Jail Breaks

Influential Rabbi Barred From Lobbying Federal Prison Officials

"They came to me, one of them said their son was in jail," said Balkany. "He asked could he be switched to a place where there is kosher food. I placed a call to the [prison] chaplain and we got him switched. Then he wanted some other help. I said, 'There is someone who worked for the Bureau of Prisons, now a lobbyist or consultant in Washington, and I can introduce you.' When the father got in trouble he thought he could say something about me, but it backfired. I didn't tell him to go bribe someone."

Pressed for the identity of the consultant, Balkany said he couldn't remember. He said that over the years he has "worked with maybe 20 consultants; everything was registered properly."

According to a criminal complaint filed by FBI agent Susan Ostrobinski, the feds were tipped to the bribery scheme by another Russian inmate serving time for bank fraud at the Federal Correctional Institute at Otisville, New York. The inmate, John Ocean, said that Vadim Kaplun, in prison for a penny-stock fraud, told him he had a hook with the Bureau of Prisons who could arrange transfers to the prison camp at Allenwood, Pennsylvania. Kaplun allegedly said he'd already worked out his own deal to get sent to Allenwood, where he would be able to enter a drug program that could shave months off his sentence.

At the FBI's urging, Ocean pretended to go along with the scheme, which called for him to have an emissary pay $50,000 to a person referred to as "Sasha," Zakharov's nickname. Part of the bribe was to be in the form of a $10,000 certified check to "an organization connected to the rabbi," the criminal complaint stated.

At one point, Zakharov told a Russian-speaking undercover cop posing as Ocean's friend that "the people he reported to" had managed to see Ocean's pre-sentence investigation report, a confidential document available only to defense attorneys, the courts, and prison and probation officials.

Balkany wasn't charged in the plot and he said he has been told he is not the subject of any investigation. Asked if he'd ever asked Helmsley or Antar for contributions to organizations in exchange for his assistance, Balkany initially denied it. But he said that after he arranged a brief prison release for Helmsley so that she could visit family mem-bers' graves before Yom Kippur, the real-estatebillionaire made a contribution to his school.

"Someone on her staff contacted me, I never contacted any of these people," said Balkany. The rabbi said Helmsley paid for a plaque in memory of her deceased son to be placed in his school. Why a plaque in a girls' school? "I don't know why, maybe she wanted me to feel she was grateful," he said.

A spokesman for Helmsley said she preferred not to discuss her time in prison.

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