Several weeks after her historic victory in New York's U.S. Senate race, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton attended a meeting at the White House with President Bill Clinton and the Skverer rebbe Rabbi David Twersky, spiritual leader of the scandal-scarred New Square chasidic sect in Rockland County.
But this was not the first meeting between New York's new junior senator and the 60-year-old grand rebbe of the 7,000-member village the first incorporated Jewish community in the U.S.
Clinton first campaigned there last August. That visit launched a series of events that last week culminated in a controversial last-minute clemency action on behalf of New Square by outgoing President Clinton.
His act came 10 weeks after New Square, breaking with most Orthodox communities, heartily supported Clinton's Senate campaign, delivered almost all of the village's votes for her.
The decision by President Clinton to commute the sentences of four prominent New Square men who stole tens of millions from the federal government in a phony yeshiva scheme is being criticized this week by law enforcement officials.
Questions are being raised about whether the first lady unduly capitalized on her relationship with her husband, who had the unregulated power to pardon or commute prison sentences.
New Square officials and a spokesman for Senator Clinton emphatically deny that any "deal" was made before the election to deliver votes for her in return for the commutations of the "New Square Four." Both say the subject was never even raised until December.
Clinton said Wednesday she played "no role whatsoever" in the commutation. "I had no opinion about it," she said.
But some critics don't believe it.
"Just look at the math," said a Republican operative familiar with the Senate race. "She gets all of New Square's votes and two months later she [helps commute the sentences of] four people from the village."
The New Square commutations came among a blizzard of last-minute pardons and commutations many controversial directed by President Clinton on his last day in office. But New Square seems to be the only one connected to his wife's unprecedented race for the Senate.
New Square advocates argue the sentences were too harsh and that the convicted men did not gain personal profit from ill-gotten federal money a claim disputed by the federal judge during sentencing.
New York law enforcement officials were irate over the New Square commutations.
Manhattan U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White said they bypassed Justice Department procedures and did not give her office enough time to prepare arguments against them.
White's office learned of the New Square commutations on Jan 16 four days before the decision to pardon and was given a one-day deadline to reply. "We found out about the New Square virtually at the last moment," said a law enforcement official.
In contrast to New Square, Clinton also publicly expressed concern about the Jonathan Pollard case, but no action was taken to commute Pollard's life sentence for spying on behalf of Israel.
On Aug. 8, Clinton visited New Square, about 40 miles north of New York City. She visited the girls yeshiva and schmoozed with Rabbi Twersky's wife, Chana. She also had a private meeting with the rebbe.
At the time, Clinton's campaign was desperately trying to boost stagnant support for her among the state's key Jewish voters. Her opponent, former Long Island Republican Rep. Rick Lazio, seemed to be gaining momentum.
For Clinton, it was already clear that New York's Orthodox and chasidic communities would be a hard sell, as they were expressing their personal dislike for her and her positions, particularly regarding Israel. She needed to show she could win some support in Orthodox circles.
Meanwhile, New Square was coping with a series of scandals in which top village officials were going to jail or fleeing the country for swindling tens of millions of dollars in federal education, housing and small-business subsidies in a decade-long scam.
One widely publicized case included laundering money through a phony yeshiva set up in Brooklyn.
Rabbi Twersky desperately wanted to win clemency for the four noted New Square residents who on Jan. 25, 1999 were convicted of 21 charges including conspiracy, embezzlement, and wire and mail fraud. Kalmen Stern, 42, was sentenced to 78 months; David Goldstein, 54, of Brooklyn, 70 months; Jacob Elbaum 40, 57 months; and Benjamin Berger, 30 months. They were ordered to pay back millions of dollars.
(In addition, two others fled the country: New Square founders Chaim Berger, Benjamin's father, and Avraham David Friesel, son of Mayor Mattus Friesel. Chaim Berger, who fled to Israel, is awaiting extradition pending an Israeli Supreme Court hearing, while Abraham Friesel is still listed as a fugitive, authorities said.)
"The [prison sentences] were weighing heavily upon the rebbe's soul and mind," said an Orthodox leader familiar with Rabbi Twersky.
For Clinton, the Aug. 8 meeting was a like a splash of cool water in the desert. Unlike more hostile receptions in Orthodox quarters, New Square welcomed her with warmth, participants agreed.
"The rebbetzin and Hillary got along extremely well," a Democratic campaign source recalled. "The rebbe endorsed her."
But spokesmen for Clinton and New Square emphatically state that the issue of the four imprisoned men was not brought up then or anytime before Election Day.
"It was raised sometime after the election," Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson told The Jewish Week Tuesday. Asked specifically when, Wolfson said he did not know.
New Square spokesman Rabbi Mayer Schiller also vigorously assured that the issue was not brought up in August. But other Rockland County political insiders dispute their claims.
