Plan to pardon 4 Chassidim devised in the fall, lawyer says

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NEW YORK (JTA) — The grand rabbi of New Square, N.Y., was formulating plans to seek presidential pardons for four convicted Chassidim from his community as early as mid-September, the New York Jewish Week has learned.

This revelation comes amid reports that Manhattan U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White was launching a federal criminal probe last week of former President Clinton's decision to cut the prison terms of the four New Square men, convicted of stealing tens of millions of dollars in federal education and housing subsidies.

White's office apparently is investigating whether a "pardon-for-votes deal" was made between Rabbi David Twersky and the former president's wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who last summer and fall was in a heated campaign for the U.S. Senate against former Republican Rep. Rick Lazio.

Hillary Clinton, who first visited New Square on Aug. 8, received 99 percent of the votes in the 7,000person village about 40 miles north of New York City. Two months later, President Clinton commuted the sentences of the four men, over the strenuous objections of White's office.

Hillary Clinton and New Square representatives have vigorously denied that the issue of pardons ever came up between the two sides prior to a Dec. 22 meeting at the White House attended by the two Clintons and Twersky.

But defense attorney Nat Lewin, who handled the appeal of the New Square men last year, told the Jewish Week that Twersky called him to a meeting in New Square "in mid-September" to discuss seeking pardons for Kalmen Stern, David Goldstein, Benjamin Berger and Jacob Elbaum.

Except for Elbaum, the men were prominent New Square officials convicted in 1998 in a scheme that included laundering federal education funds through a nonexistent yeshiva. Two others indicted in the scheme are now fugitives, including one of the village's founders.

The men received prison sentences ranging from 30 to 78 months. On his next-to-last day as president, Clinton reduced their sentences to 24 to 30 months.

Lewin said the meeting with Twersky came just a few weeks after a Manhattan Appeals Court on Aug. 25 rejected Lewin's bid to have the convictions overturned.

Lewin stressed that no mention of pardons or any deal was made to him before the mid-September meeting. He insisted that as the attorney for the four men, he would have known about any plan by New Square to reach out to Hillary Clinton and discuss pardons in August.

Lewin said Twersky raised the idea of seeking presidential pardons after the appeal had been denied. The rabbi believed Hillary Clinton's visit, and the favorable impression she had received, would help, Lewin said.

"He brought up" the pardons, Lewin said. "He didn't suggest going to Hillary or making any deal about the election."

However, Lewin said he did not pursue the rabbi's pardon initiative because he thought it had no chance of success.

Only in December, Lewin said, was he informed that New Square had approached Washington attorney Samuel Rosenthal to pursue the pardons. During that time a decision was made to change the request from pardons to commutations.

Lewin said he next heard that Twersky had met with the Clintons in the White House on Dec. 22.

Lewin said he was surprised when he learned President Clinton approved the commutations on Jan 20, but he insisted that nothing illegal occurred. He called White's probe "a misdirected investigation."

The Manhattan U.S Attorney's office declined to comment on the probe.

Hillary Clinton and her top Jewish campaign aides deny that the issue of pardons was ever raised between her campaign and New Square. The senator has said she played no role in the pardon process and expressed no opinion during the White House meeting.

Clinton's spokeswoman declined to comment on White's probe, and Twersky could not be reached for comment this week.

Twersky's silence has prompted criticism from some Jewish leaders.

Two rabbinical leaders from Agudath Israel of America have warned that Orthodoxy's reputation has become sullied in the eyes of the world because "Orthodox individuals and institutions" have been "tarred with the brush of illegal financial activity."

Rabbi Norman Lamm, president of Yeshiva University, said he believed Twersky should publicly address the scandals.

An Orthodox Jewish legislator from New York's Rockland County, Ryan Karben, said the New Square scandal "makes it more difficult to advocate for funds for community-based social services agencies serving the Orthodox community."

Sources said White's New Square probe emerged from her investigation of the more controversial pardon of fugitive billionaire financier Marc Rich, which was supported by many top Jewish and Israeli leaders.