Access, Influence and Pardons: How a Set of Allies Shaped Trump’s Choices

WASHINGTON — One hacked the computer systems of enterprise rivals. One bribed docs to win referrals for his nursing houses.

Another fled the nation whereas he was on trial for his position in a fraud that siphoned $450 million from an insurance coverage firm, resulting in its collapse. Still one other ran a Ponzi scheme that plunged a synagogue into foreclosures.

Each gained clemency from President Donald J. Trump.

They additionally had one thing else in frequent, an investigation by The New York Times discovered. The efforts to hunt clemency for these rich or well-connected folks benefited from their social, political, or monetary ties to a free assortment of legal professionals, lobbyists, activists and Orthodox Jewish leaders who had labored with Trump administration officers on legal justice laws championed by Jared Kushner.

That community revolved round a pair of influential Jewish organizations that concentrate on legal justice points — the Aleph Institute and Tzedek Association — and well-wired folks working with them, together with the lawyer Alan M. Dershowitz, Brett Tolman, a former U.S. legal professional for Utah, and Nick Muzin, a Republican operative.

The mixture of entry, affect and substantive experience they delivered to bear produced hanging outcomes.

Of the 238 complete pardons and commutations granted by Mr. Trump throughout his time period, 27 went to folks supported by Aleph, Tzedek and the legal professionals and lobbyists who labored with them. At least six of these 27 went to individuals who had been denied clemency by means of the official Justice Department course of in the course of the Obama administration.

Over the years, no less than 4 of those that obtained clemency or their households had donated to Aleph. Others or their allies and households had retained folks like Mr. Dershowitz, who represented Mr. Trump in his first impeachment trial, Mr. Tolman and Mr. Muzin to press their instances earlier than the Trump administration, typically working in parallel with Aleph and Tzedek, in response to public data and interviews.

The teams weren’t the one ones who had success with Mr. Trump. Alice Marie Johnson, an advocate for fairer sentencing who had her own drug conviction pardoned by Mr. Trump, was credited by the White House for championing 13 clemency grants, many of which went to drug offenders and African-American defendants given disproportionately lengthy jail phrases.

While Aleph labored with Ms. Johnson on some clemency instances — together with for folks convicted of nonviolent drug crimes — Aleph, Tzedek and their allies stood out for his or her success at successful clemency for white-collar offenders who had left a damaging path of fraud of their wake. The majority of those that gained clemency with their assist had been convicted of monetary crimes.

It was a new chapter particularly for Aleph, which has lengthy labored on behalf of folks going through dire conditions within the legal justice system. Aleph has for years appealed for extra lenient sentencing guidelines and pressed judges to scale back jail time in particular person instances, whereas offering social and spiritual providers to prisoners and their households. It solely started searching for presidential clemencies in the course of the Obama administration — and did not safe any such grants till Mr. Trump took workplace.

The leaders of Aleph, Tzedek and their allies performed a position in serving to construct help for a sweeping rewrite of federal sentencing legal guidelines in 2018, successful bipartisan reward and bolstering their clout within the administration.

Mr. Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, spearheaded the sentencing overhaul effort within the White House, and additionally helped oversee the clemency course of. He had develop into all for legal justice and developed ties to members of the free community of allies on the problem after his father, Charles Kushner, was sentenced in 2005 to two years in prison for tax evasion, witness tampering and mendacity to the Federal Election Commission.

When Charles Kushner, a donor to Aleph, received a pardon from Mr. Trump in December, the White House cited Mr. Tolman’s help for the choice.

While Mr. Obama issued practically 1,700 extra clemency grants than Mr. Trump, he chosen largely instances that got here by means of a Justice Department course of for figuring out and vetting recipients.

The overwhelming majority of Mr. Trump’s pardons and commutations bypassed that course of, and had been as an alternative awarded by means of an advert hoc system run by a handful of White House aides, with help from exterior advisers.

In the world of legal protection legal professionals and clemency seekers, Aleph, Tzedek and the folks working alongside them got here to be seen as among the many simplest avenues to clemency, together with for monetary crimes of the kind which are often much less more likely to garner help from legal justice activists.

A spokesman for Aleph mentioned the group chosen candidates based mostly on elements together with humanitarian considerations, clear demonstrations of regret and its dedication to addressing what it typically sees as excessively lengthy sentences.

He acknowledged that Aleph had accepted donations from folks whose clemencies its officers later supported to 1 diploma or one other, however mentioned the group did its clemency work without charge, and wouldn’t settle for donations from folks whereas engaged on their clemencies. In two instances by which the White House credited Aleph with supporting clemency grants to individuals who had donated to the group, the spokesman mentioned rabbis at Aleph merely expressed help for the petition.

