Entry, Affect and Pardons: How a Set of Allies Formed Trump’s Selections

WASHINGTON — One hacked the computer systems of enterprise rivals. One bribed docs to win referrals for his nursing properties.

One other fled the nation whereas he was on trial for his position in a fraud that siphoned $450 million from an insurance coverage firm, resulting in its collapse. Nonetheless one other ran a Ponzi scheme that plunged a synagogue into foreclosures.

Every received clemency from President Donald J. Trump.

In addition they had one thing else in frequent, an investigation by The New York Instances discovered. The efforts to hunt clemency for these rich or well-connected folks benefited from their social, political, or monetary ties to a free assortment of attorneys, lobbyists, activists and Orthodox Jewish leaders who had labored with Trump administration officers on legal justice laws championed by Jared Kushner.

That community revolved round a pair of influential Jewish organizations that concentrate on legal justice points — the Aleph Institute and Tzedek Affiliation — and well-wired folks working with them, together with the lawyer Alan M. Dershowitz, Brett Tolman, a former U.S. legal professional for Utah, and Nick Muzin, a Republican operative.

The mixture of entry, affect and substantive experience they dropped at bear produced putting outcomes.

Of the 238 complete pardons and commutations granted by Mr. Trump throughout his time period, 27 went to folks supported by Aleph, Tzedek and the attorneys and lobbyists who labored with them. At the very least six of these 27 went to individuals who had been denied clemency via the official Justice Division course of throughout the Obama administration.

Over time, not less than 4 of those that obtained clemency or their households had donated to Aleph. Others or their allies and households had retained folks like Mr. Dershowitz, who represented Mr. Trump in his first impeachment trial, Mr. Tolman and Mr. Muzin to press their circumstances earlier than the Trump administration, typically working in parallel with Aleph and Tzedek, in response to public information and interviews.

The teams weren’t the one ones who had success with Mr. Trump. Alice Marie Johnson, an advocate for fairer sentencing who had her personal drug conviction pardoned by Mr. Trump, was credited by the White Home for championing 13 clemency grants, lots of which went to drug offenders and African-American defendants given disproportionately lengthy jail phrases.

Whereas Aleph labored with Ms. Johnson on some clemency circumstances — together with for folks convicted of nonviolent drug crimes — Aleph, Tzedek and their allies stood out for his or her success at profitable clemency for white-collar offenders who had left a harmful path of fraud of their wake. Nearly all of those that received clemency with their assist had been convicted of monetary crimes.

It was a brand new chapter particularly for Aleph, which has lengthy labored on behalf of individuals dealing with dire conditions within the legal justice system. Aleph has for years appealed for extra lenient sentencing guidelines and pressed judges to cut back jail time in particular person circumstances, whereas offering social and spiritual providers to prisoners and their households. It solely started searching for presidential clemencies throughout the Obama administration — and did not safe any such grants till Mr. Trump took workplace.

The leaders of Aleph, Tzedek and their allies performed a task in serving to construct assist for a sweeping rewrite of federal sentencing legal guidelines in 2018, profitable bipartisan reward and bolstering their clout within the administration.

Mr. Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, spearheaded the sentencing overhaul effort within the White Home, and likewise helped oversee the clemency course of. He had change into keen on legal justice and developed ties to members of the free community of allies on the difficulty after his father, Charles Kushner, was sentenced in 2005 to 2 years in jail for tax evasion, witness tampering and mendacity to the Federal Election Fee.

When Charles Kushner, a donor to Aleph, obtained a pardon from Mr. Trump in December, the White Home cited Mr. Tolman’s assist for the choice.

Whereas Mr. Obama issued practically 1,700 extra clemency grants than Mr. Trump, he chosen principally circumstances that got here via a Justice Division course of for figuring out and vetting recipients.

The overwhelming majority of Mr. Trump’s pardons and commutations bypassed that course of, and had been as a substitute awarded via an advert hoc system run by a handful of White Home aides, with help from exterior advisers.

On the planet of legal protection attorneys and clemency seekers, Aleph, Tzedek and the folks working alongside them got here to be seen as among the many best avenues to clemency, together with for monetary crimes of the kind which are often much less prone to garner assist from legal justice activists.

A spokesman for Aleph mentioned the group chosen candidates primarily based on components together with humanitarian issues, clear demonstrations of regret and its dedication to addressing what it typically sees as excessively lengthy sentences.

He acknowledged that Aleph had accepted donations from folks whose clemencies its officers later supported to 1 diploma or one other, however mentioned the group did its clemency work for free of charge, and wouldn’t settle for donations from folks whereas engaged on their clemencies. In two circumstances by which the White Home credited Aleph with supporting clemency grants to individuals who had donated to the group, the spokesman mentioned rabbis at Aleph merely expressed assist for the petition.

