NEW YORK (AP) — When he announced his run for congress in the fall of 2009, future U.S. Rep. Michael Grimm, then a political novice, sorely needed a rainmaker who could get the dollars flowing to his nascent campaign. He found one in an Israeli rabbi, Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto.
Now, that fruitful association has turned into a big headache for the Staten Island Republican — one involving allegations of illegal donations, a bizarre blackmail claim and potentially embarrassing associations with people in the pornography business.
In mid-August, FBI agents arrested an Israeli businessman who had helped Grimm raise hundreds of thousands of dollars from Pinto's wealthy, zealous followers in New York. The entrepreneur and rabbinical aide, Ofer Biton, was charged with lying about his financial dealings in 2010 when he applied for a U.S. visa.
The arrest came as the FBI has been investigating claims made by other Pinto followers, who say they made tens of thousands of dollars in illegal contributions to Grimm during his 2010 run, including gifts that were passed through straw donors to hide the true source of the donations. FBI agents have recently been requesting records and interviewing people who were on the campaign staff.
Grimm, himself a former FBI agent, has repeatedly declined to be interviewed by The Associated Press about the matter. He has acknowledged raising $250,000 to $300,000 from Pinto's supporters — about a third of all money contributed in the first 12 months of his campaign — but denied any knowledge of improprieties.
"My campaign and I followed the fundraising rules, and took reasonable measures to vet the contributions received by my campaign," he said in a statement to the AP. "Indeed, I relied on Rabbi Pinto's status as a clergyman and holy man when agreeing to meet with individuals associated with his congregation."
Campaign records and other public documents make it clear, however, that after tapping the rabbi's followers for money, Grimm wound up getting help from people who candidates normally keep at arm's length.
One of the rabbi's closest aides, Benzion Suky, owned a company that distributed porn videos and has settled lawsuits by adult film studios who accused him of selling bootlegged DVDs, according to court records. Suky and his wife gave a combined $9,600 to Grimm's 2010 campaign and a real estate partnership that lists Suky as its managing member gave $4,800, according to Federal Election Commission records.
Another big donor was Rafi Maman, proprietor of companies in North Bergen, N.J., that distribute adult films and sex toys. He also has settled lawsuits accusing him of bootlegging, including two which also named Suky as a defendant. Maman, his wife and a real estate partnership that he listed as his employer gave $19,200 to Grimm's campaign. That total includes $7,200 in individual contributions from Maman, or $2,400 more than is allowed by law.
A third Grimm contributor, Eli Halali, is listed in business records as the agent of another company that distributed pornographic movies. His name also appears on at least one such video, "Blonde & Beautiful Vol. 1," as the keeper of records verifying that the film's performers were over age 18. He gave $4,800. Two apparent relatives, Bluria Halali and Jaclyn Halali, each contributed $4,800.
Biton, formerly one of Pinto's top aides, also had a hand in adult entertainment. Florida business records list him as being the president of AMOB Inc. The company is registered at the same address as the Miami Playground, a shop once named by an alternative newspaper as the city's the best adult video store.
Election records do not list any donations from Biton, who, as an Israeli citizen without permanent residency in the U.S, is barred from giving money to political candidates.
But the Israeli helped Grimm in other ways that are allowed, including accompanying him on fundraising visits to congregation members, several of whom were heavy hitters in New York's real estate and jewelry businesses.
Suky, who is also a real estate investor, says he is no longer involved in distributing adult films and has now devoted his life to helping Pinto spread his message. During the bootlegging lawsuits, he had argued that he was unaware DVDs he purchased from a supplier were knockoffs.
Halali, who is also a co-owner of a popular chain of New York pizza shops, declined through a relative to comment about his donations. Maman didn't return numerous phone messages. It was unclear whether either man was actively involved in Pinto's congregation.
Grimm told his hometown newspaper on Staten Island, The Advance, that he began cultivating a relationship with Pinto in October of 2009 on the advice of a friend, who thought the rabbi might be helpful raising money.
At age 38, Pinto has achieved a fervent following in Israel, and has become famous there for his connections to political figures and business tycoons, some of whom credit him with mystical powers to bless their deals.
