Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Favors at Fort Surrender: New Twist in History of Police and Borough Park 

New York, like most places of human habitation, has a long history of bribery, but until now the literature did not reveal any documented episodes in which the graft was packaged as Christmas presents and delivered by two Orthodox Jewish businessmen dressed up as elves.

But now we know there were at least two such instances, if a criminal complaint filed in federal court this week can be trusted. It charged three New York police commanders with serving as errand boys for the businessmen.

Mayor Bill de Blasio had absolutely nothing to do with the Christmas presents, but it is his unique fate to have taken political contributions from the two businessmen. The federal complaint lays out a dynamic in which gifts and bribes were provided by the men to the police commanders in direct exchange for favors they sought.

The two men have ties to a neighborhood where the ambitions of police commanders depend on their ability to maintain cordial relationships with elements of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.

Generations of Brooklyn commanders, particularly in the precincts serving Borough Park and Crown Heights, have made or broken their careers by doing the right favors.

One night in December 1978, hundreds of Hasidic protesters swarmed into the 66th Precinct station house in Borough Park, destroyed a Teletype machine, flung thousands of files onto the floor and got into a pitched battle with police reinforcements summoned by the four officers who were overwhelmed by the mob.

In the end, 60 police officers were injured. No one was arrested.

A T-shirt was created by patrol officers with a new nickname for the precinct: Fort Surrender.

In the same neighborhood two decades later, on an evening in June 1997, thousands of Hasidim chased off deputy sheriffs who had gotten into a scuffle with a scofflaw whose car they were trying to tow. However, the two-star police chief in charge of Brooklyn South, George Brown, refused to immediately release the young man from custody, despite the demands of community leaders and politicians.

Whether principled or stubborn, this was not the tactic of a clever careerist: Chief Brown was transferred two weeks later to Police Headquarters to a job doing nothing. And for good measure, in keeping with the Fort Surrender tradition, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's administration suspended the towing program in Borough Park for months, resuming it only when the suspension was publicly reported. First, though, the mayor announced that the sheriffs would be sent out for "sensitivity training," a precaution apparently unnecessary elsewhere in the city.

The authority of precinct commanders over private Jewish security patrols is openly questioned. Community members say the patrols have long been necessary to keep the Jewish community from being preyed upon, especially during the decades when the city was afflicted with high crime rates.

However essential, compromised or straightforward the relationships were between police commanders and community leaders, the kind of gross bribery charged in the complaint was never part of the picture. Police commanders responded to political leaders, who in turn saw reliable voting blocs that did not need to be wooed with costly advertisements or get-out-the-vote campaigns.

If the criminal complaint is to be believed, the two men at the center of the case, Jeremiah Reichberg, 42, of Borough Park, and Jona S. Rechnitz, 33, sought favors like police escorts through traffic, harassment of rivals, help with arrests, intervention in business disputes and placards for parking privileges.

In exchange, they delivered gifts like video game systems as Christmas presents to the homes of senior commanders, or flew them on trips to Las Vegas, or treated them to family vacations. One episode of currying favor is said to have involved hiring a security firm owned by the family of a police executive at One Police Plaza.

The charges are sordid. The two businessmen were involved in these relationships, according to the indictment, well before Mr. de Blasio took office. With the departure of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who used his personal fortune to fund his political ambitions, the businessmen turned their attention to Mr. de Blasio. Mr. Rechnitz served as a member of his inaugural committee and later gave $102,300 to a political action group allied with the mayor.

Mr. de Blasio has said he raised money to advance a liberal agenda in the State Legislature.

What the two men sought or received from his administration, if anything, is not known.

"Look," Mr. de Blasio told reporters last week of Mr. Rechnitz, "I wish I never met the guy."

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