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Sex Charge Against Rabbi to Be Dropped

Courts: Allegations that Hasidic leader fondled girl on flight will be dismissed if he completes community service.

September 23, 1997|BETTINA BOXALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Federal prosecutors have agreed to drop sex abuse charges against a New York Hasidic leader if he performs 500 hours of community service and undergoes counseling.

During a brief court hearing Monday in Los Angeles, U.S. District Judge James M. Ideman placed Rabbi Israel Grunwald in a pretrial diversion program that will, if he successfully completes it, result in the dismissal of charges that he fondled a teenage girl on an airline flight between Australia and Los Angeles.

"In light of all the circumstances, it seems to be a fair resolution of a misdemeanor case," Assistant U.S. Atty. Patricia Donahue said after the court session.

Those circumstances include an alleged shakedown attempt by the teenager, who authorities say last month agreed not to testify against the rabbi in exchange for payoffs from the Jewish community.

On Monday, Grunwald's attorney, Edward Medvene, reiterated that his client had admitted no wrongdoing. "He denies any guilt," Medvene said. "He didn't do anything wrong. . . . There's nobody that observed Rabbi Grunwald do anything improper."

But Donahue noted that in the diversion agreement, Grunwald acknowledges there is enough evidence for a jury to conclude that the alleged offenses took place.

"The fact that [the teenager is] willing to accept money not to testify doesn't change the fact that she's been saying since May 31, 1995, that this sexual misconduct took place," Donahue said.

Grunwald and an assistant were arrested that day at Los Angeles International Airport at the end of a flight from Australia during which, the teenager said, the two men fondled her as she sat near them.

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Although the assistant eventually pleaded guilty to felony sex abuse charges and was sentenced to 22 months in prison, Grunwald, the leader of a branch of a small Hasidic sect in Brooklyn, maintained his innocence.

His case has taken several twists and turns over the last two years. Prosecutors dropped the charges against Grunwald not long after filing them, but revived them a year later.

Then, just before the case was scheduled to go to trial last month, the girl and her father met in a Burbank parking lot with a friend of Grunwald and--unbeknown to them--an undercover FBI agent.

"The girl and her father accepted [$50,000] in exchange for her agreement that she would not testify," Donahue said. "She didn't want to come to court and testify. She said she would state she was emotionally unable to do so."

Authorities say representatives of Grunwald initiated the payoff talks. Grunwald's attorneys insist that the girl's mother first raised the possibility of resolving the matter outside of court in 1995 and that the girl's father this year demanded $800,000 to $1.3 million to buy the girl's silence.

In court documents, Medvene says the girl's father described the $50,000 exchanged in Burbank as "a good faith gesture."

No charges have been filed in the alleged payoff, but Donahue said there is an investigation into "what appears to be the obstruction of justice" by the girl and her father.

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