Monday, March 28, 2011

Rabbi pleads guilty in money transfer corruption case 

The spiritual leader for the Syrian Jewish community in the United States pleaded guilty Monday to operating an illegal money transfer business, as part of a massive federal probe into international money laundering and political corruption in New Jersey.

Saul Kassin, the chief rabbi of Congregation Sharee Zion in Brooklyn, New York, pleaded guilty to one count of unauthorized money transmitting, and agreed to forfeit nearly $370,000 to the government.

He entered the plea in a federal courtroom in Trenton, and was charged in New Jersey because of a transaction that had taken place in Deal, a Jersey Shore town that is a popular summer residence for members of the Syrian Jewish community of New York and New Jersey.

The 89-year-old Kassin appeared frail and hard-of-hearing, with a long, flowing white beard and yarmulke. He was given a court-issued hearing aid device and appeared confused by the proceedings at times, repeatedly asking U.S. District Court Judge Joel Pisano if he could explain to him his side of things.

Pisano explained that it was a plea hearing, and that Kassin would be able to speak during sentencing, which was tentatively scheduled for July 12. Pisano explained to Kassin that although prosecutors had said they would not press for jail time as part of the plea deal, his sentence would be up to Pisano's discretion.

Kassin was among five rabbis arrested in July 2009 and charged with money laundering.

There are 46 defendants in the wider federal investigation. The two tracks of the probe, which became New Jersey's largest corruption case, were tied together by a man named Solomon Dwek, the son of a prominent rabbi from Deal, who agreed to wear a wire for federal authorities after pleading guilty to a $50 million bank fraud.

Alternately posing as a businessman and a corrupt real estate developer, Dwek ensnared several members of his own Syrian Jewish community, as well as other Orthodox Jews, on money laundering charges before branching out to New Jersey officials in what prosecutors say was a cash-for-development assistance scheme.

According to criminal complaints filed by federal prosecutors, rabbis in Deal and Brooklyn laundered tens of millions of dollars as part of an operation between the United States and Israel.

They used charitable entities that they or their synagogues controlled to deposit checks, working with an Israeli who would send huge amounts of money back to the U.S. through so-called "cash houses" in Brooklyn. The rabbis typically kept 5 percent to 10 percent for themselves, according to court documents.

Kassin, as part of his plea deal, admitted Monday that he accepted thousands of dollars in checks from Dwek made out to the Magen Israel Society, a charitable organization Kassin controlled. Kassin then issued checks from the account to other organizations, taking 10 percent commissions from the transactions. Kassin admitted he knew the checks made out to the fund were not used for charitable purposes.

"Few financial crimes offend our sensibilities like those that hide illegal activities behind the curtain of charity," U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman said in a statement. "Rabbi Kassin admitted that he misused his charity to operate an illegal money remitting business, allowing himself and others to criminally profit through the society's supposed legitimacy."

Kassin said he was unaware that Dwek had become an undercover cooperating witness for the federal government, or that he was wearing a wire and video camera and secretly recording their interactions.

Kassin's attorney, Gerald Shargel, said his client, although admitting to conducting a wire transfer without a proper license, had been manipulated by Dwek as a trusted member of the community, and as a result, had been "duped by a scoundrel."

"Here is one of the most decent, pious religious leaders in the country, the Kassin family has a 700 year history as leaders of their faith," said Shargel, who added the rabbi would soon turn 90 years-old. "He needed to get this case behind him."


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