Access, influence and pardons: How a set of allies shaped Trump’s choices
By Kenneth P. Vogel and Nicholas Confessore
One hacked the computers of business rivals. One bribed doctors to win referrals for his nursing homes.
Another fled the country while he was on trial for his role in a fraud that siphoned $450 million from an insurance company, leading to its collapse. Still another ran a Ponzi scheme that plunged a synagogue into foreclosure.
Each won clemency from former President Donald Trump.
They also had something else in common, an investigation by The New York Times found.
The efforts to seek clemency for these wealthy or well-connected people benefited from their social, political or financial ties to a loose collection of lawyers, lobbyists, activists and Orthodox Jewish leaders who had worked with Trump administration officials on criminal justice legislation championed by Jared Kushner.
That network revolved around a pair of influential Jewish organizations that focus on criminal justice issues — the Aleph Institute and Tzedek Association — and well-wired people working with them, including lawyer Alan Dershowitz, Brett Tolman, a former U.S. attorney for Utah, and Nick Muzin, a Republican operative.
The combination of access, influence and substantive expertise they brought to bear produced striking results.
Of the 238 total pardons and commutations granted by Trump during his term, 27 went to people supported by Aleph, Tzedek and the lawyers and lobbyists who worked with them. At least six of those 27 went to people who had been denied clemency through the official Justice Department process during the Obama administration.
Over the years, at least four of those who received clemency or their families had donated to Aleph. Others or their allies and families had retained people like Dershowitz, who represented Trump in his first impeachment trial, Tolman and Muzin to press their cases before the Trump administration, often working in parallel with Aleph and Tzedek, according to public records and interviews.
The groups were not the only ones who had success with Trump. Alice Marie Johnson, an advocate for fairer sentencing who had her own drug conviction pardoned by Trump, was credited by the White House for championing 13 clemency grants, many of which went to drug offenders and African American defendants given disproportionately long prison terms.
While Aleph worked with Johnson on some clemency cases — including for people convicted of nonviolent drug crimes — Aleph, Tzedek and their allies stood out for their success at winning clemency for white-collar offenders who had left a damaging trail of fraud in their wake. The majority of those who won clemency with their help had been convicted of financial crimes.
It was a new chapter for Aleph, which has long worked on behalf of people facing dire situations in the criminal justice system. Aleph has for years appealed for more lenient sentencing rules and pressed judges to reduce jail time in individual cases, while providing social and religious services to prisoners and their families. It began seeking presidential clemencies during the Obama administration — and failed to secure any such grants until Trump took office.
The leaders of Aleph, Tzedek and their allies played a role in helping build support for a sweeping rewrite of federal sentencing laws in 2018, winning bipartisan praise and bolstering their clout in the administration.
Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, spearheaded the sentencing overhaul effort in the White House and helped oversee the clemency process. He had become interested in criminal justice and developed ties to members of the loose network of allies on the issue after his father, Charles Kushner, was sentenced in 2005 to two years in prison for tax evasion, witness tampering and lying to the Federal Election Commission.
When Charles Kushner, a donor to Aleph, received a pardon from Trump in December, the White House cited Tolman’s support for the decision.
In the world of criminal defense lawyers and clemency seekers, Aleph, Tzedek and the people working alongside them came to be seen as among the most effective avenues to clemency, including for financial crimes of the sort that are usually less likely to garner support from criminal justice activists.
A spokesperson for Aleph said the group selected candidates based on factors including humanitarian concerns, clear demonstrations of remorse and its commitment to addressing what it often sees as excessively long sentences.
He acknowledged that Aleph had accepted donations from people whose clemencies its officials later supported to one degree or another but said that the group did its clemency work at no cost and would not accept donations from people while working on their clemencies. In two cases in which the White House credited Aleph with supporting clemency grants to people who had donated to the group, the spokesperson said rabbis at Aleph merely expressed support for the petition.
Those donations represented a tiny fraction of its overall budget, which totaled nearly $6.9 million for the 12 months ending in fall 2019, the spokesperson said, adding that neither money nor religious affiliation played any role in its decisions about clemency cases.
Aleph minimized its connection to Tzedek’s clemency work and said it was misleading to describe the organizations as part of a clemency network, while noting that clemency was only a small part of the group’s work.
“Over the course of 40 years, Aleph has served as a lifeline for more than 30,000 people — the vast majority of whom are indigent — through dozens of programs” provided to them free of charge, Aleph’s founder, Rabbi Sholom Lipskar, said in a statement.
Moshe Margaretten, an Orthodox rabbi who founded Tzedek, said most of those for whom it sought clemency were nonviolent drug offenders. He cited humanitarian reasons like illness and family considerations for backing the successful clemency requests of two men serving lengthy sentences for financial crimes.
