The Prosecutor Plays Defense: Can D.A. Hynes have it both ways on Hasidic molesters?

By Daniel Geiger (New York Observer)
September 11, 2012

On a steamy night on the corner of a Bedford-Stuyvesant block in late August, District Attorney Charles Hynes stood waiting for the Reverend Al Sharpton.

Though he has fought crime in the borough for decades, Mr. Hynes, who is in his sixth term as the Brooklyn district attorney, looked slightly out of place loitering on a dark patch of sidewalk in front of a dicey-looking housing project near midnight.

Well into his 70s, Mr. Hynes is grandfatherly in appearance, white-haired and slightly hunched. He wore a bright blue checkered shirt, cleanly pressed, with an open collar. He waited patiently, a sizable police detail nearby, until Rev. Sharpton arrived, 20 minutes late, in a chauffeured black Navigator.

The gathering, which its organizers called Occupy the Corner, had been staged to protest the gun violence that has sprung up in recent months. Though the event was aimed at a spate of recent deadly shootings in problem Brooklyn neighborhoods like Brownsville and East New York, the message had been made all the more poignant by a shooting earlier that day in Manhattan in which a gunman murdered a former colleague outside the Empire State Building before being killed in a hail of fire by the NYPD.

“We’re not going to be intimidated … these are our communities, these are our streets, and this won’t continue,” Mr. Sharpton said in front of a small crowd of community members, news media and politicians, including Councilwoman Letitia James and Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, who is running for congress.

“We’re not going to stand by and let them overwhelm our streets and kill our children,” Mr. Hynes added when it was his turn to speak. “Whatever it takes, the people rule this city and not the thugs.”

There’s no doubt Mr. Hynes is proud of his record taking on violent crime in the borough—and he has a right to be. During his 23-year tenure in office, homicides have fallen precipitously.

“Brooklyn had less than 200 murders last year,” Mr. Hynes told The Observer, indulging his habit of frequently trotting out the impressive crime statistics of his tenure. “That’s the least since 1963, and this year we’re 23 murders fewer.”

As big an issue as guns are, however, and as much as Mr. Hynes cares about it, in the murky and sometimes cynical world of Brooklyn politics, the night seemed more than an opportunity to take a stand against violence; politically, it was a chance to grab some screen time with some of the most prominent leaders of New York’s black community—a voting bloc Mr. Hynes knows he would be wise to court.

“We’re happy D.A. Hynes has joined us tonight,” Rev. Sharpton said. “Most D.A.s just prosecute us; he’s one that is standing with us.”

In the wake of withering criticism, Mr. Hynes can certainly use endorsements like this.

In May, The New York Times ran a series of articles about the district attorney’s cozy relationship with influential rabbis in Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods. Among the reports were disclosures that Mr. Hynes and his office had agreed last summer to allow a prominent religious organization, Agudath Israel, to vet sexual molestation accusations within the Hasidic community internally before reporting the allegations to the authorities.

The story drew a sharp rebuke from Mayor Bloomberg, who according to the Times said he “completely disagrees” with such an arrangement—the kind of top-level complaint rarely lobbed at a D.A. in this city, especially one as tenured and respected as Mr. Hynes.

The reports also took a critical view of techniques Mr. Hynes has employed to encourage victims of sexual abuse to step forward, and they questioned whether his office has pursued meaningful sentences against admitted molesters. To this day, Mr. Hynes will not release the names of accused Hasidic suspects of sexual assault, even though sheltering the identity of someone indicted for a crime is a highly unusual practice among district attorneys and has drawn persistent criticism from victims’ groups.

“We have completely disagreed with the policy of not releasing the names of the abusers,” Mark Appel, founder of a victims’ advocacy group, told The Observer. “A Jewish child should be identical to any other child.

“With past cases, we have not had good outcomes,” Mr. Appel added, referring to situations such as the 2008 plea-bargain agreement with Rabbi Yehuda Kolko, who had been charged with sexual abuse at a yeshiva in Flatbush. In that case, Mr. Kolko received probation. “Every D.A. has the power to put more effort into the prosecution with more investigative work. One way to do it is to publicize an alleged abuser because you’re sure to bring out previous cases that people didn’t want to talk about.”

