by Hella Winston/Larry Cohler-Esses (The Jewish Week)
April 2, 2008
A Brooklyn rabbi charged with having sexually molested his students has collected almost $$70,000 from Yeshiva Torah Temimah and entities linked to it since the school put him on administrative leave 22 months ago.
Rabbi Yehuda Kolko received payments ranging from $3,000 to $9,000 per month between May 2006 and December 2007, according to court records obtained by The Jewish Week.
The court records also suggest that before Rabbi Kolko left the school, he received tens of thousands of dollars above his reported yearly income at the school's direction.
Rabbi Kolko faces trial on charges of molesting two boys at the school and attacking an adult former student within the past several years. He remains free on $60,000 bail since his arrest and indictments in December 2006 and September 2007. A trial date has not yet been set.
Four former students have also filed separate civil suits against Torah Temimah, alleging they were molested by Rabbi Kolko and that the school covered it up. The suits seek damages totaling $50 million.
This week, a fifth plaintiff came forward. Identified in his complaint only as John Doe No. 6, the former student, now in his mid-20s, alleges Rabbi Kolko molested him when he was between the ages of 11 and 13. The abuse, he claims, took place in the yeshiva's basement and in Rabbi Kolko's private office, among other places.
As with the previous plaintiffs, the new one alleges that Rabbi Lipa Marguiles, the school's chief administrator, "knew of allegations that Rabbi Kolko was sexually abusing boys at Torah Temimah years before" but failed to act.
Unlike the other suits, this one names Rabbi Marguiles personally as a defendant.
Michael Dowd, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, voiced concern Tuesday that the newly disclosed payments might influence Rabbi Kolko to remain silent about any knowledge or neglect by the school or Rabbi Marguiles regarding his alleged conduct. He noted that the yeshiva was effectively subsidizing Rabbi Kolko's criminal legal defense while the school itself was being sued by his alleged victims for neglect.
Dowd, who represented plaintiffs in suits against the Catholic Church involving sexual abuse, said he saw the same pattern of continued payments in those cases.
"These child abusers could literally sink the institutions with the[ir] knowledge," he said, explaining what he saw as the motivation for payment.
It was in May 2006 that Yeshiva Torah Temimah announced it had put Rabbi Kolko on "administrative leave . . . on advice of counsel and by mutual agreement." The announcement came shortly after two of the civil suits were filed, followed by a New York magazine expose alleging years of child molestation by the rabbi and a decades-long cover-up by the yeshiva.
Despite Rabbi Kolko's departure, canceled checks and other financial records show the yeshiva or entities linked to it continued to pay the rabbi substantial sums almost every month.
After repeated questions from The Jewish Week about the money, and repeated statements empahsizing the schools break with the rabbi, his attorney, Avi Moskowitz, said the funds were severance payments.
Significant gaps remain in the financial records. But from June 2006 - a month after his "administrative leave" was first announced - through August 2006, Rabbi Kolko received at least $6,000 per month from the yeshiva.
Attorneys for his alleged victims are still seeking yeshiva financial records for September and October 2006. But in November 2006, there was a change. That month a $6,000 check came from Yonasan Tendler, a Torah Temimah parent. The check was written out to "C. Grosnass," apparently Rabbi Kolko's married daughter, Chana Grosnas.
There is no record, once again, regarding payments in December 2006. But a payment for $9,000 in January 2007 came to Rabbi Kolko from Congregation Tzorchei Amcho, a Brooklyn-based religious charity headed by Tendler. Rabbi Kolko continued to receive payments, of $3,000 per month, from this charity through July 2007. In several cases, the charity paid Rabbi Kolko this sum the day after receiving an identical amount from the school.
After this, except for September, where there is another gap, the payments resumed from the yeshiva directly: $6,000 in August and October; and $3,000 in November and December, the last month for which records are available.
Regardless of who issued the checks and who received them, Yeshiva Torah Temimah can be assumed to have organized the payments, with Rabbi Kolko as the beneficiary. The yeshiva turned the records of these payments over to the court in response to a discovery request seeking all disbursements to Rabbi Kolko or his "agents" from the school or its "related entities or agents."
Reached at home, Tendler, the head of the charity, which he described as a free loan fund, said, "I don't think [Kolko] received any payments from the organization and I don't have anything to talk about. Keep well." In a follow-up call, he added: "I don't know why payments made from a free loan fund or whatever should be a matter of public record."
After checking with the school, Moskowitz, its attorney, said the checks to Kolko after his departure were severance payments, issued on the basis of a "halachic concept," or religious law, that mandates one month's pay for every year served for laid-off employees.
