The FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office used an Orthodox Jewish radio program in an elaborate sting operation that helped the government convict Malcolm Smith and other New York politicians in a corruption scandal, a four-month investigation by The Journal News/lohud revealed.
It is unclear whether there are other targets, including New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who appeared on the show as a state senator prior to the 2010 election with Moses Stern, later revealed to be an FBI cooperator. Stern appeared twice on the show prior to election day using aliases, posing as both a political analyst and a resident from Brooklyn. He urged listeners to vote for Schneiderman.
Prosecutors disclosed little about the New York Jewish Communications Channel to defense lawyers for two people convicted in the sting operation.
The show was hosted by longtime Orthodox radio personality Zev Brenner, who owns Talkline Communications Network, and registered with the state by Joseph Markowitz, whose name was linked to thousands in campaign donations to Schneiderman, who has not been accused of wrongdoing, and an illegal donation to Halloran. After the Smith arrests, Schneiderman pledged to donate the contributions from Markowitz and Markowitz’s wife to charity.
“In light of reports that Mr. and Mrs. Markowitz are involved in an ongoing law enforcement investigation, out of an abundance of caution, the campaign will donate the full amount of their contributions to charities helping New Yorkers recovering from Hurricane Sandy,” according to a statement by Schneiderman’s office after the FBI arrested six people in the sting.
Defense lawyers for state Sen. Malcolm Smith and New York City Councilman Dan Halloran, who were convicted in the case, said they were unaware of the scope of the NYJCC, including that it had a radio show.
When asked about the NYJCC, Halloran’s lawyer, Vinoo Varghese, did acknowledge that prosecutors turned over a 13-page campaign strategy booklet for Schneiderman’s 2010 bid for attorney general that was put out by the NYJCC.
Schneiderman won that 2010 election and now sits as the New York state attorney general.
Information about the undercover operation came from a review of radio shows obtained by The Journal News, along with hundreds of pages of court transcripts, FBI audio recordings and other documents.
“Since you brought this to my attention, we’re going back and reviewing the government’s discovery to see what exactly was turned over,” Varghese said.
The FBI recruited Stern, who defrauded Citigroup out of $126 million and used his experience in Rockland County politics and real estate to help the FBI. Stern hoped his cooperation could help reduce his potential 455-year prison sentence.
Stern appeared on the show at least three times using two different aliases, including once well after he began cooperating with the FBI. Using the NYJCC allowed Stern to gain credibility with elected officials, including Smith and Halloran. Smith appeared on the show in 2011. Smith was convicted of bribery, wire fraud and extortion. Halloran was convicted of bribery, fraud and racketeering.
Contacted by phone Tuesday by The Journal News, the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to answer questions about the operation and whether the investigation was ongoing.
“We’re going to decline to comment for your story at this time,” said Dawn Dearden, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York.
Schneiderman’s office, also contacted Tuesday, declined to answer several questions, including whether Schneiderman knew Stern would use an alias on two occasions to support his campaign. Schneiderman’s spokesman Doug Cohen did request a copy of The Journal News’ recordings of the show.
After The Journal News’ story appeared online Wednesday, Schneiderman’s spokesman, Matt Mittenthal, emailed this statement: “The casual suggestion that the Attorney General is under federal investigation is both unfounded and grossly irresponsible.”
It’s unclear the precise date Stern began cooperating, because at Halloran’s trial he said only that it was at the end of 2010. The show, however, was on air in October 2010 and well into 2011.
The day before the 2010 election, Stern appeared on “Talkline” with Zev Brenner, president and founder of Talkline Communications, as Brenner announced a “very special pre-election broadcast” that’s “sponsored and brought to you by the New York Jewish Communications Channel.”
The NYJCC, Brenner said, represented a “bloc vote of over 100,000 Jewish voters” and worked with Jewish groups to help elected officials communicate with the Jewish community. Its goal through its radio program, NYJCC.com website and pamphlets: Register 50,000 new voters.
“We’ll hear from Eric Schneiderman, the Democratic candidate for attorney general,” said Brenner. “We’ll also hear from Avi Schick (a Schneiderman supporter and former deputy attorney general under Eliot Spitzer), Yossi Schreiber, political analyst, and others during this very special broadcast coming to you over WSNR 620 AM,” he said.
Schreiber is actually Stern.
Schneiderman, then a state senator running for the top state law enforcement position in New York, pledged on the show, if elected, to create a religious rights unit to help Orthodox Jews and others facing religious discrimination in the workplace.