These donations represented a tiny fraction of its total price range, which totaled practically $6.9 million for the 12 months ending in fall 2019, the spokesman mentioned, including that neither cash nor non secular affiliation performed any position in its choices about clemency circumstances.

Aleph minimized its connection to Tzedek’s clemency work and mentioned it was deceptive to explain the organizations as a part of a clemency community, whereas noting that clemency was solely a small a part of the group’s work.

“Over the course of 40 years, Aleph has served as a lifeline for greater than 30,000 folks — the overwhelming majority of whom are indigent — via dozens of applications” supplied to them freed from cost, Aleph’s founder, Rabbi Sholom D. Lipskar, mentioned in an announcement.

Moshe Margaretten, an Orthodox rabbi who based Tzedek, mentioned most of these it sought clemency for had been nonviolent drug offenders. He cited humanitarian causes like sickness and household concerns for backing the profitable clemency requests of two males serving prolonged sentences for monetary crimes.

Activists who foyer for sentencing leniency and clemency for nonviolent drug offenders have praised the efforts of Aleph and Tzedek. However a few of these activists mentioned that the community’s assist for rich or well-connected fraudsters exacerbated the inequity that pervaded clemency choices below Mr. Trump.

Ari Weisbrot, a New Jersey litigator, mentioned he had seen either side. The humanitarian work Aleph did in prisons, Mr. Weisbrot mentioned, was overshadowed by the advocacy it supplied to folks like Eliyahu Weinstein, who was convicted of working a Ponzi scheme that stole thousands and thousands of {dollars} from purchasers represented by Mr. Weisbrot — cash that has by no means been returned.

Aleph had sought leniency for Mr. Weinstein at his sentencing in 2014. When Mr. Trump commuted Mr. Weinstein’s 24-year sentence in January, the White Home credited Mr. Tolman, Mr. Dershowitz and the Tzedek Affiliation in addition to an array of lawmakers and activists for the choice.

“I’ve handled teams like Aleph in different conditions the place they’ve been wonderful and unbelievably useful,” Mr. Weisbrot mentioned. “However when you flip from serving to individuals who need assistance to serving to individuals who have confirmed themselves unworthy of assist, you might be now not a public service, however slightly an instrument that allows wrongdoing.”

The Aleph Institute, which takes its identify from the primary letter within the Hebrew alphabet, was established by Rabbi Lipskar, an adherent of the Chabad-Lubavitch group of Hasidic Jews, in Surfside, Fla., within the early Eighties on the course of the motion’s chief on the time, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

Rabbi Schneerson taught that incarceration is inhumane, and worse than dying in sure respects, as a result of it disadvantaged prisoners of the flexibility to contribute to society, although he acknowledged the necessity to incarcerate individuals who had been harmful to others.

Aleph has labored for years to restrict jail time in particular circumstances.

A few of that work has drawn criticism from crime victims, authorized consultants and a few prosecutors.

Aleph urged a choose to impose an intensive program of “rehabilitative public service” — slightly than a prolonged jail sentence — for Sheldon Silver, the disgraced former chief of the New York State Meeting and one of many nation’s most outstanding Orthodox elected officers, after Mr. Silver’s conviction on corruption expenses.

Rabbi Margaretten of the Tzedek Affiliation would later be among the many influential figures who urged Mr. Trump to grant clemency to Mr. Silver; Mr. Trump deserted plans to take action after reporting by The Instances.

Over time, Aleph additionally constructed a robust community of outstanding supporters and allies within the authorized world. Its web site options testimonials from the previous F.B.I. director Louis Freeh and the previous legal professional normal Michael B. Mukasey — each of whom have supported clemency functions introduced by the group.

Mr. Dershowitz, one of many nation’s best-known legal protection attorneys, started volunteering his authorized providers to the group within the Eighties, he mentioned. When Mr. Dershowitz turned 80 in 2018, Aleph reportedly honored him with a star-studded feast in Manhattan.

The dinner was underwritten by Harry Adjmi, a rich actual property investor; his brother Alex Adjmi, who was convicted of laundering cash for a Colombian drug cartel within the Nineties, was amongst these pardoned by Mr. Trump in January. Aleph mentioned it didn’t push for Mr. Adjmi’s pardon. Harry Adjmi declined to remark.

“Just about each clemency case I’ve handled, I had some contact with Aleph,” Mr. Dershowitz mentioned.

Mr. Dershowitz additionally started working with the Tzedek Affiliation within the remaining weeks of Mr. Trump’s presidency. Whereas he had sought clemencies below a number of presidents, Mr. Dershowitz had extra success below Mr. Trump than below each previous president mixed.

