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Jewish Journal

Bad Behavior

by Rob Eshman

December 9, 2009 | 4:26 am

A followup to this column that tracks the eventual reduction of Elliott Broidy's charge from a felony to a misdemeanor and discusses how he cooperated with investigators and earned the praise of the prosecutor and the judge can be found by clicking here.

 

Elliott Broidy seems like a nice guy. I know he’s a charitable one: As I travel through Jewish L.A., I see his name on synagogue and museum plaques. The last time I saw him was last summer, when we exchanged “Shabbat Shaloms” in a sushi line at a bat mitzvah. Like I said, seems like a nice guy.

And I suspect it’s his niceness, his generosity, his strong support of Jewish causes and especially of Israel that has made those who know him loath to say anything too tough about him this week.

But somebody should.

On Dec. 3, Broidy pleaded guilty in New York state court to the felony charge of rewarding official misconduct. He admitted that he spent nearly $1 million to bribe state officials in order to get them to invest monies from the New York state public pension fund in Broidy’s investment fund, Markstone Capital Group. According to New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, Broidy will face up to four years in state prison and pay an $18 million fine.

There has been not a whisper of public rebuke in the Jewish communal world, a world to which Broidy’s name has been quite publicly linked. He has been a major donor to the United Jewish Fund, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Friends of the Israel Defense Forces and a trustee of USC and of USC Hillel. He has served on the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion board of governors and is a former trustee of Wilshire Boulevard Temple. He was a major leader in the Israel-America Chamber of Commerce, and Markstone is believed to be the largest private investor in Israel. I can understand why no leader of any of these institutions has thus far gone on record castigating their benefactor.

But, really, somebody needs to say something publicly. This is a problem that is bigger than any one person. It’s not about Broidy, or about the very worthy organizations he helped support. It’s about how we can prevent this kind of deception and malfeasance in the future. It’s about strengthening a set of communal standards to make it clear such behavior is unacceptable.

It is exactly one year ago that Bernard Madoff was arrested by federal authorities for perpetrating the largest Ponzi scheme in history, a $35 billion cheat that destroyed individuals and institutions. Perhaps in the Age of Madoff, a million-dollar scheme looks like chopped liver. But it’s not.

“Is it as serious as Madoff in terms of cheating people of their money?” asked one local Jewish leader who has been surprised by the lack of public rebuke. “No. But is it an egregious breach of trust that demonstrates an absolute disregard for the way we should conduct ourselves? Yes. He bribed a state official.”

Broidy supplied New York state officials with hundreds of thousands of dollars, filtered through sham payouts such as “investments” in movies or apartments for girlfriends. Earlier this week, officials in California announced they will open an investigation into how Markstone attained California state pension fund investments.

I know there’s going to be two knee-jerk responses to this column: You shouldn’t air dirty laundry in public, and you don’t kick a guy when he’s down. For those few Jews who really oppose airing dirty laundry, let me introduce you to something called the Internet. Our laundry will be aired whether or not you feel it’s appropriate. Google the phrase “Jewish wealth” and the first two results are for neo-Nazi hate sites reveling in news of Broidy’s guilty plea. The Web has made our business everybody’s business.

And it’s true: you don’t kick a guy when he’s down. Granted. But what about those same guys, when they’re up, way up, taking a moment to think about how their actions reflect on the rest of us? What if the communal leaders who take their donations were to ask donors first if the funds were made legitimately, in a way that reflects well on Jews and Israel? If the answer is no, the next six words spoken should be: Then we don’t want your money. Don’t give us your loot; don’t try to rinse your conscience in our community, because it stains us all. Talk about dirty laundry.

The closer parallel here is not Madoff, but the Spinka case, in which seven Orthodox men were indicted for tax fraud and money laundering. In both affairs, the perpetrators did not rip off individuals, they screwed the government.

The best response I can offer to all these men is the one Rabbi Steven Weil gave in a fiery speech from his pulpit in January 2008, after a benefactor of his then-synagogue, Beth Jacob, was indicted in the Spinka case.

“You call yourself a tzadik, you’re a liar!” Weil said, using the Hebrew word for a saintly person.

Weil said that when non-Jews look at Jewish behavior, they don’t look at whether we keep Shabbat or keep kosher — they look at how we treat our employees, how we deal with the government, whether we are honest and straightforward.

The Beverly Hills synagogue removed the indicted donor’s name from the places where it had appeared: on the study hall he funded, on the Torahs and the prayer books his monies helped buy. The Jewish community doesn’t have fines or jails. Its main enforcement tool, after the fact, is the kind of public opprobrium that helps put others on notice about what values we hold dear, and what lines cannot be crossed.

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