District Attorney Hynes has vigorously defended sheltering the names of the accused. Given how tight-knit the Hasidic community is, revealing a suspect’s identity, he says, is tantamount to outing the accuser, thereby dissuading victims from coming forward.

“It was absurd,” Mr. Hynes told The Observer during his appearance with Rev. Sharpton (he wouldn’t agree to a subsequent interview). “Before I had that policy, I wasn’t able to have any prosecutions. As of this morning, I have 114 Orthodox Jews under indictment.”

Amid a recent spate of career-sinking bombshells such as Vito Lopez’s sexual harassment scandal (also courtesy of the Times), the coverage was damaging but not damning. An ugly conclusion was hard to avoid: Mr. Hynes had seemingly ignored serious crimes or handed out wrist-slaps to members of the Hasidic and Orthodox communities. In exchange, these cloistered neighborhoods, which cherish their autonomy and insularity from the secular world and its authorities, gave him critical support at the polls.

The election for district attorney in Brooklyn isn’t until next year. Still, the revelations have left Mr. Hynes in what would appear to be one of the trickiest positions of his long career as Brooklyn’s D.A. On the one hand, he must dispel the now-widespread impression that his office is playing politics and doling out special treatment to a critical voting bloc. And yet, for a position that is decided based on notoriously thin voter turnout, it would appear essential to maintain the allegiance of these reliable supporters.

Just how well Mr. Hynes can strike a balance between these seemingly conflicting mandates will be on full display this fall, when his office is expected to try one of the most contentious of the recent molestation cases: accusations against Nechemya Weberman, an unlicensed therapist who is alleged to have sexually abused a 12-year-old girl during sessions.

Mr. Weberman has enjoyed an almost shocking level of support, and his case has come to define the apparent denial or unconcern with which some members of the Hasidic community have treated the issue. During a fund-raiser for his defense held in Williamsburg in May, thousands of supporters showed up, a group of mostly Hasidic men who stared down, heckled and even charged at a small contingent of protesters who were demonstrating on behalf of the victim, who has remained unidentified.

To his credit, Mr. Hynes has met such belligerence with steely resolve. In July, he indicted four Hasidic men for trying to intimidate and bribe the accuser and her boyfriend into retracting the charges against Mr. Weberman. Always media savvy, Mr. Hynes seized on the incident to spin the story his way. He hadn’t seen comparable threats against a witness, he proclaimed, since dealing with the mafia. The former prosecutor, who rose to fame by busting a group of white men from John Gotti’s old stomping ground, Howard Beach, in a racially charged killing of a black teenager in the late 1980s, was back at it—grappling with a tight-knit subculture and its code of silence.

In the race for an outer-borough district attorney’s office, such headline-friendly sound bites are the stuff that keeps incumbents in power.

“Any time his office ever does something, they’re out there with a press conference,” said Abe George, a former prosecutor with the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office who plans to challenge Mr. Hynes in next year’s election.

After failing to win tough sentences in past abuse cases, Mr. Hynes needs to come up with a stiff penalty against Mr. Weberman if he wants to turn the page on his shaky record and put the scandal to bed. But to do so will shatter the community’s cherished illusion that men like Mr. Weberman can’t be guilty of such transgressions.

“It bothers me personally that someone accused of a heinous crime has people supporting him,” said Ezra Friedlander, a member of Borough Park’s Hasidic community who is active in lobbying. “But then again, the flip side is that no one there thinks for one second that he’s guilty.”

Losing a bloc like this could be a setback to Mr. Hynes’s re-election efforts, especially when in previous tight elections, the Orthodox community was one of the key groups that helped him edge out opponents, including one of his toughest contenders, John Sampson, in 2005.

Surprisingly, though, it turns out that not all, or even most, members of the Hasidic community oppose the idea of placing the investigation and handling of molesters squarely in the jurisdiction of the secular authorities—a fact that Mr. Hynes, for all his apparent pandering to top rabbis, clearly grasps.

