Celebrity rabbi takes plea bargain over bribery

AP News
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Posted: Sep 17, 2014 10:23 AM
Celebrity rabbi takes plea bargain over bribery

JERUSALEM (AP) — A multimillionaire Israeli celebrity rabbi with a following in the United States has accepted a plea bargain in which he admits to attempting to bribe a senior police official, and could now face a one-year prison sentence, Israel's Justice Ministry said Wednesday.

As part of the plea bargain, the Justice Ministry said Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto will admit to offering bribes and making payments in 2012 in an attempt to receive classified information on a police investigation into him and one of his charitable organizations.

Pinto has also agreed to cooperate with a police investigation into a separate bribery case against another police officer who headed a unit known as Israel's FBI. That officer later resigned.

In exchange, the Justice Ministry said, Israeli prosecutors are seeking a reduced, yearlong jail sentence for Pinto, as well as a "significant" fine and seizure of funds.

Pinto is considered one of Israel's wealthiest rabbis. The great-grandson of a famous Moroccan-born mystic known as the Baba Sali, he amassed his fortune while serving as spiritual guru to the rich and powerful in Israel, New York, and elsewhere.

The Israeli edition of Forbes Magazine ranked him in 2012 as Israel's seventh richest rabbi, with an estimated net worth of about $19 million.

But the celebrity and riches also attracted the watchful eyes of law enforcement both in Israel and the U.S.

In New York, Pinto's congregation has been connected to a U.S. probe into Rep. Michael Grimm, a Republican congressman, for possible campaign finance violations.

According to Wednesday's indictment by Israel's state prosecution, Pinto approached Efraim Bracha, formerly the head of the investigations department in the Israeli police and an adherent of the rabbi, and offered him $200,000 in exchange for information on an investigation involving him.

That investigation concerned suspicions of criminal activity by a Pinto associate who ran Hazon Yeshaya, an Israel-based charity serving Holocaust survivors and the needy. Pinto took over the charity, and the charity's U.S. fundraising branch transferred $1.2 million to Pinto and his wife, which were used to pay for flights, hotels, child care, and handouts to relatives and associates, according to the indictment.

Bracha, the police official, notified his superiors about the rabbi's bribery offer, and the police began to track Pinto's attempts to extract information from Bracha on his police file.

On Sept. 13, 2012, at the Hilton Hotel in Tel Aviv, Pinto's wife gave Bracha's wife an envelope with 100,000 Swiss Francs, or about $107,000, and promised that Pinto would give additional money, the indictment said.

In the plea bargain, Pinto agreed to cooperate with police investigators regarding a separate bribery case in which associates of Pinto gave "benefits" to another senior police official, Menashe Arbiv, while he served as head of the national police's elite anti-corruption unit, the Justice Ministry said. Arbiv had previously served as Israel's police representative in the U.S., coordinating with U.S. security organizations on investigations.

A spokesman for Pinto did not respond to a request for comment.