A prominent American rabbi who admitted playing a role in a $1 million money laundering scheme involving religious charities was sentenced Wednesday to five years in prison, the longest sentence so far from the state's largest-ever federal corruption sting.
Rabbi Eliahu Ben Haim was arrested in July 2009 in a wide-ranging federal corruption probe into international money laundering and political corruption that ultimately netted 46 defendants.
Ben Haim, 60, pleaded guilty last year to a money laundering conspiracy count, admitting that he had used his network of religious charities to conceal more than $1 million in illegal proceeds for a man who turned out to be a government informant.
That informant, Solomon Dwek, turned government cooperator following his own arrest in a $50 million bank fraud. Alternately posing as a businessman and a real estate developer, Dwek ensnared several members of his Syrian Jewish community - including Ben Haim - on money laundering charges while reaching out to an array of state officials to offer cash bribes in exchange for development assistance.
2009 arrest in New Jersey (Photo: Yosef Pepper, Etrog website)
Ben Haim, the son of a prominent Syrian Jewish rabbi, was the leader of the synagogue Congregation Ohel Yaacob in Deal, which is 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of New York City that's home to a large community of Syrian Jews.
Prosecutors said Ben Haim started working with Dwek in October 2006, instructing Dwek to make checks out to various charities that Ben Haim had a hand in, according to court papers. Ben Haim in return would give Dwek cash, obtained through an underground money transfer network that stretched to Israel and several other countries. Ben Haim took a 10 percent fee from each transaction, authorities said.
Ben Haim was one of five rabbis arrested in the sting.
Edmund Nahum, the rabbi of Deal Synagogue in Deal, was sentenced in September to a year of probation after pleading guilty to a money laundering charge.
Also last year, 89-year-old rabbi Saul Kassin, the spiritual leader of the Syrian Jewish community in the United States, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years' probation in the same case.
Mordchai Fish, the principal rabbi of Brooklyn's Congregation Sheves Achim, pleaded guilty in April to laundering nearly $1 million he admitted thinking was criminal proceeds from Dwek. He's scheduled to be sentenced in February.
And Brooklyn rabbi Lavel Schwartz has pleaded not guilty. His case is pending.
Ben Haim's supporters and family members packed a Trenton federal courtroom Wednesday for his sentencing. He pleaded for leniency with US District Judge Joel Pisano, saying that his life of good works outweighed his criminal behavior and that he wanted to continue being a productive citizen, not a burden to society.
The judge dismissed Ben Haim's claims that he had engaged in the scheme to help others and said he hoped the sentence would serve as a deterrent to others.
The judge also sentenced defendant Akiva Arye Weiss in the same case Wednesday. Weiss was given five years' probation after pleading guilty to running an illegal money transfer business prosecutors say operated as a "cash house." The judge said the 57-year-old Brooklyn resident should serve the time in a mental health facility, as he suffered from Asperger's syndrome and had been living in isolated squalor.