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Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Entry, Affect and Pardons: How a Set of Allies Formed Trump’s Selections

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WASHINGTON — One hacked the computer systems of enterprise rivals. One bribed medical doctors to win referrals for his nursing houses.

One other fled the nation whereas he was on trial for his function in a fraud that siphoned $450 million from an insurance coverage firm, resulting in its collapse. Nonetheless one other ran a Ponzi scheme that plunged a synagogue into foreclosures.

Every received clemency from President Donald J. Trump.

In addition they had one thing else in widespread, an investigation by The New York Occasions discovered. The efforts to hunt clemency for these rich or well-connected individuals benefited from their social, political, or monetary ties to a free assortment of legal professionals, lobbyists, activists and Orthodox Jewish leaders who had labored with Trump administration officers on prison justice laws championed by Jared Kushner.

That community revolved round a pair of influential Jewish organizations that concentrate on prison justice points — the Aleph Institute and Tzedek Affiliation — and well-wired individuals working with them, together with the lawyer Alan M. Dershowitz, Brett Tolman, a former U.S. lawyer for Utah, and Nick Muzin, a Republican operative.

The mix of entry, affect and substantive experience they delivered to bear produced placing outcomes.

Of the 238 whole pardons and commutations granted by Mr. Trump throughout his time period, 27 went to individuals supported by Aleph, Tzedek and the legal professionals and lobbyists who labored with them. At the very least six of these 27 went to individuals who had been denied clemency by way of the official Justice Division course of through the Obama administration.

Through the years, not less than 4 of those that obtained clemency or their households had donated to Aleph. Others or their allies and households had retained individuals like Mr. Dershowitz, who represented Mr. Trump in his first impeachment trial, Mr. Tolman and Mr. Muzin to press their circumstances earlier than the Trump administration, typically working in parallel with Aleph and Tzedek, in accordance with public information and interviews.

The teams weren’t the one ones who had success with Mr. Trump. Alice Marie Johnson, an advocate for fairer sentencing who had her personal drug conviction pardoned by Mr. Trump, was credited by the White Home for championing 13 clemency grants, lots of which went to drug offenders and African-American defendants given disproportionately lengthy jail phrases.

Whereas Aleph labored with Ms. Johnson on some clemency circumstances — together with for individuals convicted of nonviolent drug crimes — Aleph, Tzedek and their allies stood out for his or her success at successful clemency for white-collar offenders who had left a harmful path of fraud of their wake. The vast majority of those that received clemency with their assist had been convicted of monetary crimes.

It was a brand new chapter particularly for Aleph, which has lengthy labored on behalf of individuals dealing with dire conditions within the prison justice system. Aleph has for years appealed for extra lenient sentencing guidelines and pressed judges to scale back jail time in particular person circumstances, whereas offering social and non secular providers to prisoners and their households. It solely started looking for presidential clemencies through the Obama administration — and didn’t safe any such grants till Mr. Trump took workplace.

The leaders of Aleph, Tzedek and their allies performed a task in serving to construct help for a sweeping rewrite of federal sentencing legal guidelines in 2018, successful bipartisan reward and bolstering their clout within the administration.

Mr. Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, spearheaded the sentencing overhaul effort within the White Home, and likewise helped oversee the clemency course of. He had turn into inquisitive about prison justice and developed ties to members of the free community of allies on the difficulty after his father, Charles Kushner, was sentenced in 2005 to 2 years in jail for tax evasion, witness tampering and mendacity to the Federal Election Fee.

When Charles Kushner, a donor to Aleph, obtained a pardon from Mr. Trump in December, the White Home cited Mr. Tolman’s help for the choice.

Whereas Mr. Obama issued practically 1,700 extra clemency grants than Mr. Trump, he chosen largely circumstances that got here by way of a Justice Division course of for figuring out and vetting recipients.

The overwhelming majority of Mr. Trump’s pardons and commutations bypassed that course of, and had been as a substitute awarded by way of an advert hoc system run by a handful of White Home aides, with help from exterior advisers.

On this planet of prison protection legal professionals and clemency seekers, Aleph, Tzedek and the individuals working alongside them got here to be seen as among the many only avenues to clemency, together with for monetary crimes of the kind which might be normally much less prone to garner help from prison justice activists.

A spokesman for Aleph stated the group chosen candidates primarily based on elements together with humanitarian issues, clear demonstrations of regret and its dedication to addressing what it typically sees as excessively lengthy sentences.

He acknowledged that Aleph had accepted donations from individuals whose clemencies its officers later supported to 1 diploma or one other, however stated the group did its clemency work for free of charge, and wouldn’t settle for donations from individuals whereas engaged on their clemencies. In two circumstances during which the White Home credited Aleph with supporting clemency grants to individuals who had donated to the group, the spokesman stated rabbis at Aleph merely expressed help for the petition.

