Mukasey Stood Up for Convicted Arsonist

Exclusive: Brooklyn businessman/arsonist endangered NY firefighters, but AG nominee Mukasey offered to tout the felonious goniff's "remarkable character" before sentencing

In a previously unreported episode, U.S. Attorney General nominee Michael Mukasey praised the "remarkable character" of notorious Brooklyn businessman Nat Schlesinger after Schlesinger was convicted of arson in a blaze that nearly killed a New York City firefighter.

After having stood up as a federal judge for a convicted arsonist who reaped millions of dollars from his crimes, Mukasey is on tap to become the country's top law-enforcement official. His hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee has contained no mention of the Schlesinger case.

This isn't part of Mukasey's dim past; it happened last year. And Mukasey wasn't the only prominent person to stand up for Schlesinger. Israel's current prime minister, Ehud Olmert, used his government stationery (when he was merely a deputy prime minister) to plead on behalf of the powerful Brooklyn businessman, as my colleague Tom Robbins reported on August 1, 2006.

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Mukasey was prohibited from directly volunteering a written testimonial because he was a sitting federal judge on New York's Southern District bench. But he scooted around that technicality, and Schlesinger's lawyers bandied about his name — and what he would say about the arsonist — in their June 30, 2006, presentencing memo, which Robbins obtained.

The arsonist's lawyers made no bones about it, salting their memo to federal Judge Arthur Spatt of New York's Eastern District with Mukasey's name. They titled a section of the memo with this:

Judge Mukasey Indicated that He Would Provide Information Regarding Nat Schlesinger’s Remarkable Character if this Court Makes an Inquiry of Him

And Schlesinger's lawyers wrote:

At the outset, we were advised that Judge Michael B. Mukasey knows the Schlesinger family and attended weddings of the Defendant’s children. Based on his history and knowledge of Mr. Schlesinger, it is our understanding that Judge Mukasey is willing to provide information to this Court that may prove extremely helpful at sentencing.

However, we are also aware of the constraints imposed in the Commentary to Canon 2B of the Code of Conduct for United States Judges, which provides that a "judge should not initiate the communication of information to a sentencing judge … but may provide to such persons information in response to a formal request." … As a consequence, we ask the Court to make a formal request of Judge Mukasey for any information that may prove relevant to Nat Schlesinger’s sentencing.

There's no evidence that Spatt made such a request, which would have been highly unusual, to say the least. But the memo had practically the same effect because it clued in Judge Spatt that one of his colleagues vouched for Schlesinger.

Robbins noted at the time that Schlesinger was convicted in 2005 on "charges of arson, mail fraud, and — a particularly tough count under federal law — using fire to commit a felony."

The case was broken by fire marshal Bernard "Buddy" Santangelo, sparking a lengthy investigation of suspicious fires and a successful prosecution under U.S. Attorney Roslyn Mauskopf. Judge Spatt was swamped with glowing testimonials from Schlesinger's fellow Jews, many of them Orthodox, as is Mukasey.

Mukasey's own status as an Orthodox Jew has been an issue before — and in Jewish publications, as I pointed out this past September 24 in an item about his presiding over a terrorism trial at which he clashed with William Kunstler over whether Mukasey would be able to fairly judge Muslim defendants.

In the Schlesinger episode, the arsonist didn't exactly have a clean track record. As Robbins wrote last year:

It wasn't his first time before a federal judge. Back in 1978, Schlesinger was sentenced to 18 months in prison for conspiring to bribe a polygraph examiner to submit a fake report on behalf of a diamond smuggler.

Schlesinger faced up to 22 years in prison in the arson case, but it wasn't only his fellow Orthodox Jews who played the religion card. Schlesinger himself played it. Robbins wrote:

Standing before Judge Spatt …, Schlesinger made an audacious claim about his circumstances. "I am here because I am a Jew," he said. The statement, according to Newsday’s Robert Kessler, who was in the courtroom, brought a quick and strong response from assistant U.S. attorney Lawrence Ferazani, who tried the case against Schlesinger along with prosecutors Cynthia Monaco and Richard Lunger. Ferazani said he was representing Mauskopf, the daughter of Holocaust survivors. As for Schlesinger, the prosecutor said: "The reason he is here is because he is a thief, because he is an arsonist, and because he is a money launderer."

That apparently didn't faze Olmert. In a letter dated September 11, 2005, Olmert (at the time Israel's vice prime minister of industry, trade, and labor) pleaded with Judge Spatt to show Schlesinger "mercy, compassion, and understanding." (Again, see Robbins's "Burn Job," August 1, 2006.)

The only hot air that counted, however, was what a New York City firefighter endured because of Schlesinger's felonious behavior. As Robbins wrote:

Schlesinger, who has long been a major figure in Williamsburg and upstate Monsey, where he owns property, was found guilty of having set a fire that took place on December 31, 1998. The New Year's Eve blaze occurred at a huge, block-long industrial building the businessman owned at Wallabout Street and Kent Avenue in Williamsburg, where he manufactured women's clothing for such high-end stores as Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Bloomingdale's. The inferno almost felled a firefighter who became lost in thick smoke on the building's third floor, where the fire had been set in a maze of boxes. The firefighter had to send a "Mayday" message before he was rescued, unharmed.

In the end, Schlesinger was sentenced 15 years in prison. Schlesinger's lawyers have appealed. An e-mail to Mukasey at his law firm elicited no reply.


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