The Kushner household had longstanding private connections to the community and the Chabad-Lubavitch motion. Impressed by his father’s case, Jared Kushner turned a supporter of sentencing overhaul, reportedly donating to a lobbying effort by Rabbi Margaretten to vary federal sentencing legal guidelines after assembly with him in 2012.

Rabbi Margaretten later began the Tzedek Affiliation, and retained Mr. Dershowitz, Mr. Muzin and Mr. Tolman as lobbyists. (Mr. Tolman additionally lobbied for Aleph, which paid him $50,000 final 12 months.)

The Kushner household’s charitable basis, the place Mr. Kushner was a director, donated greater than $188,000 to Aleph from 2004 to the top of 2017, in response to the muse’s tax returns. The inspiration additionally donated greater than $254,000 — primarily to learn the needy — to the Shul of Bal Harbour, Rabbi Lipskar’s synagogue in Surfside, which shares an deal with with the Aleph Institute.

When Mr. Kushner joined the White Home, he set to work attempting to overtake federal sentencing legal guidelines.

The trouble offered Aleph and its like-minded allies with a twin alternative. They may advance a longtime legislative precedence, whereas additionally utilizing their entry to White Home officers to hunt particular person pardons and commutations.

One in all Mr. Trump’s first commutations, in December 2017, went to Sholom Rubashkin, who was convicted in 2009 of financial institution fraud after a whole bunch of undocumented immigrant staff had been arrested in a raid the 12 months earlier than on the meatpacking plant he oversaw.

Whereas the Obama Justice Division had rejected Mr. Rubashkin’s clemency request, Mr. Kushner suggested Mr. Trump to commute his sentence, in response to a former White Home official, and Mr. Dershowitz personally lobbied Mr. Trump on the case, which additionally had been championed for years by, amongst others, Aleph and Rabbi Margaretten.

Mr. Dershowitz mentioned officers within the White Home Counsel’s Workplace informed him that they had very excessive regard for Aleph and took its clemency petitions severely, including that was why “Aleph in all probability acquired extra commutations than others.”

Rabbi Margaretten enlisted Mr. Muzin, a former adviser to Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, to push for “clemency for particular person prisoners,” in addition to modifications to sentencing legal guidelines, in response to lobbying filings. (Mr. Muzin would report receiving $110,000 for the work in 2019 and 2020.)

Mr. Muzin organized a name for Mr. Dershowitz, Jewish leaders in Texas and others to win assist for the White Home sentencing overhaul from Mr. Cruz, a key Republican holdout. He got here out in assist of the invoice, often called the First Step Act, which was signed into legislation by Mr. Trump in late 2018, and led to the discharge of 1000’s of nonviolent drug offenders, in addition to some white-collar criminals supported by the community.

On the White Home Hanukkah social gathering the subsequent 12 months, Mr. Trump referred to as on Rabbi Margaretten to gentle the menorah, and credited him and an Aleph official, Rabbi Zvi Boyarsky, with serving to cross the laws.

Mr. Muzin, engaged on behalf of Rabbi Margaretten, and Mr. Dershowitz additionally pushed for the discharge of one other prisoner, Sholam Weiss, who was convicted in 2000 of siphoning $450 million from an insurance coverage firm, resulting in its collapse. Mr. Weiss spent greater than a 12 months on the run, earlier than being arrested in Austria and extradited to the USA to serve an 845-year sentence.

“The case had been mentioned for years within the White Home and was a key precedence for legal justice advocate teams, nevertheless it had met some resistance and wasn’t transferring,” Mr. Muzin mentioned. He introduced the request to the White Home chief of employees, Mark Meadows.

With hours left in his time period, Mr. Trump commuted Mr. Weiss’s sentence, and, when Mr. Weiss was launched after serving 18 years in jail, he was greeted by Rabbi Margaretten.

That very same day, Mr. Trump additionally commuted the sentence of Mr. Weinstein, the New Jersey man who stole greater than $200 million via elaborate actual property scams. Whereas the official White Home announcement credited Mr. Tolman, Mr. Dershowitz, Tzedek and others, Mr. Weinstein additionally had behind-the-scenes assist from gamers whose motives had been much less clear.

Most of Mr. Weinstein’s victims had been fellow Orthodox Jews, whose traditions of mutual belief and handshake offers he exploited. He paid nearly no restitution to his victims and maintained his innocence up till shortly earlier than his sentencing.

Nonetheless, Rabbi Lipskar, Aleph’s founder, spoke for Mr. Weinstein at his 2014 sentencing, suggesting a punishment of 5 years’ home arrest.

