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Hasidic Clemency Case Entangles Hillary Clinton

Politics: Campaign visit netted group's votes. But the senator insists she did not push for clemency.

February 24, 2001|NICK ANDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Of all the acts of executive clemency that President Clinton granted as he was leaving the White House, few strike as close to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton as her husband's decision to reduce the prison terms of four New York Hasidic Jews convicted of bilking tens of millions of dollars from the government.

Sen. Clinton, New York's Democratic junior senator, has said that in general she was a bystander while President Clinton made his decisions on clemency.

At a news conference Thursday, the senator insisted that she simply passed on whatever information she received about pardon and commutation requests to White House aides--rather than taking an active role.

But the case of the New Square Four was different.

Mrs. Clinton had swung through the Hasidic village of New Square, in Rockland County north of New York City, during her Senate campaign. And that campaign stop paid off on Nov. 7 with 1,400 votes for Clinton--about 100 times the dozen votes that her opponent, Republican Rick A. Lazio, received and far more than she received in other nearby Orthodox Jewish communities.

After the election, the senator-elect attended a White House meeting on Dec. 22 with the village leader, Grand Rabbi David Twersky, and the president, in which Twersky urged clemency for the convicts.

Former President Clinton's decision to reduce the sentences of the four men--one of his many controversial acts of clemency--has drawn fresh scrutiny as critics have alleged a link between the commutations and senatorial politics.

Associated Press reported Friday that Mary Jo White, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, is investigating the four commutations as part of an inquiry that includes other clemency-related issues--notably Bill Clinton's pardon of fugitive businessman Marc Rich.

Direct information from the principals involved was scarce Friday.

"Sen. Clinton has spoken about this . . . on several occasions, and we do not have anything to add at this time," said Karen Dunn, her press secretary. Previously, the senator has denied urging any action on the clemency requests one way or the other.

Samuel Rosenthal, an attorney for the four convicts, said he was unaware of an investigation and "therefore, there's not anything to comment on."

A spokesman for White also declined to comment, and a person who answered Twersky's phone said he would not speak with reporters.

By any measure, the New Square case appears unusual. In May 1997, federal prosecutors announced indictments of six men on charges of conspiracy, wire fraud and mail fraud in connection with the theft of tens of millions of dollars in federal and state aid in a scheme to benefit residents of New Square. Much of the aid was meant to go to legitimate education programs, prosecutors charged, but instead was funneled through a fictitious school.

Two of the indicted suspects fled the country. The four others--Kalmen Stern, Jacob Elbaum, Benjamin Berger and David Goldstein--were convicted in 1999. In October 1999, they were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 30 to 78 months.

On Jan. 20, his last day in office, Clinton used his absolute clemency power to cut Berger's sentence to two years and the others' to 30 months. All four are still in prison.

But the commutations represent a vindication of sorts for the village leaders, who have maintained that the four men were unfairly persecuted by federal authorities. Supporters of the convicted men maintained that they did not benefit personally from the diversion of government aid.

Whatever the truth of that claim, the village leaders and Sen. Clinton's allies have insisted on one point: The subject of clemency never came up when Mrs. Clinton, then the first lady, made her campaign stop on Aug. 8.

What did happen? One analyst suggested that it may have been garden-variety New York politics. Fred Siegel, a historian at the Cooper Union college in New York City, said it is common for politicians to circulate in ethnic enclaves, where they face pressure to deliver promises, or expectations of promises for future favors, in exchange for large blocs of votes. At the very least, the groups want an expectation of access to the powerful.

"What Mrs. Clinton did in New Square is continuous with New York political campaigns, from [former Gov. Mario M.] Cuomo and [Gov. George] Pataki and on to [former Sen. Alfonse M.] D'Amato and last year's Senate race," Siegel said. "You go to communities and, in effect, negotiate. But I doubt the deal was explicit."

*

Times staff writer John J. Goldman in New York contributed to this story.

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