Rabbi's Followers Blame Aide for Missing Millions

The New York Times/December 20, 2011

By Alison Leigh

Six years ago, an Orthodox rabbi and mystic who traces his lineage to King David moved to New York from Israel and amassed a notable following. Real estate titans fetched him at the airport. Members of Congress attended his Hebrew classes. Even LeBron James, who is not Jewish, borrowed a friend's yacht to consult the rabbi in private.

Lately though, the image of the rabbi, Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto, 38, has seemed tarnished. Millions of dollars in donations to the rabbi's congregation cannot be accounted for, according to his aides and lawyers. Articles in Jewish publications have questioned his judgment. Camera crews have trailed him, with reporters shouting questions about improprieties.

Now, the rabbi's close followers are disclosing what they say is the source of many of his troubles. They said they told federal investigators that the rabbi had been the victim of a bizarre embezzlement and extortion plot that was carried out by two former members of his inner circle, who stole his congregation's money and tried to frame him.

While the claims of the rabbi's followers have not been proved and no one has been charged with a crime, the United States attorney's office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have stepped in and have been carrying out an extensive inquiry into the two men over the last year, federal officials said.

"Both the rabbi and the organization as a whole are being viewed by the investigation as victims," said Arthur L. Aidala, Rabbi Pinto's lawyer in New York. "Based on the questioning of the witnesses that we are privy to, the targets of the investigation are individuals who worked for or on behalf of the rabbi's organization."

The rabbi's followers and lawyers said they told federal investigators that a former aide to the rabbi, an Israeli named Ofer Biton, 39, had pocketed millions of dollars in donations that were intended for the rabbi's charity.

Mr. Biton's lawyer in New York, Jeffrey A. Udell, denied the accusations. He said Mr. Biton did not have "any involvement whatsoever in any plot" against Rabbi Pinto.

The rabbi's followers have also charged that Mr. Biton and Ronn Torossian, a public relations agent based in Manhattan, engaged in a scheme in which they leaked purportedly damaging information about the rabbi to reporters. Then, the followers said, Mr. Biton pushed to have Mr. Torossian put on retainer to help put an end to the bad publicity.

Mr. Torossian, who first attended services in Rabbi Pinto's congregation in 2008, was contacted several times in recent weeks about the assertions of the rabbi's followers, but would not comment.

On Tuesday, after this article was published on the Web site of The New York Times, Mr. Torossian asked to be interviewed. He said he had no knowledge that he was being investigated, and he accused Rabbi Pinto of mounting a vendetta against him.

"My safety and that of my family has been threatened by this gang repeatedly, as I have documented to authorities," he said. "I have kept this matter quiet to protect my privacy and to preserve the safety of my family. I am afraid of this gangster and this cabal of liars."

Mr. Aidala, Rabbi Pinto's lawyer, called Mr. Torossian's statement preposterous.

Mr. Torossian, 37, has a reputation as an aggressive publicist prone to sending off vitriolic e-mails. In 2008, his firm, 5W Public Relations, was accused of posting fake comments on a blog in an effort to defend a client, Agriprocessors, which at the time was ensnared in a scandal over conditions at its kosher meatpacking plant.

Some of the fake comments, crude and arrogant, were written under the name of a critic of the plant. Mr. Torossian's firm later acknowledged that the posts had come from "a senior staff member."

Mr. Torossian has ties to gossip columnists because of his work representing hip-hop celebrities like Sean Combs. He has also represented Israeli officials and Jewish organizations.

As evidence that Mr. Torossian was trying to damage the rabbi's reputation, the rabbi's followers pointed to news coverage over the last two years and a gossip item in September in The Daily News. The item said the rabbi had dodged a camera crew from "Nightline" that wanted to question him about his financial affairs. ("Nightline," an ABC News program, has not broadcast anything about the rabbi.)

Federal investigators in New York City, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, confirmed that they were examining the roles of Mr. Biton and Mr. Torossian in the disappearance of the money from the rabbi's congregation, but they would not provide details.

Several followers of Rabbi Pinto said in interviews that they had been questioned by F.B.I. agents about Mr. Biton and Mr. Torossian.

Rabbi Pinto declined to be interviewed for this article, but he allowed his lawyers to answer questions about the case.

A scion of two dynasties of Moroccan Jewish scholars who were revered as mystics, Rabbi Pinto is often mentioned as a candidate for chief rabbi of Israel, where he first established his congregation, Shuva Israel.

Despite his success in New York, he has been criticized by some Orthodox rabbis who say the frenzied atmosphere around him can sometimes be cultlike, with people lining up for hours to receive his blessings.