These donations represented a tiny fraction of its total finances, which totaled practically $6.9 million for the 12 months ending in fall 2019, the spokesman stated, including that neither cash nor non secular affiliation performed any function in its selections about clemency circumstances.

Aleph minimized its connection to Tzedek’s clemency work and stated it was deceptive to explain the organizations as a part of a clemency community, whereas noting that clemency was solely a small a part of the group’s work.

“Over the course of 40 years, Aleph has served as a lifeline for greater than 30,000 individuals — the overwhelming majority of whom are indigent — by way of dozens of packages” supplied to them freed from cost, Aleph’s founder, Rabbi Sholom D. Lipskar, stated in a press release.

Moshe Margaretten, an Orthodox rabbi who based Tzedek, stated most of these it sought clemency for had been nonviolent drug offenders. He cited humanitarian causes like sickness and household concerns for backing the profitable clemency requests of two males serving prolonged sentences for monetary crimes.

Activists who foyer for sentencing leniency and clemency for nonviolent drug offenders have praised the efforts of Aleph and Tzedek. However a few of these activists stated that the community’s help for rich or well-connected fraudsters exacerbated the inequity that pervaded clemency selections underneath Mr. Trump.

Ari Weisbrot, a New Jersey litigator, stated he had seen either side. The humanitarian work Aleph did in prisons, Mr. Weisbrot stated, was overshadowed by the advocacy it provided to individuals like Eliyahu Weinstein, who was convicted of working a Ponzi scheme that stole tens of millions of {dollars} from shoppers represented by Mr. Weisbrot — cash that has by no means been returned.

Aleph had sought leniency for Mr. Weinstein at his sentencing in 2014. When Mr. Trump commuted Mr. Weinstein’s 24-year sentence in January, the White Home credited Mr. Tolman, Mr. Dershowitz and the Tzedek Affiliation in addition to an array of lawmakers and activists for the choice.

“I’ve handled teams like Aleph in different conditions the place they’ve been wonderful and unbelievably useful,” Mr. Weisbrot stated. “However when you flip from serving to individuals who need assistance to serving to individuals who have confirmed themselves unworthy of assist, you might be now not a public service, however fairly an instrument that allows wrongdoing.”

The Aleph Institute, which takes its title from the primary letter within the Hebrew alphabet, was established by Rabbi Lipskar, an adherent of the Chabad-Lubavitch group of Hasidic Jews, in Surfside, Fla., within the early Eighties on the path of the motion’s chief on the time, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

Rabbi Schneerson taught that incarceration is inhumane, and worse than dying in sure respects, as a result of it disadvantaged prisoners of the power to contribute to society, although he acknowledged the necessity to incarcerate individuals who had been harmful to others.

Aleph has labored for years to restrict jail time in particular circumstances.

A few of that work has drawn criticism from crime victims, authorized specialists and a few prosecutors.

Aleph urged a choose to impose an intensive program of “rehabilitative public service” — fairly than a prolonged jail sentence — for Sheldon Silver, the disgraced former chief of the New York State Meeting and one of many nation’s most outstanding Orthodox elected officers, after Mr. Silver’s conviction on corruption costs.

Rabbi Margaretten of the Tzedek Affiliation would later be among the many influential figures who urged Mr. Trump to grant clemency to Mr. Silver; Mr. Trump deserted plans to take action after reporting by The Occasions.

Through the years, Aleph additionally constructed a robust community of outstanding supporters and allies within the authorized world. Its web site options testimonials from the previous F.B.I. director Louis Freeh and the previous lawyer basic Michael B. Mukasey — each of whom have supported clemency purposes introduced by the group.

Mr. Dershowitz, one of many nation’s best-known prison protection legal professionals, started volunteering his authorized providers to the group within the Eighties, he stated. When Mr. Dershowitz turned 80 in 2018, Aleph reportedly honored him with a star-studded feast in Manhattan.

The dinner was underwritten by Harry Adjmi, a rich actual property investor; his brother Alex Adjmi, who was convicted of laundering cash for a Colombian drug cartel within the Nineties, was amongst these pardoned by Mr. Trump in January. Aleph stated it didn’t push for Mr. Adjmi’s pardon. Harry Adjmi declined to remark.

“Just about each clemency case I’ve handled, I had some contact with Aleph,” Mr. Dershowitz stated.

Mr. Dershowitz additionally started working with the Tzedek Affiliation within the last weeks of Mr. Trump’s presidency. Whereas he had sought clemencies underneath a number of presidents, Mr. Dershowitz had extra success underneath Mr. Trump than underneath each previous president mixed.