"From day one [the issue of commutation] was part and parcel of the whole thing," said one source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "[New Square representatives] spelled out clearly their interest in her helping those who were incarcerated."
After the August meeting, New Square officials began campaigning for Clinton, even outside the village, though Clinton's positions on such core issues as school vouchers, abortion and Israel were in opposition to New Square.
Community members drove around in cars with loudspeakers urging in Yiddish Rockland County Orthodox residents to vote for her. A Yiddish weekly endorsed her based on lobbying from New Square.
"It's not a secret their support was based on the hope that she would look kindly towards the people that are incarcerated," said Rabbi Ronnie Greenwald, a prominent Orthodox leader who lives in nearby Monsey. "They really went out and helped her. It was an honest attempt to get votes and get support for Hillary Clinton."
On Election Day, Clinton carried New Square, 1,400 to 12. It was a glaring exception to much of the Orthodox world and New Square's chasidic neighbors, who voted overwhelmingly for Lazio.
"I would say in general that chasidic voting blocs are motivated greatly by self interest," explained Rabbi Schiller when asked about the anomaly. "New Square tends to vote in blocs, usually based upon personal relationships developed with politicians."
Six weeks after the election, Rabbi Twersky and New Square Deputy Mayor Israel Spitzer found themselves sitting in the White House map room with President Clinton and Sen.elect Hillary Clinton. It was the first time Rabbi Twersky had ever been in the White House, Rabbi Schiller said. (Rabbi Twersky does not grant interviews and Spitzer declined to be interviewed directly.)
During a scheduled 15-minute meeting on Dec. 22 that stretched into 45 minutes, according to New Square officials, Rabbi Twersky raised the issue of seeking mercy for the New Square four and help for fugitive Chaim Berger in Israel.
Rabbi Twersky has never publicly commented about the sins of his community members, and repeatedly turned down interviews to explain the scandal.
Spitzer related that Rabbi Twersky told the president about "a dark cloud" over the community, referring to the prison sentences. The rabbi then presented a letter to President Clinton signed by several Jewish organizations asking for mercy.
"[Clinton] read the letter and said he would look into it," Rabbi Schiller quoted Spitzer. Rabbi Schiller said he could not provide a copy of the letter.
Asked to see any photos taken with the rabbi and the Clintons, Rabbi Schiller denied they existed. But a former White House spokesman confirmed photos were taken and sent to New Square.
Meanwhile, following the White House session, New Square hired Washington attorney Samuel Rosenthal to file the forms necessary to request presidential pardons and commutations actions an outgoing president traditionally takes in the last weeks of his term.
On Saturday, Clinton commuted the sentences of the New Square four. In all Clinton pardoned 140 people and commuted 36 prison sentences.
Perhaps the most controversial was the pardon of fugitive commodities trader Marc Rich and his former partner and Flatbush, Brooklyn, resident Pincus Green, both charged in 1983 with conducting the largest tax evasion scheme in U.S. history.
Rich, 65, who donates vast sums of money to Israel, is the ex-husband of Manhattan songwriter Denise Rich, who has contributed more than $320,000 to Democratic Party causes in the past two years and is a friend of the Clintons.
Also under attack is the pardon of Susan Rosenberg, found guilty of possession of 700 pounds of explosives and a submachine gun in a 1984 New Jersey case.
In the case of the New Square four, Clinton commuted Benjamin Berger's sentence to 24 months and the rest to 30 months. All will serve about another 18 months.
But according to a Justice Department spokeswoman, Clinton's commutation does not dismiss the court's order that they repay millions of dollars in restitution and undergo several years of supervised release. Stern still owes the government $11.2 million; Elbaum $11.1 million; Goldstein, $10.1 million; and Berger $522,977.
Experts said commutations, unlike pardons, are generally granted to shorten a sentence that is deemed too long or otherwise unfair, or to reward cooperation with the government.
White, in a statement speaking of the New York related cases, said: "The facts of several of these cases in particular raise significant law enforcement concerns, the seriousness of the crimes is diminished, and the fact and the appearance of evenhanded justice is compromised." This apparently referred to claims by New Square that her office was overzealous and biased against the village.
But criminal justice experts said the New Square commutations sends a dangerous message about the workings of the justice system to a community that in 1996 was fined $1 million by a federal judge for contempt for refusing to comply with his order to provide evidence.
Observers also fear the commutations will have negative repercussions among New Square's non-Jewish neighbors, who believe that Orthodox Jews already receive special treatment from elected officials.
"This is not justice, this is politics," said Rockland County Sheriff James Kralik, whose office began the investigation years ago.
"This was a situation in my opinion that grew out of the election campaign of Mrs. Clinton and possibly Al Gore," he told the Rockland Journal newspaper Tuesday. "And the community certainly showed their respect for Mrs. Clinton with their votes.
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