The Rabbi & the Bribe

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Celebrity rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto presented himself at a prison medical center on Tuesday afternoon to start a one-year jail sentence for bribing a police officer, after a last-minute visit to hospital.

Pinto, who suffers from cancer, went to Jerusalem’s Hadassah Ein Karem hospital first, arriving at the medical facility of Nitzan Prison in Ramle, central Israel, 40 minutes later than originally expected. After he went to the hospital, he was given until midnight to show up. Prison staff and police were on standby, expecting the rabbi to arrive with large numbers of followers. Pinto is to serve his time just a stone’s throw from former prime minister Ehud Olmert, who began a 19-month sentence at Ramle’s Ma’asiyahu Prison on Monday.

The High Court rejected an appeal by the ultra-Orthodox rabbi and kabbalist for leniency on account of his health situation. Pinto, who enjoys an international following among celebrities and business leaders as well as high-powered contacts in the Israeli government and elsewhere, delivered his last talk to followers Monday, telling them that nobody would “break our spirit.”  “We’ve been through serious illness and haven’t been scared for a minute,” he said, according to daily Haaretz. The way of God would be their real triumph, he added. “We worried when there were problems, now there are good things,” he said. “You don’t know how many good things will flow from this.”

In May, the Tel Aviv District Court sentenced Pinto to a year in prison and a NIS 1 million ($260,000) fine after the rabbi pleaded guilty as part of a plea bargain.

Under his plea bargain, Pinto agreed to testify against Menashe Arviv, the former head of the police’s anti-corruption unit, who is suspected of receiving benefits from businessmen associated with the rabbi. Pinto’s lawyers alleged to the State Attorney’s Office that Arviv had accepted favors illegally and provided secret information in return. Arviv was last questioned by police in September. Charges have not been brought against him. The scandal prompted Arviv to take an extended vacation, and then, in February, to resign after 36 years of service in the police, though he maintained his innocence. The case was linked to the suicide in July of police Brig. Gen. Ephraim Bracha, days after an Israeli news website accused him of accepting bribes from Pinto. Hours after his death, the Justice Ministry cleared Bracha of any wrongdoing.

Since 2011, Pinto, 42, who heads several charity organizations and Torah study institutions in the coastal city of Ashdod and in the US, has been the subject of a number of ongoing investigations, both by Israeli police and the FBI. The rabbi — whose followers have included Jay Schottenstein, chairman of the American Eagle Outfitters clothing company, and Israeli real estate mogul Jacky Ben-Zaken — was suspected of embezzlement of funds from an organization he oversaw. According to FBI suspicions, he was also the target of a blackmail attempt. In April 2014, federal prosecutors brought charges against Republican US congressman Michael Grimm for receiving large contributions from followers of Pinto.

Grimm has acknowledged receiving $250,000 to $300,000 in contributions from followers of the rabbi.