Schreiber was introduced by Brenner as a “political analyst, conservative” less than 15 minutes later, urging people to gather neighbors and family members and “come out in a huge turnout” to vote for Schneiderman.
“Please, I beg you as a Jew to another Jew, talking from my heart, look at the issues for yourself and you decide for yourself, don’t listen to me, just go out there, check it out, NYJCC…,” he said, speaking for more than 20 minutes. “Just for full disclosure, I’m not getting paid by…Eric Schneiderman’s campaign, I’m not together with the Schneiderman campaign, I just look at the actual issues,” he said.
The Journal News has found that Stern called the show a day earlier under another alias, pretending to be a Brooklyn resident, asking Schneiderman about his stance on cracking down on gun violence and other issues.
It’s unclear whether Schneiderman knew Stern would go on the show under two different aliases. Stern would testify that he was involved in Schneiderman’s campaign, running a shadow campaign, helping him gain support in the Orthodox community.
The Markowitz Connection
The Journal News found that the NYJCC was registered with the state as a corporation in December 2010 after the show was already operating, by Markowitz. In addition to donating to Schneiderman, Markowitz also donated to Smith, Halloran and Sherri Eisenpress, who was elected a Rockland County Family Court judge in 2011.
Eisenpress also appeared on the radio show in November 2010.
Eisenpress did not return a phone call seeking comment on the donations.
An undercover FBI agent gave Halloran checks bearing the Markowitzes’ names. The checks were illegal campaign donations because the agent told Halloran it was the agent’s own money. Stern brought the checks to the meeting after they were handed to him by the FBI agent supervising Stern, according to court testimony. By the time Schneiderman was on the show on Oct. 31, 2010, the Markowitzes had donated tens of thousands of dollars to his campaign mostly in October.
Neither Eisenpress nor Schneiderman has been accused of wrongdoing.
Records show that the NYJCC website was created Oct. 28, 2010, by Joseph Oppenheim, who also made donations to Schneiderman and the campaign of Eisenpress. Oppenheim sent at least one email promoting the website in December 2010. Reached by phone, Oppenheim declined to comment.
Abe Leichter of Brooklyn, who was helping with the website, refused to discuss the NYJCC when reached by The Journal News.
“This is confidential information,” said Leichter. “I can’t release any kind of information. I hope you understand that.”
Stern, who checked in with the FBI before meetings and was told what to say to advance the sting, boasted to Smith on Aug. 8, 2012, about using aliases on the shows. He bragged about it as he was helping Smith frame his message on issues in the Orthodox community.
“Like, the night of the election, we were two and a half hours on the radio,” he said in a conversation with Smith recorded by the FBI. “I’m going to send you a clip.”
“There was a guy in there just talking and asking questions and, like, he’s some of these things. He’s somebody; he’s Yossi Schreiber.” Stern said. “You listen good to the voice; you’ll recognize his voice.”
Stern later testified: “I called in a radio show host and I made myself an uninterested party but meanwhile I was a supporter of Mr. Schneiderman,” he said. “And I made it look like I’m neutral, but I was really trying to influence people to vote for Mr. Schneiderman.”
Testimony showed that Brenner played a role in a subsequent key meeting.
Stern testified that Brenner put him in touch with pro-Israel activist Dr. Joseph Frager, who was on Brenner’s radio show in August 2012 with Halloran in Israel, which was a fact-finding mission for Halloran’s congressional campaign. He later lost.
“Mr. Brenner called me, I must talk or I should meet with Dr. Frager,” Stern testified.
Brenner pleaded guilty to a federal misdemeanor tax charge last month, admitting to failing to file an individual tax return for 2009. His attorney, Gordon Mehler, declined to comment for this story.
The campaign pamphlet
Frager introduced Stern to Halloran not long after the Israel trip, telling Stern to pretend they knew each other at the meeting.
The NYJCC came up once at Halloran’s trial, when Varghese, who had called Stern as a witness, questioned him about a meeting with Halloran and whether Stern gave Halloran an NYJCC campaign strategy booklet for Schneiderman.
“Now, at this meeting, you told Mr. Halloran about your involvement in Eric Schneiderman’s campaign, correct?” Varghese asked.
“And you described to Mr. Halloran that you presented a publication of the New York Jewish Communication Channel to Mr. Halloran, correct?”
Stern testified, “I don’t recall, I do have that, so probably it is correct. I know this pamphlet, but I don’t recall whether I gave it to him or not.”
By Lee Higgins – lohud.com