Those donations represented a tiny fraction of its total price range, which totaled nearly $6.9 million for the 12 months ending in fall 2019, the spokesman mentioned, including that neither cash nor spiritual affiliation performed any position in its selections about clemency instances.

Aleph minimized its connection to Tzedek’s clemency work and mentioned it was deceptive to explain the organizations as half of a clemency community, whereas noting that clemency was solely a small half of the group’s work.

“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 programs” supplied to them free of cost, Aleph’s founder, Rabbi Sholom D. Lipskar, mentioned in a assertion.

Moshe Margaretten, an Orthodox rabbi who based Tzedek, mentioned most of these it sought clemency for had been nonviolent drug offenders. He cited humanitarian causes like sickness and household issues for backing the profitable clemency requests of two males serving prolonged sentences for monetary crimes.

Activists who foyer for sentencing leniency and clemency for nonviolent drug offenders have praised the efforts of Aleph and Tzedek. But some of these activists mentioned that the community’s help for rich or well-connected fraudsters exacerbated the inequity that pervaded clemency decisions beneath Mr. Trump.

Ari Weisbrot, a New Jersey litigator, mentioned he had seen each side. The humanitarian work Aleph did in prisons, Mr. Weisbrot mentioned, was overshadowed by the advocacy it supplied to folks like Eliyahu Weinstein, who was convicted of operating a Ponzi scheme that stole hundreds of thousands of {dollars} from purchasers represented by Mr. Weisbrot — cash that has by no means been returned.

Aleph had sought leniency for Mr. Weinstein at his sentencing in 2014. When Mr. Trump commuted Mr. Weinstein’s 24-year sentence in January, the White House credited Mr. Tolman, Mr. Dershowitz and the Tzedek Association in addition to an array of lawmakers and activists for the choice.

“I have dealt with groups like Aleph in other situations where they have been amazing and unbelievably helpful,” Mr. Weisbrot mentioned. “But once you turn from helping people who need help to helping people who have proven themselves unworthy of help, you are no longer a public service, but rather an instrument that enables wrongdoing.”

The Aleph Institute, which takes its title from the primary letter within the Hebrew alphabet, was established by Rabbi Lipskar, an adherent of the Chabad-Lubavitch group of Hasidic Jews, in Surfside, Fla., within the early 1980s on the route of the motion’s chief on the time, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

Rabbi Schneerson taught that incarceration is inhumane, and worse than loss of life in sure respects, as a result of it disadvantaged prisoners of the power to contribute to society, although he acknowledged the necessity to incarcerate individuals who had been harmful to others.

Aleph has labored for years to restrict jail time in particular instances.

Some of that work has drawn criticism from crime victims, authorized consultants and some prosecutors.

Aleph urged a judge to impose an intensive program of “rehabilitative public service” — moderately than a prolonged jail sentence — for Sheldon Silver, the disgraced former chief of the New York State Assembly and one of the nation’s most outstanding Orthodox elected officers, after Mr. Silver’s conviction on corruption charges.

Rabbi Margaretten of the Tzedek Association would later be among the many influential figures who urged Mr. Trump to grant clemency to Mr. Silver; Mr. Trump abandoned plans to do so after reporting by The Times.

Over the years, Aleph additionally constructed a highly effective community of outstanding supporters and allies within the authorized world. Its web site options testimonials from the previous F.B.I. director Louis Freeh and the previous legal professional normal Michael B. Mukasey — each of whom have supported clemency purposes introduced by the group.

Mr. Dershowitz, one of the nation’s best-known legal protection legal professionals, started volunteering his authorized providers to the group within the 1980s, he mentioned. When Mr. Dershowitz turned 80 in 2018, Aleph reportedly honored him with a star-studded dinner party in Manhattan.

The dinner was underwritten by Harry Adjmi, a rich actual property investor; his brother Alex Adjmi, who was convicted of laundering money for a Colombian drug cartel within the 1990s, was amongst these pardoned by Mr. Trump in January. Aleph mentioned it didn’t push for Mr. Adjmi’s pardon. Harry Adjmi declined to remark.

“Virtually every clemency case I’ve dealt with, I had some contact with Aleph,” Mr. Dershowitz mentioned.

Mr. Dershowitz additionally started working with the Tzedek Association within the ultimate weeks of Mr. Trump’s presidency. While he had sought clemencies beneath a number of presidents, Mr. Dershowitz had more success under Mr. Trump than beneath each previous president mixed.

