Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto's spokesmen are blaming Pinto's estranged fundraising assistant and 5WPR head Ronn Torossian for the disappearance of milllions of dollars of Pinto's charity's money, and Torossian's company is reportedly responsible for sockpuppeting false information about Pinto on Wikipedia. In 2008, 5WPR sockpuppeting for Agriprocessors and Sholom Rubashkin was exposed by FailedMessiah.com in a story that made headlines.
Let's be clear.
The New York Times does not cite the extensive reporting the Forward has done on Pinto and his very questionable financial dealings, or the reports done by Ha'aretz and The Marker (one posted here earlier today) that expose Pinto's alleged misdeeds. It also does not explain that Pinto's father-in-law – the Chief Rabbi of Argentina – accused Pinto and his wife of using him to launder money or the settlement eventually reached between the two parties. And far less importantly, it fails to cite me for beaking the 5WPR sockpuppeting story and does not link to its own coverage of it – even though the paper credited me for in 2008.
What this says about the Times' reporting and editing is up for interpretation.
But because the Times does not mention the alleged Pinto misbehavior uncovered by and extensively reportedy by the Forward over the past 18 months or so – not even to report that it is not true or that the Times has uncovered information that challeneges it, etc. – and becuse it fails to credit me directly for the 2008 story or mention the other reports by the JTA, the Forward and other media surrounding it and, most importantly, because today's piece by the Times makes it appear as if they are the only real journalists to discover the Pinto story and do that in large part by failing to mention all the work the Forward did before it, I would say the ommissions by the Times were probably purposeful. And that's sad.
With that said, here is what can only be called Rabbi Y.Y. Pinto's side of the story, wholly absent any previous reporting by others that would call parts of that story into question:
Rabbi’s Followers Blame Aides for Missing Millions
By ALISON LEIGH COWAN • New York Times
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 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, said he would “have no comment on these absurd allegations.”
Mr. Torossian, 37, has a reputation as an aggressive publicist prone to sending off vitriolic e-mails to his adversaries. 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 in New York City 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 was trained as a rabbi from an early age and 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. His father-in-law 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.
Mr. Yardeni said he was not a member of a synagogue when he met the rabbi 11 years ago at a New York event. “I moved to the side,” Mr. Yardeni said, “and as he approached me, he suddenly raised his head, looked me in the eyes and said: ‘Where have you been? I have been waiting for you a long time.’ ”
Since then, Mr. Yardeni said, he sometimes pitches in as the rabbi’s interpreter and drives him to and from the airport.
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.
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.”
Update 2:44 pm – The Forward, which had previous exposed Pinto's financial shenanigans and alleged misbehavior, has just published a new story about Pinto and his money. (I hinted at this story above.)
Here's an excerpt:
Rabbi Pinto's Charity Spent Heavily on Luxury Travel, Jewels
According to Media Reports, Pinto Says He Is Victim of Blackmail
By Josh Nathan-Kazis • Forward
The house at 29 Lily Pond Lane in East Hampton, N.Y., is not the sort of place one might associate with an ultra-Orthodox kabbalist rabbi.
The oceanfront property on one of the upper-crust Long Island vacation town’s toniest streets is a few hundred yards from mansions owned by Martha Stewart and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. When a Dutch banker bought the place in 2001, the main building had seven bedrooms and a solarium, and there were plans to put in a pool.
It’s not clear whether there was a pool by August 2008, when Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto’s charity paid $77,000 to rent the house for three weeks.
The next year, Pinto’s charity spent $40,000 to rent the house again, this time for just a little longer than two weeks. Pinto, who has reportedly declared his intention to seek the post of Sephardic Chief Rabbi in Israel next year, has alleged in media reports that he has been the target of blackmail, and that funds have been embezzled from his organization. Notwithstanding these allegations, questions about his organization’s finances remain.
Documents obtained by the Forward reveal extensive spending by Mosdot Shuva Israel, Pinto’s New York-based educational and charitable organization, on luxury travel and expensive jewelry. Some of these documents have also been obtained and published by the Israeli press
Among the expenses covered by the not-for-profit organization:
•a $75,000 bill for a month-long stay at a luxury hotel in Buenos Aires, Argentina;
•a $65,000 ring;
•$28,000 for fine men’s clothing.