His success as an adviser to the rich and famous has made his organization wealthy; the Israeli edition of Forbes magazine recently ranked Pinto as Israel's 7th richest rabbi, based on organizational holdings. Long based in the Mediterranean port city of Ashdod, Pinto opened a second headquarters in 2002 in New York, where he resides in a $6.5 million town house and delivers sermons in a building purchased in 2009 for $28.5 million.
When Grimm's campaign began, Pinto's U.S. followers had also begun to establish themselves as a source of campaign cash for pro-Israel candidates. A handful had given hundreds of thousands of dollars to political committees controlled by U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican, and U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner, a Democrat.
Grimm, a Catholic ex-Marine and a ferocious supporter of Israel, received his first bundle of checks from the rabbi's supporters in December of 2009, just two months after entering the race.
One donor, New York deli owner Josef Ben Moha, said he and his wife gave a combined $4,800.
"It's not something that I had to have my arm twisted. I was asked nicely. I decided he was a nice guy," said Ben Moha, who has been one of Suky's partners in a real estate venture. "The people who seemed to be helping him, they saw good qualities in him. I guess I did too."
In the two years since the election, Pinto's religious organization, Mosdot Shuva Israel, has been a frequent target of media scrutiny. News articles in the Jewish press accused it of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on luxury travel and raised questions about its handling of millions of dollars in donations.
Pinto's own father-in-law, an influential rabbi in Argentina, complained in a court filing that Pinto — who professes to have no worldly possessions — had enlisted him in a scheme to conceal his ownership of luxury apartments in Jerusalem.
More recently, a Pinto aide, rabbi Abraham Israel, was detained by Israeli police in April as part of an ongoing investigation into suspected money laundering and theft at an anti-poverty charity, Hazon Yeshaya. A spokesman for Pinto said he had no involvement in that charity.
Large amounts of Shuva Israel's money have also disappeared, according to the organization's lawyers. In December, Pinto and his supporters publicly blamed Biton, claiming he had embezzled large sums. They also made allegations, first reported last year in The New York Times, that Biton had conspired with another member of the congregation to extort money from the rabbi by threatening to plant damaging stories about him in the media.
Biton has called the extortion and embezzlement allegations lies.
In the waning days of the 2010 election, Pinto also began telling associates, including then-Congressman Anthony Weiner, that his support of Grimm had been coerced.
Weiner wound up reporting that murky allegation to the FBI. He told the AP he didn't say anything publicly at the time and won't discuss the details of the rabbi's allegations now, because, "I didn't know whether it was true or not." A law enforcement official confirmed that the FBI had received the report.
Grimm has called any suggestion that he was tied up in some sort of plot with Biton, "profoundly absurd."
The criminal complaint filed against Biton in August makes no mention of blackmail, embezzlement or the campaign allegations, but focuses instead on information he submitted in 2010 when he applied for a visa available to foreigners who invest at least $500,000 in a U.S. business.
In his application, Biton said most of his investment money had been loaned to him by a family friend. But the FBI said it had bank records showing that the money had actually been funneled through an account controlled by an unnamed "co-conspirator," who, in turn, had demanded most of the cash from an unnamed witness to pay off a debt. Biton's lawyer, Jeffrey Udell, declined to comment.
Pinto's attorney in New York, Arthur Aidala, said the rabbi was "very satisfied with the arrest, and looks forward to the prosecution of this defendant and others who have done harm to rabbi Pinto and his family."
The investigation has been more than a distraction for Grimm as he battles for re-election against Democratic challenger Mark Murphy. His campaign has incurred $320,000 in legal fees this year, according to campaign records.
Grimm's lawyer, William McGinley, confirmed that the FBI is probing claims of illegal donations by Pinto's followers, and that the campaign has turned over documents, but he said there is no evidence of any wrongdoing. He said Grimm was being victimized by a smear campaign and "malicious leaks" by law enforcement.
"Yes, there is an investigation, but we have no reason to believe that it will lead to charges and every reason to believe that ... the (Department of Justice) investigation will vindicate Congressman Grimm," McGinley said.
Associated Press writers Tom Hays in New York and Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem contributed to this report.