Monday, Republican Rep. Michael Grimm was charged with tax fraud, among several other things, in a big criminal indictment involving a cafe named Healthalicious, a company called Granny Sayz, more than $1 million and the Rabbi to the Stars, Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto.
Pinto, a multimillionaire celebrity rabbi with a strong following in the United States, helped Grimm raise money from his deep-pocketed followers during Grimm's 2010 congressional campaign. Some of those donors later revealed that their contributions -- reaching into five figures, as reported by USA Today -- were illegally made through straw donors, an accusation Grimm denies. Independent of the case, Pinto is quite an interesting character. Here are a few reasons why.
1. Pinto's Grimm connections
Grimm allegedly received half of his total campaign donations in 2010 from Pinto's followers. Here's a quick summary from the Associated Press:
The congressman is alleged to have raised as much as half a million dollars from Israeli-American businessmen affiliated with Rabbi Pinto for his 2010 election campaign. This month the FBI arrested Grimm’s former girlfriend Diana Durand on charges of funneling thousands of dollars in illegal campaign contributions to Grimm's campaign.
Pinto reportedly asked Grimm for help when the rabbi was allegedly blackmailed by people claiming they would reveal his family's medical information. Grimm was later suspected by the FBI of taking part in the blackmail itself and the rabbi testified against him.
Pinto accused Grimm of blackmailing him, Grimm called the rabbi an inspiration, according to a Israeli television interview published by Buzzfeed. Grimm said in the interview, I see the rabbi regularly and it’s really an amazing story because you would think I am here asking the rabbi advice about my campaign. Many politicians come to rabbis throughout the country just to garner financial support and possibly votes. I don’t believe that’s the way it should be.”
2. Michael Grimm isn't the only prominent politician Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto has ties with.
Rabbi Pinto has also met with former representative Anthony Weiner and former governor Mario Cuomo. Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor has also met with Pinto. Cantor and Weiner have also collected campaign contributions from Pinto. Pinto fundraisers earned Weiner at least $343,800.
Pinto's access to many deep-pocketed followers is definitely among the reasons politicians of all faiths and geographies are interested in meeting the rabbi, who moved to New York from Israel six years ago to receive medical treatment. Forbes Israel lists Pinto as Israel's seventh richest rabbi. He is worth about $21 million.
3. Pinto gave business advice to LeBron James.
The Miami Heat basketball player reportedly gave a six-figure donation to Pinto's organization, Shuva Israel (Return Israel), before meeting the rabbi. TMZ reported James was seeking "spiritual guidance for a 'big merchandising meeting' that took place on a private yacht." James is not Jewish -- nor is Grimm. Pinto's Web site says, "With wisdom and intelligence, he helps people with marital issues, business matters and questions of faith."
Pinto says that he doesn't consider these high-profile visits business meetings. His translator told the Jewish Daily Forward, “The rabbi, most of the times he gives blessing for people to succeed in what they do, in whatever they do, in whatever they want to do. It’s more of a blessing.”
4. Pinto's translator was tied to a company bootlegging porn.
According to a 2011 article in the Jewish Daily Forward,
In early 2005, porn producer and actor Ashley Gasper realized that someone was bootlegging his films. Counterfeit copies of “Jules Jordan’s Flesh Hunter 6” and “Jules Jordan: Feeding Frenzy 2,” among other titles, were showing up among the DVDs being returned to his distributor.
According to a recent decision issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Gasper soon learned that a Montreal firm was making illicit copies of the movies and selling them to wholesalers. The primary client of the Montreal bootlegger was a New York-based company called Direct Distributors, Inc., run by a young Israeli named Ben Zion Suky. ...
So close is Suky to Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto that he owns property with the rabbi’s wife. He is the rabbi’s translator, gatekeeper and conduit to the outside world in America.
5. Pinto also has several other legal entanglements
In another episode with Suky, Pinto tried to persuade a New York City Police Department detective to arrest his aide's business rival, Tomer Shohat, in February 2014. The dispute started with an apartment building at 440 West 41st Street.
According to Shohat’s complaint, the company that owned the building, Metro Apartments, had failed to make payments on loans extended by Shohat’s group. Shohat suspected that funds were being misappropriated, so he traveled to the United States from Israel to inspect Metro’s books. Upon arrival, Shohat allegedly discovered that Suky was misappropriating company funds and mismanaging the property.
Shohat allegedly brought his findings to Pinto, who asked Shohat not to report them to the police. Later, according to the complaint, Pinto and Suky threatened to have Shohat injured or to have him arrested by [NYPD detective Eric] Patino if he continued to investigate irregularities at the building.
When Shohat continued his investigation and reported his findings to the Metro board, he was allegedly threatened again, this time by Pinto’s brother, Menachem Pinto, who is also a defendant in the suit. Suky then accused Shohat of theft and, according to complaint, Pinto and Suky “arranged for…Patino to arrest [Shohat] and charge him with crimes he had not committed.”
When the Forward tried to find out more about this odd entanglement, they didn't have much luck.
The defendants have yet to file a response to the allegations. They do not appear to have obtained representation in the matter. Ben Zion Suky did not respond to a message left on his voicemail. Eric Patino could not be reached at a listed number. The phone at Pinto’s New York synagogue appeared to be off the hook. The NYPD also did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.
Pinto is also in trouble in Israel, also involving police officers. When Pinto and his wife were under investigation for money laundering in 2012, he was arrested for allegedly offering $200,000 to a police officer in charge of an anti-corruption unit. Haaretz reported that Pinto is also "suspected of systematically collecting information about senior police officers, demanding that some of them be replaced, threatening an officer, offering bribes worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and intimidating witnesses." Pinto has denied the charges, saying on Israeli television last fall, “it is prohibited to bribe. It is a very serious offense in the Torah.” The Daily News reported that the FBI gave Israeli investigators evidence from a tap of Pinto's phone for their case. He is currently deciding whether to take a plea deal in this Israeli case, which would send him to prison for a year.
