Ex-Aide to Rep. Grimm and Rabbi Pinto changes attorneys

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Ofer Biton, a former fundraiser for Rep. Michael Grimm (R-NY) and aide to Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto, has hired a new attorney, Al-Monitor has learned. Biton was arrested by the FBI in August on an immigration fraud charge, amid a federal campaign finance probe of Grimm.

Biton has retained former federal prosecutor Alan Vinegrad, the former US attorney for the Eastern District of New York, as his new defense counsel, sources familiar with the development told Al-Monitor Friday.

Biton has been represented in proceedings to date by John Meringolo, whose most well known past clients include John Gotti Jr., and Gambino crime family soldier Greg DePalma.

Biton, an Israeli citizen, was released on bail to house arrest last week. He appeared at a status hearing on his case before US District Judge Roslynn Mauskopf in Brooklyn Friday, and informed the court of his intent to add Vinegrad to his defense team.

Meringolo, in past court proceedings, has alleged that prosecutors were pressuring his client to cooperate in their campaign finance probe of Grimm in exchange for leniency. But Biton would not cooperate against the Staten Island freshman Republican, he told reporters after a court appearance last month. “I haven’t seen any evidence whatsoever of wrongdoing of Michael Grimm,” Meringolo told reporters after a hearing Sept. 7. (Asked about the remark–seemingly on behalf of someone other than his client–by Al-Monitor this week, Meringolo declined to comment, but insisted that Biton was the only one paying his legal fees.)

Meringolo also said that he intended to take Biton’s case to trial.

It’s not clear if Biton’s decision to change attorney suggests he is reconsidering his options.

Vinegrad, now a partner at Covington & Burling, did not return a message left by Al-Monitor Friday.

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Rabbi linked to US lawmakers questioned in Israel graft probe


Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto, a charismatic rabbi with a large and influential following in New York, has been questioned in Israel on allegations that he tried to bribe a senior Israeli police investigator, Israeli media report Friday. The deepening legal scrutiny of Rabbi Pinto in Israel comes as his former top aide appeared in federal court in New York Friday, amid an FBI campaign finance probe of a congressman accused of pressuring Rabbi Pinto’s followers for illegal campaign donations.

Pinto is alleged to have been caught in a sting offering a senior Israeli police investigator a $200,000 bribe for information concerning a money laundering investigation, Ma’ariv reported.

Rabbi Pinto was questioned Thursday by Israeli police “on suspicion of having tried to bribe chief of the Police Investigation Division Brig.-Gen. Ephraim Bracha,” Maariv’s Avi Ashkenazi reported.

“Escorted by detectives and wearing a wire, the officer, [Bracha], received $100,000 in cash from Pinto, in exchange for which he was to provide information about the investigation into Hazon Yeshaya, a charity organization,” Maariv wrote.

Pinto’s attorney told the paper the rabbi has cooperated in answering the police’s questions and has done nothing wrong.The rabbi and his wife have been released to house arrest in Ashdod, Israel to answer additional questions, reports said.

Rabbi Pinto, 38, has developed an influential following in both Israel and the United States, and has close ties to US lawmakers. In August, the FBI arrested the rabbi’s former top aide, who had worked as a fundraiser for New York Congressman Michael Grimm (R-Staten Island). Al-Monitor reported in August that the top seven donors to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s 2008 campaign were from members of Rabbi Pinto’s congregation.

Ofer Biton, the former aide to Rabbi Pinto and fundraiser for Grimm, had a status hearing in his case before US District Court Judge Roslynn Mauskopf Friday, a spokesman for the US Attorney’s office in the Eastern District of New York told Al-Monitor Friday.

Biton also informed the court Friday that he has retained a second defense lawyer, Alan Vinegrad, who used to be the US attorney in the district.

Biton, arrested on an immigration fraud charge in August, was released to house arrest last week after a former business partner of Grimm’s put up his $1.5 million bail.

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