The Rabbi Who Conned Himself

Milton Balkany hedges and misses his bets

If this scene were mounted for an audience, you'd see Balkany thank his hosts, don his black homburg, and exit stage left. Stage right, federal agents would enter to disconnect the hidden video camera that captured the meeting. The next act would show the rabbi angrily complaining to Cohen's lawyer that his requests were being ignored: "They're taking it as some kind of joke," he said a few days later. "Good luck to them if that's their attitude."

You would then see him shift tactics in a bid to play both ends against the middle. On January 19, Balkany called federal prosecutors to tip them that Regensberg had knowledge about possible crimes involving Cohen. He painted his own role somewhat differently. Despite "the stigma" of a Jew informing on a fellow Jew, he said he was urging the inmate to tell all. "I made it clear that he should cooperate," he told investigator Robert Manchak.

He asked for a few considerations in return: One inmate should be reassigned to a prison nearer home, and another admitted to a special program. Also, reduced sentences should be granted to both Regensberg and Sholom Rubashkin, a Balkany relative who had been "shafted very, very badly" in a case involving abuses at a kosher-meat plant in Iowa. "As you can see, my requests are not outlandish," he said. "They're not crazy."

Over the next couple of weeks, the tapes show Balkany desperately trying to make his bets pay off. In one call, he would scold Cohen's people for not living up to their pledge to deliver the promised checks. In the next, he would urge the feds to accompany him to Otisville to hear Regensberg's secrets.

Actually, as evidence introduced by prosecutors Jesse Furman and Marc Berger in Judge Denise Cote's courtroom last week showed, there were no FBI visits to see Regensberg at Otisville. Even Rabbi Balkany, the visitor logs showed, made only a single prison visit weeks before he contacted Cohen's firm.

The last act belongs to the jury, but the most dramatic scene played out on February 18, moments before Balkany's arrest as he tried to deposit a $2 million check that the hedge-funders had finally handed him. "The check that you gave me," he said in a frantic call to Cohen's lawyer, "it's a closed account with no money in it." Maybe, he proposed, they could wire the money?

trobbins@villagevoice.com

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