A representative for Pinto’s organization has declined to comment on the Forward’s findings. But on December 20, the New York Times, citing unnamed officials, reported that federal law enforcement is investigating two former Pinto associates. Meanwhile, in an interview aired on December 18 on Israel’s Channel 2, Pinto defended some of his organization’s spending. Asked why his organization had rented the Hamptons home, Pinto responded: “Because that’s where the people of the yeshiva live. That’s where the Hasidim of the yeshiva live during Passover.” The Marker, an Israeli business newspaper, reported December 20 that Pinto told followers that a former volunteer had made the decision to rent the home even though Pinto had been offered free accommodation elsewhere.
In previous investigations published in March and April, the Forward raised questions about the finances of Mosdot Shuva Israel and reported that Pinto’s top American-based aide is a former porn distributor.…
[D]ocuments obtained during the Forward’s investigation indicate a pattern of spending by Pinto’s charity, Mosdot Shuva Israel, that seems at odds with the organizational objectives it provided to the Internal Revenue Service when applying for its exemption from federal taxes in 2004. At the time, the group said it existed to maintain a synagogue, provide spiritual guidance and promote “religious, intellectual and moral development,” among other goals.…
Former donors to Pinto told the Forward earlier this year that they were assured that donations to Mosdot Shuva Israel would cover operating expenses for the yeshiva and fund a food pantry. The organization does distribute food from locations in Brooklyn and Queens, but at the same time Mosdot Shuva Israel documents and other reports obtained by the Forward raise questions about the group’s spending.
The Forward has obtained receipts showing purchases of expensive jewelry by Mosdot Shuva Israel. One invoice from Di Modolo International, a Madison Avenue jewelry store, indicates that Pinto’s organization purchased two bracelets and a ring in May 2009 for a total of $110,000. The ring alone cost $65,000.
The report in The Marker stated that Pinto had told associates that a former volunteer had purchased the jewelry for his own use.
Pinto often gives expensive gifts to supporters, including watches and Jewish ritual items such as Kiddush cups. But in his February interview with the Forward, Pinto and Ben Zion Suky, his aide and translator, claimed that the gifts Pinto gave to followers were usually donated to him.
The organization also spent heavily on elegant men’s attire. In March 2010, Mosdot Shuva Israel purchased $28,415 in fabrics and other clothing from Beckenstein Men’s Fabrics on West 39th Street in Manhattan. An itemized receipt obtained by the Forward lists fabrics for Pinto, and also for Yoel Pinto, the rabbi’s 11-year-old son.
The Forward has also obtained documents demonstrating a number of hefty outlays for lodging by Mosdot Shuva Israel. Besides the East Hampton oceanfront vacation rental, the organization paid $75,211 to cover a month-long stay for two people at the Alvear Palace Hotel, among the highest-end hotels in Buenos Aires. Pinto’s wife is listed as the guest on the hotel bill.
Both the Alvear bill and the East Hampton rental agreement were aired in the brief report on Israel’s Channel 2 on December 18. The channel is preparing a longer version of the report to air on December 22.
The Forward reported in March that Pinto regularly flies first class.
Pinto defended his first class flights in the Channel 2 interview. Asked whether he travels first class, Pinto responded: “How should we travel? How is it possible to travel?”…
The Forward reported in March that the townhouse where Pinto lives, which is owned by Mosdot Shuva Israel, faced foreclosure. Those foreclosure proceedings are ongoing. The Forward also reported that the man presented as Mosdot Shuva Israel’s top financial officer could not say how many employees worked for the organization, and that former donors claimed that fundraisers for the group used insistent and unusual tactics in their fundraising.
In November, after representatives of Mosdot Shuva Israel declined to respond to questions submitted by the Forward about the organization’s spending, Israeli media began to report allegations by one prominent Pinto follower that the rabbi had been blackmailed by unnamed media outlets.
“People who own media outlets of radio, TV, and Internet conducted in recent months a defamation campaign against Rabbi Pinto,” former Jerusalem chief of police Aryeh Amit told Arutz 7, an Israeli radio station and website. “These people know that especially in the Haredi society, when there is a bad rumor about a certain person, you cannot overcome it. They know the power they have in their hands and that is why they tried to extort Rabbi Pinto. Shuva Israel institutes of Rabbi Pinto raise a lot of donations thanks to Rabbi Pinto’s blessed activity.”…