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Congressman Michael Grimm Charged With Fraud

Update: Israeli-born fundraiser linked congressman to charismatic rabbi Pinto

Batya Ungar-Sargon
April 28, 2014
Rep. Michael Grimm (R-NY) Jan. 2, 2013, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.(Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Rep. Michael Grimm (R-NY) Jan. 2, 2013, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.(Alex Wong/Getty Images)

You might remember Republican Congressman Michael Grimm, from Staten Island, as one of the first-term lawmakers who joined in a midnight swim in the Sea of Galilee during an official tour of Israel in 2012. Or you might know him as the legislator who, just after this year’s State of the Union address, threatened to throw a reporter who asked him about an ongoing federal campaign-finance investigation off a balcony in the Capitol Rotunda.

Today Grimm is expected to be indicted on federal fraud charges stemming from that investigation, in New York’s Eastern District. According to the New York Times, the charges are to include mail fraud, wire fraud, and obstruction of justice—but not any counts concerning the allegations of campaign-finance irregularities that triggered the investigation.

The probe concerned claims that Grimm’s 2010 campaign broke federal laws by using straw donors to launder campaign donations from non-U.S. citizens—including from followers of a charismatic Israeli rabbi, Yoshiyahu Pinto, who counts among his fans both Anthony Weiner and LeBron James. In 2010, the guests at a reception in his honor in Israel included five members of the Cabinet and a major general of the Israel Defense Forces.

Pinto, who is currently based in New York, has meanwhile been under investigation by Israeli authorities on suspicion of trying to bribe the head of an anticorruption unit. The Israeli news site Walla! reported last week that Pinto had been offered a plea deal in the case. Earlier this year, the Daily News reported that the FBI had given Israeli investigators material from a tap of Pinto’s phones, but Israeli officials failed to reciprocate by sharing material concerning Grimm.

The two men were tied together by Ofer Biton, a former aide to Pinto who worked as a fundraiser for Grimm. Followers of the rabbi told the Times in 2012 that Biton told them the campaign would find a way to accept cash donations over the legal federal limits, as well as from foreign citizens. Biton, who was born in Israel, pleaded guilty last year to lying on his visa application.

A lawyer for Grimm, William McGinley, said Friday that his client was innocent and called the investigation “a politically driven vendetta.”

Update: Federal prosecutors have unsealed a 20-count indictment charging Grimm, a former FBI agent, with paying employees off the books at Healthalicious, a health-food business he opened on Manhattan’s Upper East Side after leaving the FBI in 2006. According to the Washington Post, Healthalicious was run by a company affiliated with another entity operated by Biton.

Batya Ungar-Sargon is a freelance writer who lives in New York. Her Twitter feed is @bungarsargon.

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