Unholy Rationalizations

By Richard Steier (The Chief)
July 4, 2012

Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes has recently faced a deluge of criticism after the New York Times, following up on stories previously unearthed in smaller newspapers, detailed a number of cases in which he failed to aggressively investigate or prosecute allegations of sexual abuse of minors by members of the Orthodox Jewish community. In defending himself, Mr. Hynes was placed in the embarrassing position—given his job—of protesting that people didn't understand how difficult it was to make these cases when members of that community would engage in the sort of intimidation of victims and witnesses that was normally associated with the Mafia.

His protestations didn't do him much good. When Ed Koch, whom nobody could credibly accuse of being a "self-hating Jew," contended that the DA's passivity had created a double standard that benefitted child-molesters and their enablers in the tightly-knit community, it became clear Mr. Hynes had better change course. There had long been the suspicion that he was less than vigorous in probes that could have reflected poorly on Orthodox Jews because he counted on their political support, which was especially potent because it generally was delivered in bloc votes.

He is hardly alone in getting a jelly-like sensation in his knees when it comes to dealing with the Orthodox. Talk to uniformed employees, away from the gripe-fests that blogs tailored to them produce, and they speak of cases in which special treatment is afforded to Orthodox Jews because of their political clout.

One Fire Officer of my acquaintance says the problem was actually worse when Rudy Giuliani was Mayor. The one anecdote he offered with any detail had distinctly comic overtones to it: a dozen or so years ago, a couple of Hasidim came to his Williamsburg firehouse to borrow a department tool, the kind you would use to pump out a flooded basement. It was a Friday morning, and he figured they'd have it back fairly quickly so they could get ready for the Jewish Sabbath.

Instead, he recalled recently, "They disappeared with it for the weekend. They were supposed to take it for an hour and it went MIA for a couple of days. My impression was it was in Williamburg, but it became clear to me when we got it back it went up to Monsey," the Rockland County village that is home to a large group of Hasidim.

Until its return, there was a certain level of alarm, the Fire Officer said. On the one hand, he said, it wouldn't necessarily be noticed that it wasn't readily available because "these were pumps that were rarely put into use." On the other hand, he continued, "they certainly were never given to a civilian. And if you lost a tool of some kind at [an emergency call], the older officers treated you like dirt for the next 10 tours. And here it is we're giving a tool out to non-Fire Department personnel."

That they had done so was a testament to the kind of juice the Orthodox Jewish community was perceived to have with City Hall back then. He recalled one resident making a request on another occasion, being refused, and saying in response that he was "one phone call away from talking to a Deputy Mayor." Nobody thought he was bluffing.

And this clout showed up when some phone calls were discreetly made within the department to see whether they were in trouble over the missing tool and how to handle it if it wasn't returned soon after. "We were told," the fire officer recalled, "'Don't worry about it, they're good for it.'" He felt greater uneasiness, he said, when he would lead members of his company on building inspections in the neighborhood, and find problems either with a lack of permits or potential code violations.

"We would make inquiries about possible illegal construction to the Buildings Department, usually with sub-divisions, but Buildings was so backed up they would never respond," the fire officer recalled. "But we'd always file paperwork to cover our ass in case there was a fatal collapse." Even that didn't seem sufficient, he said, given the sway he and others in the FDNY believed the Hasidim had during the Giuliani administration. "They did what they wanted whenever they wanted and it was very disconcerting," he said. "There were times when I would file a report and I would take a copy home with me because I was worried there'd be a fatal fire and then at 3 a.m. someone would walk into the firehouse and the report would disappear."

Such thinking would not seem paranoid when placed alongside the case of Joseph Trivisonno, a career Buildings Department employee who worked his way up to became Brooklyn Borough Commissioner. Back in 1998, Mr. Trivisonno's strict enforcement of Building Code regulations angered Hasidic developers, some of whom were political contributors to Rudy Giuliani. They took their complaints to the then-Mayor's Chief of Staff, Bruce Teitelbaum, who began leaning on Buildings Commissioner Gaston Silva to remove Mr. Trivisonno. When Mr. Silva refused to do so, he heard from other top mayoral aides, including Deputy Mayor Randy Mastro, Mr. Giuliani's go-between on political matters. Suddenly Mr. Silva couldn't get approval for staff promotions or raises, and he bowed to the pressure and transferred Mr. Trivisonno to another assignment.

Much of this maneuvering came to light in 1999 after a building under construction by another Hasidic developer in Williamsburg collapsed, killing an undocumented Mexican laborer. Mr. Giuliani, asked about Mr. Trivisonno's complaints, trashed his reputation, saying he had run into problems because he was incompetent, not due to any fearless attempt to apply equal justice in enforcing safety rules. Just like Mr. Silva, Mr. Trivisonno got the message: 10 months after he spoke to reporters about the situation, he said that he had encountered so many problems when looking for a job in the private sector afterward that he no longer wanted to talk about his treatment by Mr. Giuliani and his aides. Mr. Hynes conducted an investigation into whether top administration staffers had forced out Mr. Trivisonno as a political favor, but while Mr. Teitelbaum got hit with some embarrassing publicity, the probe ended without criminal charges being brought. No one was surprised; Mr. Giuliani's fervent defense of his Chief of Staff made it clear that if Mr. Hynes took things too far, he'd be confronting two bearcats: a ferocious Mayor and the Hasidic community.

The growing evidence of Orthodox Jews preying on children within their community but then being protected from prosecution, in part through intimidation of potential witnesses and the DA's failure to treat such tactics as the gangsterism they are, has finally forced Mr. Hynes to dig in his heels and assert the authority of his office, most notably by charging four Hasidim on June 21 with trying to either pay off or intimidate a woman who had accused a prominent member of the Satmar Hasidim of dozens of acts of sexual abuse, some dating back to when she was a pre-teen. The Times noted that it was the first time in at least 20 years that Mr. Hynes had charged Hasidim with intimidation of a witness in a sex-abuse case, despite allegations that this kind of intimidation was what had made it so difficult to bring and prove cases against powerful members of that community.

Entrenched institutions, whether they are religious groups or a highly regarded university, sometimes have difficulty grasping that in failing to report or act against those within their walls who commit unspeakable acts, they are not so much protecting the image of those institutions as they are undermining their moral fabric, even while rationalizing that they are committing immoral cover-ups for the greater good. Their inability to see that clearly is why outside forces such as prosecutors play such an essential role in our society.

Mr. Hynes is midway through his 23rd year as DA—a longevity that is founded, in part, on his strong support in the Orthodox Jewish community, even as he has faced some serious political opposition and criticism of his office's handling of some unrelated cases. But as Joe Paterno could tell him if he were still alive, holding on to power and prestige means little if you relinquish your moral authority by closing your eyes to wrongdoing that's brought to your attention because you're fearful of the fallout. For a public servant, particularly one whose job is to represent the people of a community and a state in seeking justice for victims of crimes, there is an even greater exigency than for a revered football coach when it comes to doing everything in your power to address terrible wrongdoing, rather than protesting that you did what you could but your power wasn't limitless.