By Alison Leigh Cowan and William K. Rashbaum
Soon after he began running for Congress in 2009, Michael G. Grimm, a Staten Island Republican, needed to convince party leaders in Washington that he could raise enough money to become a viable candidate. Seeking help, he turned to an unlikely source: followers of an Orthodox rabbi and mystic from Israel.
|Representative Michael G. Grimm, a Staten Island Republican, |
at a town-hall-style meeting last April.
Mr. Grimm, a former agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a Roman Catholic who regularly attends Sunday Mass, traveled around the New York region with one of the rabbi’s top aides, Ofer Biton, to raise campaign money from the rabbi’s followers. In all, the Grimm campaign collected more than $500,000 from the followers, according to numerous interviews and an analysis of Mr. Grimm’s campaign records.
|Ofer Biton, a former aide to |
Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto,
is said to have helped raise
money for Mr. Grimm's
2010 House campaign.
But now, Mr. Biton, an Israeli citizen, is being investigated by the F.B.I. and federal prosecutors in Brooklyn over accusations that he embezzled millions of dollars from the rabbi’s congregation. And an examination by The New York Times has highlighted Mr. Biton’s unusual role in the Grimm campaign — as well as questionable donations that the rabbi’s followers said Mr. Grimm had accepted.
The examination of Mr. Grimm’s fund-raising was based on more than 15 interviews with followers and associates of the rabbi, Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto, who divides his time between Israel and Manhattan, where he has a large congregation.
Mr. Grimm would not respond to questions about Mr. Biton and his campaign finances beyond issuing a general statement.
“Any suggestion that I was involved in any activities that may run afoul of the campaign finance laws is categorically false and belied by my life of public service protecting and enforcing the laws of this country,” Mr. Grimm said in the statement on Friday.
In interviews, followers of the rabbi spoke repeatedly about the close ties between Mr. Grimm and Mr. Biton.
“Grimm and Biton were together all the time during the campaign,” said one of the followers, Yossi Zaga, a real estate investor who donated $4,800, the legal limit, to Mr. Grimm at Mr. Biton’s urging. “They would drive around together to the homes and offices and ask for contributions.”
Three of the rabbi’s followers said in separate interviews that Mr. Grimm or Mr. Biton told them that the campaign would find a way to accept donations that were over the legal limit, were given in cash or were given by foreigners without green cards.
Congressional campaigns are not allowed to accept cash donations of more than $100. Foreigners without green cards are barred by law from giving to political campaigns. They are also not allowed to solicit contributions for campaigns.
One follower of the rabbi said in an interview that Mr. Grimm pressed him for $20,000. The follower said Mr. Grimm instructed him to meet him “near the F.B.I. building,” in Lower Manhattan, in summer 2010 to give the money. The follower said he handed over $5,000 in cash in an envelope to Mr. Grimm in Mr. Grimm’s car.
Within a week, the follower said, he gave Mr. Grimm a $5,000 check from a friend. Mr. Grimm then repeatedly called the follower and demanded another $10,000, the follower said.
“Every day, he used to call me, over and over,” the follower said.
The follower said he ignored the calls and did not give again.
A second follower recalled that Mr. Grimm came to his office in Manhattan to solicit a legal contribution. As he was handing over the check, the second follower said, Mr. Grimm confided in him that there were ways of working around the campaign rules.
“Grimm wanted you to supply the money, and if someone wants to give and cannot give, you have to find a friend to give it through,” the second follower recalled. “Let’s say someone is not legal to give because he’s not American. Grimm wants this guy, Joe A, to give the money to Joe B so Joe B can make the contribution to the campaign.”
A third follower said he picked up, at Mr. Biton’s behest, $25,000 for Mr. Grimm’s campaign from a single Israeli.
“I give the checks to Ofer, and he gives them to Michael,” the third follower said.
The third follower said the money donated by the Israeli was falsely listed in Mr. Grimm’s campaign disclosure records as having been given by at least five other people. The practice referred to — creating so-called straw donors — is illegal.
|Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto.|
Spokesmen for the United States attorney’s office in Brooklyn and the F.B.I. would not respond to questions about Mr. Biton.
The Times contacted Mr. Grimm’s office on Monday and supplied a list of questions about his fund-raising and Mr. Biton.
On Thursday, Mr. Grimm responded with an e-mail from his personal account.
“At first, I thought it was a joke because the allegations are so absurd and ridiculous,” Mr. Grimm wrote. “But let me be very clear, the information you received is completely false and I know is unsubstantiated, thus completely unfit to print.”
Mr. Grimm wrote that he would readily consent to be interviewed for this article. But he did not respond to further queries, and on Friday, he issued the official statement through his lawyer, reiterating that he had never violated campaign rules.
The donors interviewed by The Times said they gave money to the Grimm campaign because Mr. Biton told them that Rabbi Pinto wanted people in his congregation to do so.
The rabbi’s followers said Mr. Biton rounded up campaign money for Mr. Grimm in hopes that if Mr. Grimm won, he would help Mr. Biton obtain a green card.
It could not be determined whether Mr. Grimm did anything to help Mr. Biton with the immigration authorities.
Rabbi Pinto’s spokesman said the rabbi had met with Mr. Grimm but had not been aware at the time that Mr. Biton was raising money so aggressively for Mr. Grimm.
In a statement, Mr. Biton’s lawyer, Jeffrey A. Udell, denied that Mr. Biton had ever raised money for Mr. Grimm.
“You asked, Did he pick up checks for Grimm’s campaign, and the answer is categorically no,” Mr. Udell said.
Mr. Biton has denied allegations by the rabbi’s followers that he embezzled millions of dollars from the rabbi’s congregation, the focus of the federal inquiry.
Rabbi Pinto has built a thriving congregation since he established a branch of his movement in New York City in 2002, attracting many prominent worshipers. Some celebrities, like the basketball star LeBron James, who is not Jewish, have gone to see him.
Representative Anthony D. Weiner, a New York Democrat, met with the rabbi before he resigned from Congress. Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House majority leader, also met with him. Both men are Jewish.
A small number of the rabbi’s followers donated to the campaigns of Mr. Weiner and Mr. Cantor. But no politician has relied as extensively for campaign money upon the followers as Mr. Grimm, according to campaign finance records.
The vast majority of the followers who donated to Mr. Grimm’s 2010 campaign had never before given to a federal candidate, according to campaign records, and did not live in Mr. Grimm’s district, which includes Staten Island and part of Brooklyn.
It is not clear how Mr. Grimm met Mr. Biton, but the two men and a New York public relations executive named Ronn Torossian have often spent time together since Mr. Grimm embarked on his dark horse Congressional campaign.
“Lunch with Congressman Michael Grimm,” Mr. Torossian wrote on his Twitter account in October 2011. “He always leaves me inspired with hope in government.”
Mr. Torossian is also a subject of the federal inquiry into the embezzlement of money from the rabbi’s congregation.
Mr. Torossian’s lawyer, Gerald L. Shargel, said his client supported Mr. Grimm and gave money to his campaign but played “absolutely no role” in efforts to raise money from the rabbi’s followers.
“He absolutely denies any wrongdoing,” Mr. Shargel said, “and sees himself as a victim in this case.”
Mr. Grimm has received very few donations from Rabbi Pinto’s followers for his 2012 re-election campaign, the records show. The followers interviewed said they did not want to donate to the Grimm campaign after federal prosecutors began investigating the embezzlement accusations against Mr. Biton.
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