“It’s kind of funny, he’s supposedly the guy placating the Hasidim, but I’m not sure the rank-and-file member of the community, the voter, wants that treatment,” noted Lew Fidler, a New York City Councilman who served as Mr. Hynes’s campaign manager when he first ran for office in the late 1980s and then later when he made a failed bid for state attorney general in the mid-1990s. “Do you know how many rabbi leaders there are and different factions of the community? It’s not a monolith, so the view that he’s just pandering to this majority is false.”

Mr. Hynes has not left it merely to chance that his intensified efforts to win justice for victims receive attention. According to Mark Appel, in early July, Mr. Hynes arranged a series of meetings with a small and influential group of Hasidic community members who have been vocal supporters of molestation victims. Arranged through Anita Altman, a liaison he uses as a go-between with the Orthodox community, the talks were proposed as a platform for victims’ supporters to speak directly with Mr. Hynes and his top prosecutors and voice their concerns.

“It was a vehicle, so everyone could have a safe environment to work out their differences,” Mr. Appel said.

Predictably, the conversation quickly turned to the issue of releasing the names of the accused. Mr. Hynes again refused, and when the meeting adjourned, its participants emerged wondering what the purpose of the get-together had been, given how intractable the district attorney appeared.

The next day, Mr. Appel received his answer. The Jewish Daily Forward, a popular publication in Hasidic precincts, published a report describing how Mr. Hynes had reached out to key victims’ representatives.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Mr. Appel said. “He had set the whole thing up to create this illusion.”

Mr. Hynes or his people had apparently leaked the story in order to create the impression he was tightening his relationship with the victims’ groups and to ameliorate their persistent criticism of him. (Mr. Hynes’s office declined to comment on the matter.)
In reality, Mr. Appel said, Mr. Hynes continues to shelter the identity of accused molesters as an ongoing gesture to powerful rabbis who would still prefer to sweep the molestation issue under the carpet.

“With all the scrutiny the community has received, maybe they know it’s not possible to hide from the issue anymore,” Mr. Appel said. “The continued withholding of names, though, would at least seem like some small conciliation.”

Always the savvy political animal, Mr. Hynes had figured out a way to placate both sides.
No icon wants controversy to be the coda of a proud career, and if Mr. Hynes wasn’t content to finally retire after his sixth term, he is even more reluctant after the Hasidic molestation scandal. Re-election won’t be the cakewalk it was in 2009, however, when he ran unopposed. It’s already clear that Mr. Hynes will have at least one challenger next year: Mr. George, who resigned a prosecutor for the Manhattan District Attorney’s office after announcing his candidacy earlier this summer.

In recent weeks, Mr. George, who is 33, excitedly filled in The Observer on the essence of his campaign—that he can bring the sophistication of Manhattan’s District Attorney’s Office that has been lacking in Brooklyn and inject the office with a new vigor and novel approaches to stubborn problems—like persistent gun violence in the borough’s most troubled neighborhoods.

“I don’t think that Charles Hynes has gotten to the issue of violent crime in Brooklyn,” Mr. George said. “Brooklyn still leads the city in homicides and shootings. He always talks about reducing crime by whatever statistic he uses, 89 percent, but how much of that is simply gentrification?”

Mr. George doesn’t have backers like Al Sharpton to vouch for him, of course. And, at the time he spoke with The Observer in mid August, he fretted that the political machine in Brooklyn presented daunting challenges for an outsider candidate. After all, Vito Lopez, the Democratic Party boss, had endorsed Mr. Hynes for office.

“There are so many ways a guy like Vito can make it hard for a candidate like me,” Mr. George said.

That was then. More recently, Mr. Lopez was revealed to have sexually harassed female employees in his office, spurring his removal from several key chairmanship positions he held in the State Assembly, widespread calls for his resignation, and an overnight shifting of the entire political landscape in Brooklyn.

“I feel like now is my chance,” a rejuvenated-sounding Mr. George told The Observer in a follow-up conversation.

On August 31, about a week after Mr. Lopez’s scandal became public, Mr. Hynes requested a special prosecutor to investigate the allegations against the assemblyman, citing the conflicts of interest that could be perceived from his handling of such an investigation himself, since Mr. Lopez is a supporter of his.

Come campaign season, no one will be able to say that Mr. Hynes gave a powerful political fixer special treatment.