Moskowitz noted that Rabbi Kolko had worked at the school for about 35 years.
(That concept is not universally accepted. A Modern Orthodox Bet Din ruled in 2002 that such payments are not religiously required.)
Court records show that in 2006, the school reported Rabbi Kolko's salary to the IRS as a little more than $1,000 per month. Moskowitz did not respond to a detailed message asking how this comported with the payments of $3,000 to $9,000 per month to Rabbi Kolko in the months following his departure.
Asked about the payments to Rabbi Kolko via Tendler and Congregation Tzorchei Amcho, his religious charity, Moskowitz said that the yeshiva had borrowed money from the fund to pay Kolko's severance.
"They had a payroll to keep, and they didn't have the money for it," he said. "He [Tendler] fronted the money."
As for the payments the yeshiva made to Tendler's free loan fund the day before the fund made payments in the exact same amount to Kolko, Moscowitz said: "The yeshiva has borrowed money from this free loan society and they pay back all the time."
It is unclear just when Yeshiva Torah Temimah terminated its ties with Rabbi Kolko, necessitating severance payments.
Moskowitz said initially that Rabbi Kolko "was put on administrative leave at the beginning of the school year" in 2006 - a termination time at odds with the school's May 2006 announcement. Asked to explain the meaning of "administrative leave," Moskowitz said, "Kolko was taken out of the classroom ... until they [could] figure out what to do. He is not employed by them."
Yet, when pressed on Rabbi Kolko's status, Moskowitz said, "He is not on leave. The employment relationship has been terminated."
Asked whether Kolko had been fired, Moskowitz said that the yeshiva "obviously anticipated that he is not going back there. The relationship has been severed."
Attempts to reach Rabbi Kolko at home were unsuccessful and calls to his civil attorney, Robert Mercurio, were unreturned. Jeffrey Schwartz, Rabbi Kolko's criminal attorney, said he was not familiar with the financial terms of Kolko's departure from the school.
But David Framowitz, an alleged victim of Kolko and the subject of the New York magazine piece, said he was "totally shocked and appalled to hear that Yeshiva Torah Temimah has been and is still paying Rabbi Kolko a monthly salary since supposedly firing him in May 2006. YTT has been misleading the public for almost the past two years with this lie. ... Is this what parents are paying their hard earned tuition for?"
Meanwhile, the records filed in response to the discovery request show another anomaly. Prior to his departure, Rabbi Kolko apparently was paid sums by the school or entities linked to it far in excess of the salary the school reported to the IRS.
In 2005, the records show, Torah Temimah reported Rabbi Kolko received $10,067 in wages, tips and other compensation. But financial transaction reports filed with the court show the school paid him $73,400, in multiple payments of varying size each month, all of them described as "reimbursement." Moskowitz said these payments were actually Rabbi Kolko's salary, dismissing their being labeled "reimbursement" as "an internal accounting issue."
In 2006, an employee earnings statement for Rabbi Kolko lists his "reg[ular] salary" from the school for the months of June through August as $1,000 per month. But an additional statement shows him getting the same amount during this period from the Religious Education Association, a religious charity founded and controlled by Rabbi Marguiles, the yeshiva administrator.
Financial transaction records also filed with the court show checks that appear to correspond with these outlays. Deductions seem to have left Rabbi Kolko with $1,844 per month from these two sources, for a total of $5,532 during the three months in question. Additionally, the transaction records show, the school disbursed another $12,900 to Rabbi Kolko, once again, all listed as unspecified "reimbursements."
For the entire year of 2006, these records show, Rabbi Kolko received more than $53,800 from the school and from Rabbi Marguiles' charity - considerably more than the $1,000 per month listed as his school salary.
Moskowitz, the yeshiva's attorney, did not respond to repeated detailed messages seeking clarification of these discrepancies. But in earlier interviews, he strongly defended the school's payments to Rabbi Kolko after his departure.
"You mean that they give somebody that has not been convicted of anything, who worked for an institution for 35 years and then gets laid off, [severance] is newsworthy?" he said. "I don't think so." Rabbi Kolko, he noted, has not so far been convicted of anything.
Dowd, the attorney for those claiming Rabbi Kolko had molested them, would have none of this. "If you want, hold the money someplace . . . and then pay him later on if he is exonerated," he said. "Who is going to complain then? But the idea that he's being bought in order to defend himself, and if you will, his defense is being paid by the school that was charged with the protection of the children that he abused, it's an outrage."
Noting the New York City Department of Education's policy of suspending teachers charged with sexual misconduct without pay, Dowd said, "I would hope that a yeshiva would hold itself to a higher standard than the New York City school system.... The only severance that he should have received was a boot out the door."