By Joel Stashenko (New York Law Journal)
May 15, 2011
ALBANY - The state's highest court has agreed to consider the release of records in a decades-old sex abuse case that an attorney claims will disclose political favoritism by Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes toward leaders of the Orthodox Jewish community.
Michael Lesher contends that the request for disclosure of records he has long sought will indicate that Mr. Hynes and others in his office were never serious about prosecuting molestation charges that emerged in the mid-1980s against Rabbi Avrohom Mondrowitz.
Mr. Lesher, who represents alleged victims of the rabbi, said yesterday that the Court of Appeal's determination could shed light on why Mr. Mondrowitz was not prosecuted more aggressively in Brooklyn before he fled to Israel in 1985.
"I am not sure what we would find to tell the truth," Mr. Lesher said. "But this case has been characterized by such a long history of cover-up by leaders of the Jewish Orthodox communities and political leaders connected with the case that it has required an extraordinary effort even up to this point to figure out what has actually happened."
Mr. Lesher represents a half-dozen clients who contend they were sexually abused by Mr. Mondrowitz. Mr. Mondrowitz was indicted in 1985 for sodomy, sexual abuse and other counts in New York.
Mr. Lesher's suit contends that the Brooklyn District Attorney's office declined to aggressively seek Mr. Mondrowitz's extradition to the United States.
Mr. Hynes announced in 2007 that he would seek extradition of Mr. Mondrowitz. But he later said that a new treaty signed that year between Israel and the United States seemed to preclude the release of the information being sought by Mr. Lesher.
According to Jewish Week, the Israeli court in January 2010 declined to confirm a lower court ruling to affirm Mr. Mondrowitz's extradition.
Jerry Schmetterer, director of public information for Mr. Hynes' office, told the newspaper, "We are disappointed by the decision. We are working with the U.S. Department of Justice and the Israel Ministry of Justice to see what remedies are available."
Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice David B. Vaughn had originally granted Mr. Lesher access to the materials under the state's Freedom of Information Law. But an Appellate Division, Second Department, panel ruled unanimously in Lesher v. Hynes, 80 AD3d 611 (2011), that it agreed with the district attorney that the release of the documents could interfere with an investigation that was still on-going.
This was sufficient to "exempt the documents from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Law," the unanimous panel held in an unsigned opinion by Justices Joseph Covello, Daniel D. Angiolillo, Thomas A. Dickerson and Ariel E. Belen (NYLJ, Jan. 19).
However, Mr. Lesher argued that the Israeli Supreme Court has essentially precluded the possibility that Mr. Mondrowitz could be prosecuted in the United States. Therefore, he suggested there would not be any ongoing investigation.
Nevertheless, Mr. Lesher said he wants to press the case in New York as a means of discovering if Brooklyn prosecutors properly pursued Mr. Mondrowitz as a pedophile.
The Court of Appeals' decision to hear the case was made without comment. The Court almost never hears appeals of unanimous decisions below.
The judges are likely to hear oral arguments in October or November, once the appeals and counter-appeals papers have been filed.
Mr. Lesher, an attorney in Passaic, N.J., said he considers himself a writer first who has disclosed child abuse cases in New York previously. But he filed the papers in the FOIL case and said he expects to argue it before the Court of Appeals.
Mr. Lesher is registered to practice in New York and New Jersey, he said.
Mr. Schmetterer declined yesterday to comment on the Court of Appeals' decision to hear the case, citing the pending nature of the action.
He said the office attempted through the U.S. State Department to extradite Mr. Mondrowitz and was blocked by Israel's high court, which ruled that the charges Mr. Mondrowitz faced in the United States were not extraditable offenses. After two years of incarceration as the case was being adjudicated, Mr. Mondrowitz has been released and is free in Israel, Mr. Schmetterer said yesterday.
Should Mr. Mondrowitz attempt to re-enter the United States, Mr. Schmetterer said he would be arrested and prosecuted.
"We are prepared to arrest him after he gets off an airplane," Mr. Schmetterer said. "He's under indictment here on five charges."