“Home arrest typically is worse than jail to some folks,” Mr. Lipskar mentioned. A choose disagreed, sentencing Mr. Weinstein to greater than 20 years.

Mr. Weinstein nonetheless had years to serve when Barry Wachsler, a Lengthy Island businessman, paid Mr. Muzin and a colleague not less than $75,000 to start lobbying the Trump administration for his launch. Mr. Wachsler mentioned that after attending to know Mr. Weinstein throughout visits to the jail the place Mr. Weinstein was serving, he grew incensed by what he considered Mr. Weinstein’s unfair remedy.

Mr. Wachsler mentioned he turned a part of a broad group of supporters who labored to assist Mr. Weinstein, however mentioned he didn’t wish to identify others with out permission.

“Collectively, folks put collectively the cash and it was paid,” he mentioned.

However Mr. Wachsler acknowledged that one of many folks serving to out was a pal of his from Lengthy Island named Yitz Grossman, a businessman along with his personal document of white-collar fraud convictions. Late final 12 months, Mr. Grossman started approaching victims of Mr. Weinstein to see if they’d take into account writing letters to assist his clemency petition.

Ruth Brandt, a Los Angeles philanthropist who misplaced $1 million to Mr. Weinstein, mentioned that Mr. Grossman offered himself as somebody who had served in jail with Mr. Weinstein and believed his prolonged sentence was unjust.

If Ms. Brandt signed a letter supporting Mr. Weinstein’s clemency petition, she mentioned Mr. Grossman informed her, supporters of Mr. Weinstein would organize for her to be paid $100,000. Ms. Brandt finally declined the provide.

“I mentioned, ‘Why are you serving to him?’” Ms. Brandt recalled.

Later, Ms. Brandt was outraged to study — from reporting by The Instances — that Mr. Dershowitz was additionally concerned within the effort to assist Mr. Weinstein win clemency. She emailed him in January to complain.

Mr. Dershowitz defended his work, in response to emails seen by The Instances, saying that he had been requested to assist Mr. Weinstein and that “In Europe and Israel his sentence would have been 5 years.”

Mr. Grossman additionally approached Harvey Wolinetz, a developer in New Jersey and Florida from whom Mr. Weinstein stole about $70 million. Describing himself as somebody working with the Aleph Institute, Mr. Grossman additionally recommended {that a} six-figure restitution may very well be made if Mr. Wolinetz supported clemency, in response to two folks briefed on the dialogue, who requested for anonymity as a result of they weren’t approved to publicly focus on the matter.

Mr. Wolinetz agreed to jot down a letter to Mr. Trump. In an interview, Mr. Wolinetz, 78, mentioned Mr. Grossman had by no means broached a selected greenback determine, however mentioned he hoped that with Mr. Weinstein free, “simply possibly there’ll be some compensation for me down the street.”

Mr. Grossman, who obtained assist from Aleph whereas he was imprisoned, denied that he had described himself as representing Aleph or supplied cash in change for the letter. The Aleph spokesman mentioned the group was not concerned in Mr. Weinstein’s clemency effort.

“I definitely informed those who you haven’t any shot if an individual is sitting within the system,” Mr. Grossman mentioned. “Can an individual who’s incarcerated make restitution?”

In some circumstances, the monetary connections between clemency recipients and the community had been direct.

After Philip Esformes was charged in 2016 in what prosecutors referred to as the largest well being care fraud case charged by the Justice Division, his father, himself a rabbi, donated $65,000 to the Aleph Institute over a number of years. The daddy, who additionally made smaller donations to the Shul of Bal Harbour, mentioned throughout his son’s sentencing in 2019 that he would make extra contributions to a psychological well being group with which Aleph had deliberate to workforce up, and at which Mr. Esformes’s attorneys recommended he might carry out neighborhood service as a substitute of a protracted jail sentence.

The Aleph spokesman mentioned the donations to the group ended earlier than it started pushing for his son’s clemency. Mr. Trump commuted Mr. Esformes’s sentence simply earlier than Christmas.

After Ariel Friedler was launched in 2014 from a two-month jail sentence for conspiring to hack into laptop techniques of rivals of his training software program firm, he donated to funds on the Shul of Bal Harbour for scholarships and the needy. He additionally donated to the Aleph Institute and volunteered his time and software program administration experience.

An Aleph official wrote to the Florida bar affiliation in 2017 to get Mr. Friedler’s legislation license reinstated, explaining that Mr. Friedler had advisable modifications that had allowed “the group to develop exponentially,” and later wrote a letter to the White Home supporting a pardon for him. When the pardon got here, in February 2020, White Home officers credited Aleph.

Kenneth P. Vogel reported from Washington, and Nicholas Confessore from New York. Alain Delaquérière contributed analysis.

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