What makes community journalism so rewarding is you write about the people, issues and places you care most about.
That’s also what makes it so awkward.
Take Elliott Broidy.
Three years ago, Broidy pleaded guilty to a felony charge in a “pay-to-play” arrangement with the New York state pension fund.
The crime — rewarding official misconduct — can carry a penalty of up to four years in prison. Former New York State Comptroller Alan Hevesi, who ran the crooked fund, spent one-and-a-half years behind bars.
But in this community, it was Broidy’s name that caught my eye.
Broidy served on the boards of numerous Jewish charities in Los Angeles and cut a high profile as Republican National Committee (RNC) finance chair and board member of the Republican Jewish Coalition. What’s more, as the founder and CEO of Markstone Capital Group, Broidy brought hundreds of millions of dollars of investment capital to Israel.
In Los Angeles, Broidy’s admission to the courts that he’d spent nearly $1 million on gifts for state officials even as they had invested New York state public pension funds in Markstone was big news, a deep source of embarrassment to him and a shock to the many people close to him.
And I made it much, much worse.
In a December 2009 editorial, I questioned whether Broidy’s plea didn’t warrant a more public rebuke. I challenged community leaders, who so eagerly praise and promote their philanthropists, to say something publicly about the values and conduct they expect their contributors to uphold.
You don’t kick a guy when he’s down, I wrote, but neither can we pretend that philanthropy derived from unethical business dealings is not a communal stain.
I didn’t know Broidy, had never met him, but I soon discovered we had many friends in common. I found that out because some of them stopped speaking to me, a couple called in private to say they agreed with me, and others told me how much my words hurt.
The last thing I expected, then, was to pick up my office phone recently and hear, “Rob? Hi, it’s Elliott Broidy.”
On Nov. 26, 2012, Manhattan State Supreme Court Judge Lewis Bart Stone reduced Broidy’s felony conviction to a misdemeanor and closed the case against him.
That moment put an end to a dark three-year chapter in Broidy’s life, and, through a mutual friend, Broidy reached out to me to explain it all from his point of view.
In his statement from the bench, Judge Stone noted that Broidy had paid the state $18 million in restitution — an amount in “significant excess of what he received.” The judge and prosecutor commended Broidy on his cooperation with the investigators.
“It is this Court’s view that … the type of criminality that Mr. Hevesi and his minions indulged in … would never have come to the full light of day had Mr. Broidy not volunteered” to cooperate, Judge Stone said. Broidy, said the court, was “the final nail in the coffin on those who tried to rip off the system.”
The judge rewarded what he called Broidy’s “exemplary” behavior with the lightest possible sentence.
Elliott Broidy and I met in his Century City offices, in a conference room whose wall of windows overlooks West Los Angeles. Broidy is 55. He is a solid man, soft-spoken and — I suppose for good reason — guarded.
Broidy didn’t relish talking about what had happened. His goal, he said, was to move forward. “I’m a very positive person,” he said.
But, still, I had to ask him: “Why’d you do it?”
Hevesi and his minions had already given Broidy some $250 million in pension fund business when, in subsequent conversations, they asked him for a few favors.
“I should have said no. OK?” Broidy said. “But I didn’t, which I regret. But they ratcheted this up to the highest level because they wanted to put a couple people in jail, and in order to do that, they needed to bring me down. To the lowest.”
The actual gifts were more tawdry than tainted. One official asked Broidy to pay some medical and housing bills for his girlfriend, “The Mod Squad” actress Peggy Lipton. Another wanted money to help finance a movie, and Hevesi took some luxury trips to Italy and Israel on Broidy’s dime — all of it after Broidy already had their business.
“It didn’t impact me getting the money, but it was wrong,” Broidy said. “What I did is in no way excusable. I just wish I had asked a lawyer. These people became my friends, and there’s a big difference between a friend and a business relationship. “
Broidy said the fact that he was a high-profile Republican made him even more of a target. As finance chair of the RNC, he traveled the country and raised $439 million for the cause.