The Kushner household had longstanding private connections to the community and the Chabad-Lubavitch motion. Impressed by his father’s case, Jared Kushner turned a supporter of sentencing overhaul, reportedly donating to a lobbying effort by Rabbi Margaretten to vary federal sentencing legal guidelines after assembly with him in 2012.

Rabbi Margaretten later began the Tzedek Affiliation, and retained Mr. Dershowitz, Mr. Muzin and Mr. Tolman as lobbyists. (Mr. Tolman additionally lobbied for Aleph, which paid him $50,000 final 12 months.)

The Kushner household’s charitable basis, the place Mr. Kushner was a director, donated greater than $188,000 to Aleph from 2004 to the top of 2017, in accordance with the inspiration’s tax returns. The muse additionally donated greater than $254,000 — primarily to learn the needy — to the Shul of Bal Harbour, Rabbi Lipskar’s synagogue in Surfside, which shares an tackle with the Aleph Institute.

When Mr. Kushner joined the White Home, he set to work making an attempt to overtake federal sentencing legal guidelines.

The trouble introduced Aleph and its like-minded allies with a twin alternative. They may advance a longtime legislative precedence, whereas additionally utilizing their entry to White Home officers to hunt particular person pardons and commutations.

One among Mr. Trump’s first commutations, in December 2017, went to Sholom Rubashkin, who was convicted in 2009 of financial institution fraud after lots of of undocumented immigrant employees had been arrested in a raid the 12 months earlier than on the meatpacking plant he oversaw.

Whereas the Obama Justice Division had rejected Mr. Rubashkin’s clemency request, Mr. Kushner suggested Mr. Trump to commute his sentence, in accordance with a former White Home official, and Mr. Dershowitz personally lobbied Mr. Trump on the case, which additionally had been championed for years by, amongst others, Aleph and Rabbi Margaretten.

Mr. Dershowitz stated officers within the White Home Counsel’s Workplace informed him that they had very excessive regard for Aleph and took its clemency petitions significantly, including that was why “Aleph most likely received extra commutations than others.”

Rabbi Margaretten enlisted Mr. Muzin, a former adviser to Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, to push for “clemency for particular person prisoners,” in addition to adjustments to sentencing legal guidelines, in accordance with lobbying filings. (Mr. Muzin would report receiving $110,000 for the work in 2019 and 2020.)

Mr. Muzin organized a name for Mr. Dershowitz, Jewish leaders in Texas and others to win help for the White Home sentencing overhaul from Mr. Cruz, a key Republican holdout. He got here out in help of the invoice, often called the First Step Act, which was signed into legislation by Mr. Trump in late 2018, and led to the discharge of 1000’s of nonviolent drug offenders, in addition to some white-collar criminals supported by the community.

On the White Home Hanukkah celebration the following 12 months, Mr. Trump known as on Rabbi Margaretten to mild the menorah, and credited him and an Aleph official, Rabbi Zvi Boyarsky, with serving to move the laws.

Mr. Muzin, engaged on behalf of Rabbi Margaretten, and Mr. Dershowitz additionally pushed for the discharge of one other prisoner, Sholam Weiss, who was convicted in 2000 of siphoning $450 million from an insurance coverage firm, resulting in its collapse. Mr. Weiss spent greater than a 12 months on the run, earlier than being arrested in Austria and extradited to the USA to serve an 845-year sentence.

“The case had been mentioned for years within the White Home and was a key precedence for prison justice advocate teams, but it surely had met some resistance and wasn’t shifting,” Mr. Muzin stated. He introduced the request to the White Home chief of employees, Mark Meadows.

With hours left in his time period, Mr. Trump commuted Mr. Weiss’s sentence, and, when Mr. Weiss was launched after serving 18 years in jail, he was greeted by Rabbi Margaretten.

That very same day, Mr. Trump additionally commuted the sentence of Mr. Weinstein, the New Jersey man who stole greater than $200 million by way of elaborate actual property scams. Whereas the official White Home announcement credited Mr. Tolman, Mr. Dershowitz, Tzedek and others, Mr. Weinstein additionally had behind-the-scenes help from gamers whose motives had been much less clear.

Most of Mr. Weinstein’s victims had been fellow Orthodox Jews, whose traditions of mutual belief and handshake offers he exploited. He paid just about no restitution to his victims and maintained his innocence up till shortly earlier than his sentencing.

However, Rabbi Lipskar, Aleph’s founder, spoke for Mr. Weinstein at his 2014 sentencing, suggesting a punishment of 5 years’ home arrest.