Activists who lobby for sentencing leniency and clemency for nonviolent drug offenders have praised the efforts of Aleph and Tzedek. But some of those activists said that the network’s support for wealthy or well-connected fraudsters exacerbated the inequity that pervaded clemency decisions under Trump.
Ari Weisbrot, a New Jersey litigator, said he had seen both sides. The humanitarian work Aleph did in prisons, Weisbrot said, was overshadowed by the advocacy it offered to people like Eliyahu Weinstein, who was convicted of running a Ponzi scheme that stole millions of dollars from clients represented by Weisbrot — money that has never been returned.
Aleph had sought leniency for Weinstein at his sentencing in 2014. When Trump commuted Weinstein’s 24-year sentence in January, the White House credited Tolman, Dershowitz and the Tzedek Association as well as an array of lawmakers and activists for the decision.
A religious mission and powerful patrons
The Aleph Institute, which takes its name from the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet, was established by Lipskar, an adherent of the Chabad-Lubavitch group of Hasidic Jews, in Surfside, Florida, in the early 1980s at the direction of the movement’s leader at the time, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
Schneerson taught that incarceration is inhumane, and worse than death in certain respects, because it deprived prisoners of the ability to contribute to society, although he acknowledged the need to incarcerate people who were dangerous to others. Aleph has worked for years to limit jail time in specific cases.
Over the years, Aleph also built a powerful network of prominent supporters and allies in the legal world.
Dershowitz, one of the country’s best-known criminal defense lawyers, began volunteering his services to the group in the 1980s, he said.
Dershowitz also began working with the Tzedek Association in the final weeks of Trump’s presidency.
The Kushner connection
The Kushner family had long-standing personal connections to the network and the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. Inspired by his father’s case, Jared Kushner became a supporter of sentencing overhaul, reportedly donating to a lobbying effort by Margaretten to change federal sentencing laws after meeting with him in 2012.
Margaretten later started the Tzedek Association and retained Dershowitz, Muzin and Tolman as lobbyists.
The Kushner family’s charitable foundation, where Kushner was a director, donated more than $188,000 to Aleph from 2004 to the end of 2017, according to the foundation’s tax returns.
The foundation also donated more than $254,000 — primarily to benefit the needy — to the Shul of Bal Harbour, Lipskar’s synagogue in Surfside, which shares an address with the Aleph Institute.
When Kushner joined the White House, he set to work trying to overhaul federal sentencing laws.
The effort presented Aleph and its like-minded allies with a dual opportunity. They could advance a longtime legislative priority while also using their access to White House officials to seek individual pardons and commutations.
One of Trump’s first commutations, in December 2017, went to Sholom Rubashkin, who was convicted in 2009 of bank fraud after hundreds of immigrant workers who were in the country illegally were arrested in a raid the year before at the meatpacking plant he oversaw.
Margaretten enlisted Muzin, a former adviser to Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to push for “clemency for individual prisoners,” as well as changes to sentencing laws, according to lobbying filings.
Muzin, working on behalf of Margaretten, and Dershowitz also pushed for the release of another prisoner, Sholam Weiss, who was convicted in 2000 of siphoning $450 million from an insurance company, leading to its collapse. Weiss spent more than a year on the run before being arrested in Austria and extradited to the United States to serve an 845-year sentence.
With hours left in his term, Trump commuted Weiss’ sentence, and, when Weiss was released after serving 18 years in prison, he was greeted by Margaretten.
The role of donations
In some cases, the financial connections between clemency recipients and the network were direct.
After Philip Esformes was charged in 2016 in what prosecutors called the largest health care fraud case charged by the Justice Department, his father, himself a rabbi, donated $65,000 to the Aleph Institute over several years. The father, who also made smaller donations to the Shul of Bal Harbour, said during his son’s sentencing in 2019 that he would make additional contributions to a mental health organization with which Aleph had planned to team up, and at which Esformes’ lawyers suggested he could perform community service instead of a long prison sentence.
Trump commuted Esformes’ sentence just before Christmas.
After Ariel Friedler was released in 2014 from a two-month prison sentence for conspiring to hack into computer systems of competitors of his education software company, he donated to funds at the Shul of Bal Harbour for scholarships and the needy. He also donated to the Aleph Institute and volunteered his time and software management expertise.
An Aleph official wrote to the Florida bar association in 2017 to get Friedler’s law license reinstated, explaining that Friedler had recommended changes that had allowed “the organization to grow exponentially,” and later wrote a letter to the White House supporting a pardon for him. When the pardon came, in February 2020, White House officials credited Aleph.