“It put a big target on my head,” Broidy said. “I’m not naïve about it. Did that make my legal situation a lot worse? Sure. But it doesn’t excuse what I did.”
What really interested me, I told Broidy, wasn’t what he did, but how he dealt with the aftermath.
Broidy said his wife, Robin, and their children’s support sustained him. But the advice of his friend Kenneth Langone, a major New York philanthropist and co-founder of Home Depot, saved him.
“Kenneth just got in my face and said, ‘Look, don’t listen to anyone. Take the pain, admit it, do everything the right way, put it behind you.’ ”
Although others urged Broidy to fight and plead not guilty, he listened to Langone. He resigned from the board of the company he’d founded, Markstone Capital Group, and spent the next three years and more than $30 million in costs and fees working through his legal troubles.
“Admitting what occurred and cooperating with the prosecutors was the first step toward redemption,” Broidy said.
What made that long journey bearable, Broidy said, was that his family and friends never wavered in their support.
Broidy was deeply involved in Wilshire Boulevard Temple, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, The Jewish Federation and AIPAC, among many other charities, and those relationships sustained him.
“My friends all stood by me. My rabbis stood by me. Rabbi[s] Hier, Leder, Wolpe were very supportive as I went through this. The Federation leaders stood by me.”
His children’s schools, Marlborough School and Brawerman Elementary, also were sensitive and supportive, Broidy said.
“The thing that served me well is I had a lot of goodwill,” Broidy said. “I really don’t have any enemies. I spent my life working hard and doing good work. And when you stumble, you have a shot when you have something deposited in the bank. That’s what allowed me over the last few years to walk around and be fine, and to come back. My friends stuck with me. My family stuck with me.”
At that point I put down my pen and looked up at Broidy.
“So what you’re saying,” I said, “is I was the only jerk.”
“It hurt,” Broidy said of my column at the time. “But I didn’t feel your piece was directed at me personally, because you said you didn’t know me. I felt you were really tough on me, but you called it as you saw it.”
“Boy,” I said, “you really are a positive person.”
Broidy is back doing business — the court put no restrictions on his activities — though he has no interest in the pension fund world.
With the weight of a felony plea off his shoulders, his major focus, he said, will be philanthropy.
On Jan. 16, Broidy and his wife, Robin, are serving as co-chairs of the Chai Lifeline gala honoring Beverly Hills Unified School District board member Lisa Korbatov, CAA agent Stuart Manashil and Sony Latin Music President Nir Seroussi.
Chai Lifeline supports families facing life-threatening illnesses. The night before our meeting, a young woman named Hannah, whose leg had been amputated due to cancer, visited the Broidys’ home. Broidy said it put his own troubles in perspective.
“To see her spreading the word about Chai Lifeline and seeing her wonderful and positive attitude was very moving,” he said. “I’ve been very blessed, very fortunate.”
A photo of Broidy with President George W. Bush sits on a breakfront in the conference room where we sat, but Broidy said he is less interested in partisan politics now.
“The highly partisan stuff is tough,” he said. “I don’t have the stomach for it. I did it, but I’m not a partisan in social views. I’m very interested in nonpartisan support for Israel. That’s what’s important to me.”
I wanted to tell Broidy I was sorry if my column caused him pain, but it felt disingenuous — of course I knew it would cause some pain. And if most of our mutual friends resented me for pointing the finger at Broidy when he fell, the upside is I can just as publicly show how he has modeled the path of redemption. Our tradition is chock full of remarkable men and women who sometimes stumble — shouldn’t our journalism be as well?
What I did say to Broidy was that, in hindsight, the galling injustice is that the people and institutions who helped sink the U.S. economy haven’t faced a day in court, or answered for their behavior, while Broidy, whose actions paled in comparison, saw his life and reputation turned upside down.
Broidy took a while to compose his thoughts.
“My father once told me life isn’t always fair,” he said. “I don’t wish anyone else ill will. I don’t compare myself to others. At the end of the day, it all comes down to what kind of person you are.”