Monday, March 19, 2001

A Stone Would Have More Mercy

We do not need Mary Jo White, the U.S. Attorney, to demonstrate that prosecutors can be bullies, vindictive and blind to justice. These qualities have been abundantly on display in many cases, perhaps most notably in the celebrated trial of Patty Hearst who was kidnapped, kept blindfolded for weeks in a closet, physically and sexually attacked and then prosecuted for joining in the criminal acts of those who had terrorized her. A stone would have shown more mercy.

It is unlikely that Ms. White will investigate President Clinton’s pardon of Patty Hearst. She is off to the races, however, on the clemency proffered in the Skwere case, although all that the President did was to reduce the sentences to what they probably should have been in the first place. Ms. White is determined to have her pound of flesh and then some. She is bereft of any sense of restraint in her crusade against a small and rather defenseless group, against a tiny community of people who live modestly and accomplish much good.

This sharp criticism of the prosecutor is not meant to serve any exculpatory purpose. What was done was wrong, terribly wrong, and apart from the fraud that was committed, an entire community has been tarnished and hurt. Beyond the particulars of the case, I am troubled by the foolish and dangerous tendency of chassidic leaders to enter political waters that involve risks that they do not even begin to understand.

If this case results in the reversal of what I regard as the instinct of chassidic leaders and their followers to embrace political opportunities, it would mean that some good has come out of this tragedy. There is no reason to be optimistic.

The wrongful acts of those convicted in the Skwere case do not give license to prosecutors to demonize a community, to use ugly language that is perhaps unprecedented in U.S. law. In an early stage of the case, I was asked by a highly respected defense attorney whether a formal complaint should be filed with the Justice Department. Guilt by association has no place in American life and it should not become part of the arsenal of a prosecutor who is incapable of distinguishing between the wrongful acts of a few and the hateful impulse to stigmatize an entire community.

This maliciousness has extended into the recent period – in court papers, in grand jury leaks, in providing misleading information to the media. After Mr. Clinton had acted, the media dutifully accepted and reported the U.S. Attorney’s false claim that the fraud amounted to $40 million, which is four times the true figure.

As we know, Ms. White is focusing on the Clinton clemency which occurred after 1) Mrs. Clinton met with the Skwere Rebbe during her campaign, 2) the Skwere community gave her nearly unanimous support and 3) the President – with his wife present – met with the Rebbe. Unless we are prepared to criminalize politics, there was nothing untoward about what happened. It takes little imagination to see that when candidates meet with union leaders, corporate heads, lobbyists and leaders of ethnic and religious groups, those who are being wooed have shopping lists and the support they give is determined by the degree of candidate receptivity to what is being requested.

The Skwere Rebbe is admired far outside of the boundaries of his small community, especially for his kindness and efforts to help others. He has literally been obsessed by the feeling that the prosecution was excessive. Even if he were not emotionally caught up in what had transpired, he would be under a moral obligation to assist persons in his community. In short, it was not only his right to ask the president for clemency, it was the right thing for him to do.

The sense of community that is the essence of Skwere is beyond the understanding of prosecutors who denigrate the lifestyle of its inhabitants and who could not restrain their feelings.

As wrong as the fraud was, what the U.S. Attorney’s office has done in this case is a lot worse. Those who were convicted of fraud are in prison and even with clemency, their sentences are quite long. They are paying a tremendous price for what they did. But what they did arose primarily from stupidity, out of a misguided view that they were helping their community. The prosecutors, on the other hand, are acting in cold blood and under the cover of governmental authority. They know what they are doing and why and their cruelty is deliberate.

This criticism will not deter Ms. White’s office one whit. They are on a bully-ride, with the encouragement of the media and probably public opinion, as well. It’s easy to pillory chassidim. The Skwere’s know this from their own history, a history of persecution and triumph.