On the face of it Jona Rechnitz and Jeremy Reichberg, two Orthodox Jews from New York, made for an unlikely pair of hustlers. Rechnitz is from a well connected and wealthy family who have ties to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Reichberg is a former volunteer police chaplain who grew up in a strictly religious enclave of Brooklyn.
But according to prosecutors they are both at the centre of one of the worst public corruption cases to hit New York in decades.
The cast of characters sounds like a plot from a movie and includes a powerful union boss with a taste for luxury who enjoys smoking cigars.
A clutch of high ranking cops have been arrested or fired for allegedly taking gifts and free trips including one to Las Vegas where they allegedly had sex with a prostitute on a private plane.
New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio is also being investigated by the FBI to see whether he gave favours to Rechnitz and Reichberg for the $208,000 in donations they gave him and his allies.
The scandal has shone a light on the close ties between City Hall and Orthodox Jews in New York, a community which votes in blocks and doubles its size every 10 years. Isaac Abraham, a community organiser in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, said it has caused many Orthodox Jews acute discomfort.
“It’s embarrassing and it’s hurtful and it’s very painful that these two individuals took it upon themselves to embarrass the entire Jewish community and use their influence for their own personal enrichment,” he said.
The NYPD think community outreach is posting a photo on Twitter with them lighting some Hanukkah candles with a rabbi. I call that bulls**t
Rechnitz, 32, is the son of Robert Rechnitz, a real estate developer and former national finance co-chair of Senator Lindsey Graham’s 2016 Presidential campaign. His cousin is Shlomo Rechnitz, a nursing home tycoon who has donated tens of thousands of dollars to Netanyahu.
Rechnitz, who followed his father into real estate, was known for his charitable work with the New York Museum of Tolerance, which ran a training programme for the NYPD.
It seems to have been through a shared interest in the police that he met Reichberg, who is from Borough Park in Brooklyn, one of the largest Orthodox communities outside of Israel. Reichberg runs a consulting business and became a volunteer police chaplain for the Westchester County Department of Public Safety in 2013.
Back in Brooklyn the 42-year-old called himself a ‘community liaison’ to the police department and even allegedly had business cards saying so.
Both men were regulars at the Hudson River Cafe, a trendy restaurant in Harlem that became a ‘clubhouse’ for high-ranking NYPD officers, as the New York Post has put it. Its owner Hamlet Peralta was arrested last April and charged with running a $12 million Ponzi scheme involving an allegedly fake wholesale liquor business.
Around the same time the FBI was looking into allegations that Norman Seabrook, the head of the New York correction officer’s union, was misusing the organisation’s funds. Seabrook was good friends with Rechnitz, who is accused of flying him to the Dominican Republic, Las Vegas and California to curry favour with him.
On one occasion Rechnitz allegedly gave Seabrook $60,000 in a Salvatore Ferragamo bag as a bribe for putting $20 million of union funds in a risky hedge fund run by one of his friends. As the inquiry gathered steam the FBI looked further into Rechnitz and Reichberg and discovered they allegedly spent more than $100,000 on police bribes between 2012 and 2015.
According to Preet Bharara, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, the two men had a “private police force for themselves and their friends”. It was cops on call, in other words, and police would allegedly escort them to the airport with sirens blaring.
Reichberg once allegedly got the NYPD to close a lane of the Lincoln Tunnel, one of the main arteries into Manhattan, for a friend. According to the federal complaint, Rechnitz and Reichberg showered gifts on the officers, tickets to Brooklyn Nets basketball games and trips to Rome and Chicago.
During the trip to Las Vegas on a private jet they allegedly hired a red-haired prostitute called Gabi Grecko to dress up as a ‘sexy stewardess’ and have group sex with the officers on board. Rechnitz footed the $59,000 cost for the trip on board the eight-seat Bombardier Challenger 300 jet, it is said.
Perhaps the most bizarre allegation was that on Christmas Day in 2013 Rechnitz and Reichberg went to the home of Deputy Inspector James Grant dressed as elves to deliver his son a video game system and his wife $1,000 of jewelry.
Rechnitz pleaded guilty to fraud conspiracy charges and is now cooperating with the FBI. In June Reichberg was arrested along with three senior NYPD officers who have been charged with honest services wire fraud and conspiracy to pay and receive bribes, among other offences.
Reichberg is facing up to 55 years in jail.
Among the others who have been arrested is Philip Banks, the former Chief of Department for the NYPD, the highest ranking uniformed post. He is accused of taking $500,000 from Rechnitz as ‘investment payouts’.
Also investigated was Michael Ameri, an NYPD Highway Division integrity control officer. He killed himself on May 13 after being questioned by federal agents.
The FBI soon turned their attention to de Blasio to see whether or not he got anything in exchange for the money Rechnitz and Reichberg gave him, the Democrats and his now shuttered Campaign for One New York charity.
Around $100,000 of the total was used in the failed attempt to help Democrats win control of the State Senate in 2014, which itself is investigated as a possible breach of campaign finance rules. Then there was the charity dinner Reichberg hosted at his home in Borough Park for the mayor that raised $35,000.
The New York Post has reported that Rechnitz bragged to his associates that he had the ‘mayor on lock down’ after getting him to give a $220,000 a year City Hall job to a former NYPD official friend of his.
De Blasio has handed back all the cash he was personally given and has said he barely knew Rechnitz and Reichberg. Next month he is due to be interviewed by the FBI and is facing what has been called a ‘perfect storm’ of corruption allegations from six law enforcement and regulatory agencies.
All of this is in an election year where his poll numbers are taking – especially among Orthodox Jews.
Numerous people spoken to by IBTimesUK said that Rechnitz and Reichberg got so close to the NYPD because of the force’s willingness to mistakenly see them as people who spoke for all Orthodox Jews.
Michael Tobman, a political consultant in New York who has worked extensively with the Orthodox Jewish community, said that the cops thought they were dealing with ‘intermediaries’. Rechnitz and Reichberg could have played on this ‘false sense of familiarity’ for their own advantage.
Tobman said: “The Orthodox Jewish community is not monolithic and its diversity can confound outsiders. If somebody comes along and says: ‘I am a leader of this particular community’ then of course it seems useful.”
Abraham put it more bluntly: ‘The NYPD think community outreach is posting a photo on Twitter with them lighting some Hanukkah candles with a rabbi. I call that bulls**t’.
Whilst the New York tabloids have had a field day with the story, not everyone has been so quick to judge. Public corruption cases rarely blow up overnight and they usually take a lot of time to build up the necessary relationships.
Ezra Friedlander, a non profit consultant and Hasidic Jew in New York, said that Rechnitz was a ‘good guy’ who just took things too far. He said: ‘It might be that sometimes people get caught up in things and they don’t realise it until they cross the line.
‘It’s not a malicious intent. It just progresses and suddenly something develops that was not your intention. There’s an old saying that Rabbis teach us: never judge somebody unless you have been in their place’.
Reichberg’s lawyer Susan Necheles declined to take a call from IBTimesUK and did not respond to emails. Rechnitz’s lawyer Alan Levine said: “Given his particular status there’s no reason for me to be participating in articles about him.”
Author: Daniel Bates