Rabbi Pinto made headlines in Israel during the summer over a public feud with his father-in-law, Argentina's chief rabbi, Shlomo Ben Hamo, who accused him of trying to conceal his ownership of two apartments in Jerusalem. Rabbi Ben Hamo quickly retracted his accusation, but the two men remain estranged.

In New York, Rabbi Pinto's base is in a building at 122 East 58th Street that Shuva Israel bought for $28.5 million, financed largely by donations from followers.

In addition to young scholars in black hats, his congregation includes people in the retail and jewelry trades, as well as real estate titans: Ofer Yardeni, a founder of Stonehenge Partners; Isaac Tshuva, owner of the Plaza Hotel; and George Klein, a longtime Republican power broker.

The rabbi also has ties to politicians in the United States and abroad. Before he resigned after a scandal over inappropriate posts on Twitter, Representative Anthony D. Weiner, a New York Democrat, met with the rabbi. Two other congressmen, Michael G. Grimm, a New York Republican, and Eric Cantor of Virginia, the Republican majority leader, have also met him. Mr. Weiner and Mr. Cantor are Jewish; Mr. Grimm is not.

Rabbi Pinto took on Mr. Biton as an aide and interpreter in 2005. Both men have Moroccan Jewish roots. Mr. Biton previously had been involved in the slot machine business in California and currently owns a store in New York City that sells pornography, according to court and municipal business records.

Mr. Biton became a gatekeeper for the rabbi in New York, setting up meetings for him and supervising financial affairs for Shuva Israel, the rabbi's followers said.

Mr. Biton "was in charge of all the people working for the rabbi to collect money for donations," said Yossi Azour, a Queens developer who is a follower of the rabbi.

"Ofer," he continued, "was supposed to deliver it to the bank account."

Mr. Azour and other followers said the rabbi himself never handled donations.

Lawyers involved in the case estimated that millions of dollars donated to Shuva Israel and intended for charitable work appeared to be missing. Federal officials said the F.B.I. was investigating whether Mr. Biton had siphoned off some of the money he was given by donors and other staff members for deposit in the congregation's accounts.

Some of the rabbi's aides said they became suspicious of Mr. Biton in 2009 after people who had made donations were not given receipts, and the number of contributions reported by the New York office did not match what officials in Israel were hearing anecdotally.

"We talked to people, and they said they gave donations to the rabbi and we didn't get a donation," said Michal Cohen, an Israeli lawyer who served as a top administrator at Shuva Israel. "A lot of money was missing."

The rabbi's relations with Mr. Biton and Mr. Torossian ruptured in March 2010. The rabbi had been staying temporarily in an apartment in the Essex House in Manhattan, a rental that Mr. Biton had helped to arrange, but the rabbi decided to stop renting it.

One night, Mr. Biton and Mr. Torossian confronted the rabbi over the decision, according to Ms. Cohen, who said she was there at the time.

Ms. Cohen said she heard Mr. Torossian demand $500,000 from the rabbi, as well as five months' rent for the Essex House apartment. Mr. Torossian threatened the rabbi with a spate of negative publicity if he did not agree, she said.

"It was a very bad situation," she said.

The rabbi's followers contributed at least $380,000 to meet the demand, Ms. Cohen, Mr. Azour and other followers said.

Most of the money came from Mr. Azour, according to interviews and an examination of copies of the checks. The checks were made out to RDT, a consulting firm run by Mr. Torossian.

Mr. Torossian, asked on Tuesday whether the endorsements on the backs of the checks were in his handwriting, said, "I won't comment on that."

"There are many different reasons that people pay money," he said.

Mr. Torossian acknowledged that the meeting with the rabbi had occurred, but said Ms. Cohen was not there. He said he had an audio recording of the meeting, but he declined to provide a copy of it.

Mr. Biton, in a brief interview on Tuesday, denied any wrongdoing. "Everything you see in this article is a lie," he said.

Meanwhile, information intended to discredit Rabbi Pinto continues to appear. Over the last year, administrators and editors at Wikipedia have repeatedly blocked hostile posts about the rabbi. One commenter, who referred to himself as "Babasalichai," wrote that the rabbi was perceived by some as a "somewhat shady businessman."

The Wikipedia administrators investigated "Babasalichai" and other similarly negative commenters by examining their Internet addresses and other evidence.

They reached a conclusion about the sources of the hostile posts: "Even if they're not all the same person," a Wikipedia editor known as Dweller wrote on April 5, 2011, "they are all employees of Torossian."

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