The Kushner household had longstanding private connections to the community and the Chabad-Lubavitch motion. Inspired by his father’s case, Jared Kushner turned a supporter of sentencing overhaul, reportedly donating to a lobbying effort by Rabbi Margaretten to vary federal sentencing legal guidelines after assembly with him in 2012.

Rabbi Margaretten later began the Tzedek Association, and retained Mr. Dershowitz, Mr. Muzin and Mr. Tolman as lobbyists. (Mr. Tolman additionally lobbied for Aleph, which paid him $50,000 final yr.)

The Kushner household’s charitable basis, the place Mr. Kushner was a director, donated greater than $188,000 to Aleph from 2004 to the top of 2017, in response to the inspiration’s tax returns. The basis additionally donated greater than $254,000 — primarily to profit the needy — to the Shul of Bal Harbour, Rabbi Lipskar’s synagogue in Surfside, which shares an tackle with the Aleph Institute.

When Mr. Kushner joined the White House, he set to work making an attempt to overtake federal sentencing legal guidelines.

The effort introduced Aleph and its like-minded allies with a twin alternative. They may advance a longtime legislative precedence, whereas additionally utilizing their entry to White House officers to hunt particular person pardons and commutations.

One of Mr. Trump’s first commutations, in December 2017, went to Sholom Rubashkin, who was convicted in 2009 of bank fraud after a whole bunch of undocumented immigrant staff had been arrested in a raid the year before at the meatpacking plant he oversaw.

While the Obama Justice Department had rejected Mr. Rubashkin’s clemency request, Mr. Kushner suggested Mr. Trump to commute his sentence, in response to a former White House official, and Mr. Dershowitz personally lobbied Mr. Trump on the case, which additionally had been championed for years by, amongst others, Aleph and Rabbi Margaretten.

Mr. Dershowitz mentioned officers within the White House Counsel’s Office informed him that they had very excessive regard for Aleph and took its clemency petitions critically, including that was why “Aleph probably got more commutations than others.”

Rabbi Margaretten enlisted Mr. Muzin, a former adviser to Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, to push for “clemency for individual prisoners,” in addition to adjustments to sentencing legal guidelines, in response to lobbying filings. (Mr. Muzin would report receiving $110,000 for the work in 2019 and 2020.)

Mr. Muzin organized a name for Mr. Dershowitz, Jewish leaders in Texas and others to win help for the White House sentencing overhaul from Mr. Cruz, a key Republican holdout. He got here out in help of the invoice, generally known as the First Step Act, which was signed into regulation by Mr. Trump in late 2018, and led to the release of thousands of nonviolent drug offenders, in addition to some white-collar criminals supported by the network.

At the White House Hanukkah occasion the subsequent yr, Mr. Trump known as on Rabbi Margaretten to mild the menorah, and credited him and an Aleph official, Rabbi Zvi Boyarsky, with serving to move the laws.

Mr. Muzin, engaged on behalf of Rabbi Margaretten, and Mr. Dershowitz additionally pushed for the discharge of one other prisoner, Sholam Weiss, who was convicted in 2000 of siphoning $450 million from an insurance coverage firm, resulting in its collapse. Mr. Weiss spent greater than a yr on the run, earlier than being arrested in Austria and extradited to the United States to serve an 845-year sentence.

“The case had been discussed for years in the White House and was a key priority for criminal justice advocate groups, but it had met some resistance and wasn’t moving,” Mr. Muzin mentioned. He introduced the request to the White House chief of employees, Mark Meadows.

With hours left in his time period, Mr. Trump commuted Mr. Weiss’s sentence, and, when Mr. Weiss was launched after serving 18 years in jail, he was greeted by Rabbi Margaretten.

That identical day, Mr. Trump additionally commuted the sentence of Mr. Weinstein, the New Jersey man who stole greater than $200 million by means of elaborate real estate scams. While the official White House announcement credited Mr. Tolman, Mr. Dershowitz, Tzedek and others, Mr. Weinstein additionally had behind-the-scenes help from gamers whose motives had been much less clear.

Most of Mr. Weinstein’s victims had been fellow Orthodox Jews, whose traditions of mutual belief and handshake offers he exploited. He paid nearly no restitution to his victims and maintained his innocence up till shortly earlier than his sentencing.

Nevertheless, Rabbi Lipskar, Aleph’s founder, spoke for Mr. Weinstein at his 2014 sentencing, suggesting a punishment of 5 years’ home arrest.

