Top cop probed over alleged benefits from prominent rabbi

Affiliates of Yoshiyahu Pinto said to provide kickbacks to anti-corruption unit’s director in case involving FBI, NY congressman

Adiv Sterman is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto (photo credit: Shuva Yisrael/Flash90)
Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto (photo credit: Shuva Yisrael/Flash90)

A high-ranking police officer who heads a special anti-corruption unit is under investigation on suspicion of accepting benefits from businessmen associated with a prominent Israeli rabbi, in a case that involves two top Israel Police units and touches on an ongoing FBI investigation, according to details of the episode revealed on Thursday morning.

Over the past few weeks, the Police Investigations Department — the Israel Police’s internal affairs unit — has been looking into allegations that Menashe Arviv, the director of a unit known as Lahav 433, received unspecified benefits from affiliates of Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto, a charismatic, influential kabbalist with powerful connections in Israel’s business community.

The case is also said to involve a former senior Israeli minister.

Lahav 433’s purview is investigating public corruption and criminal organizations on both a national and international scale.

The investigation of Arviv was opened based on unspecified incriminating information relayed to Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein by Pinto’s attorneys, according to the incomplete details released Thursday after a weeks-long gag order. The lawyers reportedly provided the information on the condition that proceedings against Pinto be closed, although no details of a deal were released to the press. A pending indictment against Pinto has been frozen for the time being, although the state prosecution said there had been no decision to drop it entirely, Israel Radio reported.

“I did nothing, and I am ready to be investigated,” Arviv said. “These are false charges that damage my reputation. I’m sure the investigators will uncover the truth and my name will be cleared.”

Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino went to visit the 433 headquarters near Lod in a show of support of the unit which, he said, will continue to operate despite the dramatic developments surrounding its top officer.

“This unit deals with missions that are a national level,” Danino said.

Danino appealed to the press to allow the authorities to explore the matter without inteference and also stressed that, with the investigation at an early stage, it was too early to begin drawing conclusions. Nonetheless, he was adamant that there would be no compromise on police ethics if suspicions were proven to be true.

“We are a police that has proved that it can stand on its principles,” he said. “Those who do not meet these norms will not work with the police.”

Danino said he met with Arviv on Wednesday to tell him about the accusations against him and that Arviv requested a leave of absence in order to clear his name.

After his meeting with Arviv, Danino transferred Meni Yitzhaki, the head of the police’s intelligence and investigations department, to Lahav 433, where he will assume command until the state attorney decides whether to prosecute Arviv.

During an interview with Channel 2 on Thursday Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharanovitch backed up Danino’s assertion that Arviv would be ousted if there is any truth to the allegations against him.

“Whoever disrupts the norms of the police has no place in the organization,” he said.

The minister also expressed his objection to the notion of cutting a deal to close an investigation against Pinto in return for information.

In a statement delivered to Israel Radio Thursday afternoon, Arviv denied any wrongdoing, citing his long record as a police officer. He alleged that Pinto was trying to set him up.

Menashe Arviv (left) is alongside Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, September 16, 2013 (photo credit: Gideon Markowicz/Flash 90)
Menashe Arviv (left) is alongside Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, September 16, 2013 (photo credit: Gideon Markowicz/Flash 90)

Since 2011, Pinto, 39, who heads several charity organizations and Torah study institutions in the coastal city of Ashdod and in the US, has been the subject of a number of ongoing investigations, both by Israeli police and the FBI. The rabbi — among whose followers are Jay Schottenstein, chairman of the American Eagle Outfitters clothing company, and Israeli real estate mogul Jacky Ben-Zaken — is suspected of embezzlement of funds from an organization he oversaw. According to FBI suspicions, he was also the target of a blackmail attempt.

In 2012, Pinto was arrested by the Police Investigations Department after his wife was documented transferring a briefcase to the unit’s Deputy Inspector General Ephraim Bracha, who headed the PID’s investigations bureau at the time. In the briefcase was NIS 200,000 ($57,400) in cash, police discovered. Some reports said that Bracha accepted the briefcase as part of a sting operation, and there was no indication that he was under investigation for receiving it from Pinto’s wife. 

According to Haaretz, the investigators suspected that the funds were given to Bracha as a bribe, granted in exchange for information on the investigations into Pinto’s activity. Pinto, on the other hand, claimed he had merely provided financial assistance to Bracha, whom the rabbi considered a close follower. Pinto’s claim, which his attorneys say is shored up by the results of a lie-detector test, has been dismissed by investigators, who maintain that the money in the briefcase was a bribe.

Aspects of the case are also relevant to an ongoing FBI investigation.

In late 2011, while the police department was conducting its initial probe of Pinto’s dealings, Arviv was appointed as the Israel Police’s envoy in the US. While living in New York, Arviv formed relationships with a number of businessmen who were considered close to Pinto, Haaretz reported. Later, according to Israel Police and FBI suspicions, Arviv received unspecified benefits from family members of one of those businessmen.

New York Congressman Michael Grimm has denied allegations of wrongdoing in connection with the Pinto blackmail case. (photo credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin)
New York Congressman Michael Grimm has denied allegations of wrongdoing in connection with the Pinto blackmail case. (photo credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

Meanwhile, Pinto was being questioned by the FBI, after he was allegedly blackmailed by businessmen who threatened to reveal medical information about his family. Pinto reportedly approached Congressman Michael Grimm (R-NY), a veteran FBI agent, and asked him for assistance. Grimm was later suspected by the FBI of taking part in the alleged blackmail plot.

Pinto told the FBI that after Grimm became a suspect in the case, several senior Israeli officers and former government ministers approached Pinto and demanded that he not testify against the congressman.

Pinto admitted to transferring funds to Bracha, and stated that other senior officers, among them Arviv, had known of the transfer. His testimony raised concerns in the FBI that Israeli officials were attempting to obstruct the investigation.

In a statement to his followers on Wednesday, Pinto said he was going through a “dark time” brought about by “cruel factors that employ intimidation, harassment and various other forms of exploitation.”

According to Channel 10, a polygraph test undergone by Pinto at his own initiative found that the rabbi wasn’t lying about the contents of the briefcase that his wife delivered to Bracha. Pinto and his lawyers say the test results support their assertion that the transfer of funds was legal, and that meetings between Pinto and senior officers were commonplace and lawful.

Pinto is expected to fly into Israel from New York before the end of the week for further questioning.

On Thursday morning, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch insisted that, notwithstanding any deals between the rabbi’s attorneys and police, the investigations against Pinto should remain open.

“There are many issues we cannot yet discuss, but the fact that, after police decided there was room to prosecute Pinto, his lawyers came and said they have more material, and possibly demanded that the case be closed — I think this is very wrong,” he told Israel Radio. “There should be an investigation of all those involved in the case, and it should determine whether there is grounds to prosecute. I will not support these actions or let these things slide.”

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