for Kiryas Joel, which has 7,400 residents and strong political ties to state and federal officials, as well as the State Police, said Freilich is "not employed by the village." The spokesman, Aron Schreiber, who identified his title as "customer relations," offered no explanation for how Freilich obtained license plates registered to the municipality. Freilich lives in Brooklyn.
A state DMV official on Monday said records related to the license plates on Freilich's vehicle are in a warehouse and that "it will probably take a couple weeks" to produce the paperwork. The Times Union filed a formal request for the information on Feb. 28 after DMV's press office said they would not produce the information without a written request.
In an interview last week, Freilich said he has Kiryas Joel government plates because he does "public relations" for the village in an unpaid volunteer position.
"I am on the village," he said. "It has nothing to do with the State Police."
On his occasional use of flashing red lights, Freilich said: "I have the permission -- only thing I go on calls is when I show up at MVAs (motor vehicle accidents) and deaths ... kidnappings or negotiations. When anybody needs any help."
Freilich attributes the criticism of him to Jewish opponents in Brooklyn's Borough Park who he said are jealous of his job and connections within the State Police. He said he works "24 hours a day" on tasks ranging from training upstate police agencies how to handle fatal accidents involving Orthodox Jews to hostage negotiations and community relations across a spectrum of religious faiths.
Certificates showing he completed courses in suicide prevention and workplace violence at the State Police Academy are pinned over Freilich's desk.
The state Department of Motor Vehicles declined to provide information regarding the license plates on Freilich's private vehicle. State Police said they did not authorize the "official" plate on Freilich's private vehicle. Law enforcement officers, including parking enforcement agencies, are known to give "courtesies" to vehicles that have official plates.
In 2008, Jewish religious leaders in Brooklyn fielded complaints from three people that Freilich used his SUV to make traffic stops of private vehicles. Freilich denies that he ever stopped anyone. "Never in my life," he said. "I know this is not legal and I'm not supposed to do that."
State Police officials said in Freilich's 16 years on the state payroll they received just two complaints against him. One involved an allegation that Freilich sped through an E-ZPass lane. He was cautioned. The second complaint was filed last year, anonymously, by a person who alleged Freilich uses his official-looking vehicle and State Police placard to park illegally, including in front of his Brooklyn residence.
Lt. Glenn Miner, a State Police spokesman, said an internal investigation determined the complaint was unfounded. "There was nothing conclusive they could see from that," Miner said.
A person who was involved in filing the complaint said he believed they provided enough evidence to show Freilich was abusing his State Police credentials.
"He basically acts as a police officer. ... It's dangerous," said a longtime leader of a large Jewish congregation in Brooklyn's Borough Park section. He spoke on condition he not be identified. "The reason he keeps with the village (of Kiryas Joel) is to make his vehicle look more official. ... He tells everybody that his license plate is registered to the State Police."
The religious leader, who said his standing in the congregation could be imperiled if he spoke publicly against Freilich, said three people complained about being pulled over by Freilich. But the controversy was handled within their tight-knit religious community, as is customary.
In Brooklyn, where Freilich is widely known, he double-parks his vehicle, blocks fire hydrants, leaves the vehicle sitting in bus stops while shopping and sometimes parks in curbside areas that prohibit even standing vehicles, according to photographs shared with the Times Union.
There have been other controversies. In 1999 Freilich was indicted in Brooklyn on charges of intimidating a witness for allegedly threatening the life of a young woman if she testified against her father, a Russian Orthodox Jew accused of sexually abusing her for years. Freilich received strong support from his religious community and was later acquitted.
Some State Police officials said they believe Freilich has held onto his non-union job through four governors, and at a time when many state workers are facing the loss of their jobs, because top state officials and their political advisers believe Freilich can marshal votes in Jewish communities known for voting in unison behind candidates recommended by their religious leaders.
Harry Corbitt, a former State Police superintendent, said Freilich was "really not a part of our strategy sessions at division headquarters. I'm not sure how he got the position. ... I know it wasn't a position that I had any control or dominion over."
Corbitt retired from the State Police last year in the wake of a scandal involving Gov. David Paterson's handling of a staffer's domestic violence case. Corbitt said he was later approached by Jewish opponents of Freilich who wanted Corbitt to represent them on issues involving State Police. Corbitt said he wanted the job but declined due to ethical restrictions.
While he was with the agency, Corbitt said, he recalled dealing with Freilich only on issues involving Kiryas Joel and two rival factions that at times have been accused of committing violence against one another. "But from the standpoint of him being a resource to help me deal with issues anywhere else in the state they were pretty much non-existent."
Corbitt said there is a history of Jewish communities seeking ties to the State Police.
"I believe it's to ensure that their rights are protected," Corbitt said. "It's just I believe and I think several other people believe that if you're going to have religious representation to a state agency then you need to be inclusive, rotate the position."