Pinto's father-in-law, Shlomo Ben Hamo -- who is also Argentina's chief rabbi -- accused Pinto of money laundering in 2011, and ended up filing a lawsuit against him. However, he later dropped the charges "to preserve domestic tranquility."
5. Despite his business counseling, his company's own finances haven't been too hot.
According to another 2011 article from the Forward,
The $6.5 million Manhattan townhouse where Pinto lives, which is owned by Mosdot Shuva Israel, faces foreclosure;
• Mosdot Shuva Israel has not responded to or paid a $48,000 judgment against it for failure to obtain workers’ compensation insurance;
• The top financial officer of Mosdot Shuva Israel, who does not speak English, could not say how many employees worked for the organization;
• Former donors to the organization claim that associates of the group employed insistent and unusual fundraising tactics.
None of these activities directly involves the rabbi himself, and all focus on a single component of his sprawling international network, which a senior Mosdot Shuva Israel official estimated runs on $50 million to $60 million a year.
6. Pinto speaks no English
All of his counseling is given in Hebrew, and must be translated for those who don't speak it. As a result, many of his followers in New York are Israeli expats.
7. "Pinto comes from a family with a reputation for clairvoyance."
According to an article published by the Forward in 2010,
Pinto, who was born in Israel, is the scion of two highly revered Moroccan rabbinic dynasties. His maternal grandfather was the Baba Sali, a Moroccan kabbalist thought by some to have had the ability to work miracles. The Baba Sali moved to Israel from Morocco in 1970 amid a wave of Moroccan Jewish immigration, and died there in 1984.
On his father's side, Pinto comes from a line of rabbis that arrived in Morocco from Damascus in the 16th century. That line includes Rabbi Haim Pinto, a 19th-century rabbi whose grave is now the site of an annual pilgrimage by some Moroccan Jews. Pinto's father, also named Rabbi Haim Pinto, is a prominent rabbi in Ashdod.
The New York Times described kabbalism as "an esoteric occult offshoot of Judaism dating at least to the 13th century." If you still have no idea what that means, you might want to read the whole article, which provides a good background on how kabbalism caught on with celebrities in the 2000s.
Pinto comes from a family with a reputation for clairvoyance, and also like [Rabbi Yaakov] Ifergen, Pinto has a highly regarded ability for giving business people advice that is advantageous to them. He can read people like a book, knowing what may be bothering them and when they are healthy or otherwise. In addition to business deals he also advises them on medical treatment. Not only top-notch business people seek the advice of both Ifergen and Pinto. Each is also much sought after by politicians, leading sporting personalities and prominent figures in the entertainment industry. Pinto makes his pilgrimage to Bulgaria before Rosh Hashana, accompanied by planeloads of pilgrims
8. The Daily News reported that Pinto "reportedly puts death curses on his critics."
This was mentioned in a 2011 gossip piece about the rabbi evading an ABC News "Nightline" crew. The show had been trying to track down the Rabbi for an interview, with no success, for quite a while.
Solomon Obstfeld, a real estate millionaire who was leasing an apartment to Pinto, fell 19 floors to his death in 2010. His death was ruled a suicide, but his friends and family told the press they thought Pinto was involved. An article published in Haaretz said,
A person close to Obstfeld said he had complained of an Israel rabbi living in the United States to whom he had rented an apartment at a below-market price. The rabbi allegedly did not pay the rent over a long period of time and this led to a serious feud between him and Obstfeld.
After Obstfeld evicted the rabbi, the rabbi allegedly told friends that he had cast a "pulsa dinura" death curse on Obstfeld.
9. As a kabbalist rabbi, Pinto says he owns no worldly possessions except for clothes. His organization spends a bit more lavishly.
In December 2011, the Forward reported that Shuva Israel, Pinto's charitable organization, spent $77,000, tax-exempt, in 2008 to rent a mansion in the Hamptons for three weeks. In 2009, Shuva Israel rented the house again, for about two weeks.
Pinto told reporters that the organization went to the Hamptons because that's where the yeshiva (a Jewish school for studying religious texts) was.
Other expenses include a a $75,000 month-long stay at a fancy hotel in Buenos Aires, $28,000 worth of expensive men's clothing and a $65,000 ring.
This spending -- plus Grimm's spending -- intrigued the FBI, which started investigating Pinto's organization.
The investigation centered on two men accused of embezzling money and extortion: Ofer Biton, who helped Grimm raise money from Pinto's followers, and Ronn Torossian, a PR executive who had a diverse range of clients running from Sean Combs to Pinto. Several of the articles cited above have been deemed Torossian productions by Pinto's friends and family.
When the New York Times reported on the investigation, they noted,
Mr. Torossian, 37, has a reputation as an aggressive publicist prone to sending off vitriolic e-mails. 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.”
Torrassian saw himself as the victim here, telling the New York Times, “My safety and that of my family has been threatened by this gang repeatedly, as I have documented to authorities. I have kept this matter quiet to protect my privacy and to preserve the safety of my family. I am afraid of this gangster and this cabal of liars.” Biton told the Times, “Everything you see in this article is a lie."
Grimm, Biton and Torassian were often together during the representative's 2010 campaign. Their leisurely pursuits, according to a real-estate developer who donated to Grimm? “They would drive around together to the homes and offices and ask for contributions.”
Since getting elected, Grimm has often been to the right of many of his Republican colleagues when it comes to Israel.