Orthodox Jewish organizations shaped Trump’s pardons, NYT reports

Investigation finds network of lawyers, lobbyists, and activists, guided by Orthodox Jewish leaders, helped secure over two dozen pardons and commutations under former US president

US President Donald Trump arrives in the early morning hours, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021, at the White House in Washington, after returning from a rally in Dalton, Georgia (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
US President Donald Trump arrives in the early morning hours, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021, at the White House in Washington, after returning from a rally in Dalton, Georgia (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Two Orthodox Jewish criminal justice organizations and their allies reportedly successfully lobbied for clemency for several white-collar criminals while Donald Trump served as US president.

An investigation by The New York Times published on Sunday describes how a “set of allies” influenced Trump’s pardons and commutations, as well as shaped his criminal justice legislative efforts.

“The efforts to seek clemency for these wealthy or well-connected people benefited from their social, political, or financial ties to a loose collection of lawyers, lobbyists, activists and Orthodox Jewish leaders who had worked with Trump administration officials on criminal justice legislation championed by Jared Kushner,” the report said.

The two organizations in question are Aleph Institute and Tzedek Association, both Jewish nonprofits that focus on caring for incarcerated individuals and advocating for criminal justice reform.

Out of 238 pardons and commutations granted by Trump, 27 went to individuals supported by Aleph, Tzedek, and their lawyers and lobbyists. Over the years, four of those 27 inmates, or their families, donated to Aleph.

President Donald Trump speaks to attorney Alan Dershowitz, right, as he arrives for Christmas Eve dinner at Mar-a-lago in Palm Beach, Fla., Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Others or their families employed lawyers connected to Trump or other Republican figures — most notably Alan Dershowitz, who represented Trump in his first impeachment trial — who worked in tandem with Aleph or Tzedek on clemency trials, the report said.

Dershowitz began volunteering his legal services to Aleph in the 1980s, and to Tzedek in the last weeks of Trump’s presidency. A well-known criminal defense lawyer, Dershowitz won more clemency cases from Trump than from any other president, though he worked on clemency grants during several other administrations.

While other organizations and individuals were successful in lobbying for clemency under Trump, Aleph and Tzedek were notable for helping win cases for people convicted of financial crimes.

Jared Kushner in Oval Office of the White House on September 11, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The report also connected the two organizations to Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and adviser. The Kushner family charitable foundation, or Jared Kushner himself, donated to both organizations and their allies, the report said. According to the Kushner foundation’s tax returns, it donated over $188,000 to Aleph between 2004 and 2017.

Jared’s father, Charles Kushner, was sentenced to two years in prison for tax evasion, witness tampering, and lying to the Federal Election Commission in 2005. He received a pardon from Trump in December 2020.

Jared Kushner became interested in criminal justice issues while in the White House, leading the effort to rewrite federal sentencing laws in 2018.

US Senator Ted Cruz (Republican of Texas) during a break in the Senate impeachment trial of US President Donald Trump, January 23, 2020 (ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP)

Two Aleph- and Tzedek-affiliated lawyers, Dershowitz and Nick Muzin — a former aide to Senator Ted Cruz — reportedly helped win support from Cruz for Kushner’s sentencing overhaul, later signed into law in 2018. Known as the First Step Act, the law released thousands of nonviolent drug offenders, as well as some white collar criminals.

Both lawyers are also credited with winning commutations from Trump for financial criminals convicted of bank fraud and siphoning large sums of money out of companies, leading to their collapse.

Trump has come under fire for granting clemency in a politicized, transactional, and nepotistic way.

US President Donald Trump gestures as he boards Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House, January 20, 2021, in Washington. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Unlike his predecessor Barack Obama, Trump bypassed the Justice Department’s vetting process for clemency cases, relying instead on White House aides and external advisors.

A spokespeople for Aleph denied that it was part of a clemency network. He declared that neither money nor religious affiliation bore any weight on clemency cases, according to the report.

He added that Aleph did clemency work for free, did not accept donations from people while working on their clemencies, and that clemency cases amounted to only a small fraction of the organization’s work.

Additionally, the Times reported that “in two cases in which the White House credited Aleph with supporting clemency grants to people who had donated to the group, the spokesman said rabbis at Aleph merely expressed support for the petition.”

Aleph’s founder, Rabbi Sholom Lipskar, stated that “over the course of 40 years, Aleph has served as a lifeline for more than 30,000 people — the vast majority of whom are indigent — through dozens of [free] programs.”

Tzedek also said that most of its clemency work focused on individuals who were convicted of nonviolent drug offenses.

However, others criticized the organizations for advocating for white-collar criminals, like Eliyahu Weinstein, who was convicted of running a Ponzi scheme that stole millions of dollars from fellow Orthodox Jews.

The Aleph spokesman denied involvement in Weinstein’s clemency bid. But both Dershowitz and Muzin worked on his case, according to the Times.

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