By Mosi Secret (New York Times)
July 8, 2013
Brooklyn prosecutors had been scheduled on Monday to open the trial of an Orthodox Jew charged with paying a child to falsely testify that he was a victim of sexual abuse.
But in a dramatic reversal, they told the trial judge that their key witness was no longer trustworthy, indicating the potential collapse of a controversial case that highlighted the complicated relationship between District Attorney Charles J. Hynes and the politically influential Orthodox community.
The case against the defendant, Sam Kellner, has been unusual from the start. Mr. Kellner had accused a prominent Hasidic cantor, Baruch Lebovits, of molesting his son, and Mr. Kellner helped the district attorney’s office identify other victims, leading to Mr. Lebovits’s conviction in March 2010.
But four months later, one victim who testified against Mr. Lebovits before a grand jury told prosecutors that he had testified only because Mr. Kellner paid him $10,000. Prosecutors turned around and won the indictment of Mr. Kellner, using the original accuser, now an adult, as their key witness in the new case. Mr. Kellner was also charged with trying to extort $400,000 from the Lebovits family to keep other children from making accusations.
The filing of charges against Mr. Kellner prompted criticism from advocates for victims of sexual abuse who viewed him as a whistle-blower. It also undermined the conviction of Mr. Lebovits, which had been a high-profile achievement of the district attorney’s campaign to persuade members of the insular Hasidic community to cooperate with authorities in such cases.
Mr. Lebovits’s lawyers used the Kellner prosecution and other issues to have the conviction overturned. Mr. Lebovits had already served one year of a minimum 10-year sentence.
In State Supreme Court in Brooklyn on Monday, prosecutors told the judge, Ann M. Donnelly, that they learned a couple of weeks ago that their witness had made the accusations against Mr. Kellner after accepting financial assistance from Mr. Lebovits’s supporters. That money went to paying for his lawyer; his travel to and from Israel, where he is a student; his apartment; and his school fees.
The judge delayed the trial until July 29 to give prosecutors time to investigate the witness, who previously had said Mr. Lebovits had raped him. A lawyer for Mr. Kellner, Niall MacGiollabhui, said after the hearing that he approached Mr. Hynes’s office months ago with evidence that supporters of Mr. Lebovits were manipulating the accuser.
“The district attorney waited until two weeks before trial to look into it,” he said.
Mr. MacGiollabhui added that he still wanted to bring the case to trial to clear his client, but worried that prosecutors were going to “spin the case out and hope that it dies a quiet death.”
Mr. Hynes’s office declined to comment.
Strong criticism of his handling of sexual abuse cases in the Orthodox Jewish community is not new. Initially he was accused of being reluctant to pursue such cases because of pressure from Orthodox leaders. But after he began an effort to crack down on abuse, he was criticized for refusing to release the names of those charged with abusing children.
The problems with the cases against Mr. Lebovits and Mr. Kellner have raised new concerns. Among them is why separate units of the office pursued cases that were directly at odds with each other: the sex crimes bureau prosecuting Mr. Lebovits and the rackets division prosecuting Mr. Kellner. Both relied on a witness who court records show was addicted to drugs.
The concerns come even from inside the district attorney’s office, where some have worried that Mr. Lebovits’s lawyer, Arthur L. Aidala, had undue influence.
Mr. Aidala, who used to work in the office, had brought the allegations against Mr. Kellner directly to the chief of the district attorney’s rackets division, Michael F. Vecchione. Mr. Aidala turned over an audio recording of a conversation that he said showed Mr. Kellner trying to extort money from Mr. Lebovits’s son, according to discovery material in the case. A translation of the conversation issued by the prosecutor’s office is ambiguous.
Mr. Aidala, who is a campaign contributor to Mr. Hynes and the vice president of Mr. Hynes’s nonprofit foundation, has boasted to prosecutors about his access to and influence with Mr. Hynes and Mr. Vecchione, according to a law enforcement official with knowledge of the case. He requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
Mr. Aidala declined to comment.