“House arrest sometimes is worse than prison to some people,” Mr. Lipskar mentioned. A decide disagreed, sentencing Mr. Weinstein to more than 20 years.

Mr. Weinstein nonetheless had years to serve when Barry Wachsler, a Long Island businessman, paid Mr. Muzin and a colleague at least $75,000 to start lobbying the Trump administration for his launch. Mr. Wachsler mentioned that after attending to know Mr. Weinstein throughout visits to the jail the place Mr. Weinstein was serving, he grew incensed by what he considered Mr. Weinstein’s unfair remedy.

Mr. Wachsler mentioned he turned half of a broad group of supporters who labored to assist Mr. Weinstein, however mentioned he didn’t wish to title others with out permission.

“Collectively, people put together the money and it was paid,” he mentioned.

But Mr. Wachsler acknowledged that one of the folks serving to out was a pal of his from Long Island named Yitz Grossman, a businessman together with his personal report of white-collar fraud convictions. Late final yr, Mr. Grossman started approaching victims of Mr. Weinstein to see if they might contemplate writing letters to help his clemency petition.

Ruth Brandt, a Los Angeles philanthropist who misplaced $1 million to Mr. Weinstein, mentioned that Mr. Grossman introduced himself as somebody who had served in jail with Mr. Weinstein and believed his prolonged sentence was unjust.

If Ms. Brandt signed a letter supporting Mr. Weinstein’s clemency petition, she mentioned Mr. Grossman informed her, supporters of Mr. Weinstein would organize for her to be paid $100,000. Ms. Brandt in the end declined the supply.

“I said, ‘Why are you helping him?’” Ms. Brandt recalled.

Later, Ms. Brandt was outraged to study — from reporting by The Times — that Mr. Dershowitz was additionally concerned within the effort to assist Mr. Weinstein win clemency. She emailed him in January to complain.

Mr. Dershowitz defended his work, in response to emails considered by The Times, saying that he had been requested to assist Mr. Weinstein and that “In Europe and Israel his sentence would have been 5 years.”

Mr. Grossman additionally approached Harvey Wolinetz, a developer in New Jersey and Florida from whom Mr. Weinstein stole about $70 million. Describing himself as somebody working with the Aleph Institute, Mr. Grossman additionally instructed that a six-figure restitution may very well be made if Mr. Wolinetz supported clemency, in response to two folks briefed on the dialogue, who requested for anonymity as a result of they weren’t approved to publicly focus on the matter.

Mr. Wolinetz agreed to put in writing a letter to Mr. Trump. In an interview, Mr. Wolinetz, 78, mentioned Mr. Grossman had by no means broached a particular greenback determine, however mentioned he hoped that with Mr. Weinstein free, “just maybe there’ll be some compensation for me down the road.”

Mr. Grossman, who obtained help from Aleph whereas he was imprisoned, denied that he had described himself as representing Aleph or supplied cash in change for the letter. The Aleph spokesman mentioned the group was not concerned in Mr. Weinstein’s clemency effort.

“I certainly told people that you have no shot if a person is sitting in the system,” Mr. Grossman mentioned. “Can a person who is incarcerated make restitution?”

In some instances, the monetary connections between clemency recipients and the community had been direct.

After Philip Esformes was charged in 2016 in what prosecutors known as the largest health care fraud case charged by the Justice Department, his father, himself a rabbi, donated $65,000 to the Aleph Institute over a number of years. The father, who additionally made smaller donations to the Shul of Bal Harbour, said during his son’s sentencing in 2019 that he would make additional contributions to a psychological well being group with which Aleph had deliberate to staff up, and at which Mr. Esformes’s legal professionals instructed he may carry out neighborhood service as an alternative of a lengthy jail sentence.

The Aleph spokesman mentioned the donations to the group ended earlier than it started pushing for his son’s clemency. Mr. Trump commuted Mr. Esformes’s sentence just before Christmas.

After Ariel Friedler was launched in 2014 from a two-month jail sentence for conspiring to hack into pc programs of opponents of his schooling software program firm, he donated to funds on the Shul of Bal Harbour for scholarships and the needy. He additionally donated to the Aleph Institute and volunteered his time and software program administration experience.

An Aleph official wrote to the Florida bar association in 2017 to get Mr. Friedler’s regulation license reinstated, explaining that Mr. Friedler had advisable adjustments that had allowed “the organization to grow exponentially,” and later wrote a letter to the White House supporting a pardon for him. When the pardon got here, in February 2020, White House officers credited Aleph.

Kenneth P. Vogel reported from Washington, and Nicholas Confessore from New York. Alain Delaquérière contributed analysis.

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