“Home arrest generally is worse than jail to some individuals,” Mr. Lipskar stated. A choose disagreed, sentencing Mr. Weinstein to greater than 20 years.

Mr. Weinstein nonetheless had years to serve when Barry Wachsler, a Lengthy Island businessman, paid Mr. Muzin and a colleague not less than $75,000 to start lobbying the Trump administration for his launch. Mr. Wachsler stated that after attending to know Mr. Weinstein throughout visits to the jail the place Mr. Weinstein was serving, he grew incensed by what he considered Mr. Weinstein’s unfair therapy.

Mr. Wachsler stated he turned a part of a broad group of supporters who labored to assist Mr. Weinstein, however stated he didn’t need to title others with out permission.

“Collectively, individuals put collectively the cash and it was paid,” he stated.

However Mr. Wachsler acknowledged that one of many individuals serving to out was a good friend of his from Lengthy Island named Yitz Grossman, a businessman along with his personal file of white-collar fraud convictions. Late final 12 months, Mr. Grossman started approaching victims of Mr. Weinstein to see if they might think about writing letters to help his clemency petition.

Ruth Brandt, a Los Angeles philanthropist who misplaced $1 million to Mr. Weinstein, stated that Mr. Grossman introduced himself as somebody who had served in jail with Mr. Weinstein and believed his prolonged sentence was unjust.

If Ms. Brandt signed a letter supporting Mr. Weinstein’s clemency petition, she stated Mr. Grossman informed her, supporters of Mr. Weinstein would organize for her to be paid $100,000. Ms. Brandt in the end declined the provide.

“I stated, ‘Why are you serving to him?’” Ms. Brandt recalled.

Later, Ms. Brandt was outraged to study — from reporting by The Occasions — that Mr. Dershowitz was additionally concerned within the effort to assist Mr. Weinstein win clemency. She emailed him in January to complain.

Mr. Dershowitz defended his work, in accordance with emails seen by The Occasions, saying that he had been requested to assist Mr. Weinstein and that “In Europe and Israel his sentence would have been 5 years.”

Mr. Grossman additionally approached Harvey Wolinetz, a developer in New Jersey and Florida from whom Mr. Weinstein stole about $70 million. Describing himself as somebody working with the Aleph Institute, Mr. Grossman additionally instructed {that a} six-figure restitution might be made if Mr. Wolinetz supported clemency, in accordance with two individuals briefed on the dialogue, who requested for anonymity as a result of they weren’t licensed to publicly focus on the matter.

Mr. Wolinetz agreed to put in writing a letter to Mr. Trump. In an interview, Mr. Wolinetz, 78, stated Mr. Grossman had by no means broached a particular greenback determine, however stated he hoped that with Mr. Weinstein free, “simply possibly there’ll be some compensation for me down the street.”

Mr. Grossman, who obtained help from Aleph whereas he was imprisoned, denied that he had described himself as representing Aleph or provided cash in trade for the letter. The Aleph spokesman stated the group was not concerned in Mr. Weinstein’s clemency effort.

“I actually informed those who you don’t have any shot if an individual is sitting within the system,” Mr. Grossman stated. “Can an individual who’s incarcerated make restitution?”

In some circumstances, the monetary connections between clemency recipients and the community had been direct.

After Philip Esformes was charged in 2016 in what prosecutors known as the largest well being care fraud case charged by the Justice Division, his father, himself a rabbi, donated $65,000 to the Aleph Institute over a number of years. The daddy, who additionally made smaller donations to the Shul of Bal Harbour, stated throughout his son’s sentencing in 2019 that he would make further contributions to a psychological well being group with which Aleph had deliberate to staff up, and at which Mr. Esformes’s legal professionals instructed he may carry out neighborhood service as a substitute of an extended jail sentence.

The Aleph spokesman stated the donations to the group ended earlier than it started pushing for his son’s clemency. Mr. Trump commuted Mr. Esformes’s sentence simply earlier than Christmas.

After Ariel Friedler was launched in 2014 from a two-month jail sentence for conspiring to hack into laptop programs of rivals of his schooling software program firm, he donated to funds on the Shul of Bal Harbour for scholarships and the needy. He additionally donated to the Aleph Institute and volunteered his time and software program administration experience.

An Aleph official wrote to the Florida bar affiliation in 2017 to get Mr. Friedler’s legislation license reinstated, explaining that Mr. Friedler had really useful adjustments that had allowed “the group to develop exponentially,” and later wrote a letter to the White Home supporting a pardon for him. When the pardon got here, in February 2020, White Home officers credited Aleph.

Kenneth P. Vogel reported from Washington, and Nicholas Confessore from New York. Alain Delaquérière contributed analysis.

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