Ex-aide to rabbi, US lawmaker due in court

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An attorney for an Israeli fundraiser arrested by the FBI on an immigration fraud charge tells Al Monitor that he plans to take the case to trial. He also refuted any suggestion that someone other than his client is paying his legal fees.

Ofer Biton, a former fundraiser to Rep. Michael Grimm (R-Staten Island, NY) and former aide to Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto, was released to house arrest last week after a one-time business partner of Grimm’s paid his $1.5 million bail. Federal authorities are investigating Grimm over allegations that he accepted illegal campaign contributions from members of Pinto’s congregation.

Late Thursday, Israeli media reported that Rabbi Pinto himself had been remanded to house arrest in Israel after allegedly trying to bribe an Israeli police investigator. The reports allege that senior Israeli police investigators had taped Pinto offering a bribe of $200,000 for information on a money laundering investigation concerning him or his associates. Pinto’s attorney told Israel’s Maariv that the rabbi had done nothing wrong and had been cooperating in answering all of the police’s questions.

Biton is due to have a status hearing in his case on Friday, John Meringolo, Biton’s defense attorney, told Al Monitor in a phone conversation this week. Authorities have been seeking to get Biton’s cooperation in their federal campaign finance investigation of Grimm, a freshman Republican who is running for re-election next month. But to date, Biton has refused to cooperate, and Meringolo said he plans to bring the case before a jury.

US prosecutors, arguing against Biton’s release at his bail hearing last week, reportedly alleged that the man who paid Biton’s bail, New York restaurant developer Bennett Orfaly, maintains close ties to his former business partner Grimm, as well a convicted member of the Gambino crime family, the New York Post reported.

“Staten Island Rep. Michael Grimm investigated the Gambino crime family as an FBI agent — before opening a restaurant with a business partner so close to one of the mob clan’s capos, he considers him an ‘uncle,’ according to sources and court documents,” the New York Post wrote.

Grimm’s ex-business partner, “Bennett Orfaly, regularly travels to the federal lockup in Fort Dix, NJ, to visit his pal Anthony ‘Fat Tony’ Morelli, Brooklyn federal prosecutors said,” the New York Post reported.

Meringolo previously served as a defense lawyer for several figures charged in organized crime cases, including John Gotti Jr. and Gambino crime family soldier, Brian DePalma. Notably, Grimm, when he served as an FBI agent, reportedly was involved in investigating the Gambino clan, including John Gotti’s brother, and “worked undercover on a case that led to the arrest of DePalma”, the New York Post reported.

Grimm later opened a New York restaurant, Healthalitious, with Bennett Orfaly, who put up the $1.5 million for Biton’s bail last week.

US attorneys’ complained about the arrangement, according to local news reports.

Orfaly did not return messages left by Al-Monitor this week at his chain of pita grill restaurants in New York and New Jersey.

Asked if there was a potential appearance that people linked to Grimm were paying for Biton’s bail or legal fees in order to encourage his client’s silence, Meringolo insisted that Biton alone is paying for his defense.

“No one has paid me but my client,” Meringolo told Al-Monitor.

Asked about news reports and court filings suggesting that Biton has financial problems, Meringolo said that his client had done well enough to pay $700,000 in income taxes.

At an earlier bail hearing last month, US prosecutors alleged that Biton was investigated a decade ago for being part of an ecstasy ring in California, but was never charged in the drug case.

“Federal agents in 2002 found a loaded 9mm semiautomatic pistol while searching [Biton’s] apartment complex during a drug probe, prosecutors said,” the New York Post reported September 30, 2012. “Investigators searching the Southern California apartment complex where Biton then lived also discovered a California driver’s license, a Social Security card, and other documents in the name of ‘Haim Morziane,’ which prosecutors said was an alias used at the time by Biton.”

More recently, Biton has served as a top aide to Rabbi Pinto, a Sephardic mystic “rabbi to the stars” who has developed an influential following since he moved to New York from Israel six years ago. Pinto and Biton have reportedly since become estranged. Pinto associates have alleged that Grimm and Biton repeatedly approached some of Pinto’s followers for campaign donations, some of them beyond the legal limit or from people not eligible to donate to US campaigns, the New York Times reported.

Grimm, who is currently running for re-election, has vehemently denied the charges.

UPDATE: On Friday, an attorney for Ofer Biton informed US District Judge Roslynn Mauskopf during a status hearing on his case that he had retained an additional attorney, former US federal prosecutor Alan Vinegrad, sources briefed on the development told Al-Monitor.

(Photo by Yossef Ben Yossef, New York Times of Ofer Biton.)