Former chief rabbi Metzger convicted in plea to reduced bribery charge

The conviction brings to a climax likely the most serious corruption conviction since Ehud Olmert's convictions. Metzger had previously denied all charges.

January 30, 2017 08:57
3 minute read.
Rabbi Yona Metzger

Rabbi Yona Metzger. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Yonah Metzger on Monday standing before the Jerusalem District Court became the first chief rabbi ever to be convicted of a crime, a reduced bribery charge, after signing a plea deal last week. He is expected to be sentenced to three-and-a-half years in jail and an NIS 5 million fine, though sentencing will take place at a later date.

Last week, his lawyers tried to spin the positive aspects of the deal: that around half of the original bribery charges will be dropped and that after good behavior, he may get out of jail in only two years.

The conviction brings to a climax likely the most serious corruption conviction since Ehud Olmert's convictions. Metzger had previously denied all charges.

Metzger was indicted in October 2015 for taking NIS 10m. in bribes. His trial opened in March 2016, but never delved deeply into details due to ongoing plea deal negotiations.

Besides bribery, the charges also included fraud, breach of public trust, fraudulent receipt of a benefit under aggravated circumstances, theft, money-laundering, tax violations and conspiracy to commit a felony, all while abusing his position as chief rabbi. It was unclear which of the original charges were being dropped.

The indictment said that of the NIS 10m. in bribes, NIS 7m. went directly to Metzger (the numbers are according to exchange rates at the time of the crimes – at current rates, the amounts would drop to around NIS 8m. and NIS 5m. respectively.) According to the indictment, in most of the criminal actions Chaim Eisenstadt, Metzger’s driver, acted as the recipient for the bribes.

Due to Eisenstadt’s closeness with Metzger and his involvement in the scheme, Eisenstadt was accused of receiving an overall double-digit percentage of the bribes.

In the so-called “conversion affair,” Metzger allegedly received large bribes from foreigners who wished to convert to Judaism or to clarify whether they were Jewish under standards acceptable to the Chief Rabbinate. The indictment said that Metzger and Rabbi Gavriel Cohen, the former head of the Beit Din of Los Angeles, split funds paid to Cohen related to the issues in question.

In 2011, the indictment said that Metzger and Cohen helped convert the children of a Russian businessman who had made aliya for a price of $360,000, of which Metzger received $180,000.

Next, the indictment said that Metzger received 30% to 40% of donations slated for charitable organizations in exchange for his support and activities on behalf of those organizations.

One donation of $28,000 that was slated for a yeshiva in Metzger’s synagogue found its way to Metzger and Eisenstadt instead, said the indictment.

Another donation of NIS 105,000 earmarked for the Beit Hatavshil organization, which provides food for the poor, was split between the charity and Metzger, who received around NIS 31,500 of the money without the donor’s knowledge, according to the indictment.

Another allegation involved Metzger receiving bribes under the guise of gifts, including gifts for his son’s 2010 wedding. In one case, Metzger allegedly received $500,000 in bribes in 10 separate cash payments disguised as gifts.

At another ceremony for nominating a rabbi to receive an official position, one of that rabbi's relatives gave Metzger $70,000, said the indictment.

Metzger was also accused of failing to report some of the income he received to tax authorities, including failing to report the income to his accountant who filed his tax returns.

There were also money-laundering charges that Metzger used various middlemen to launder his funds, including using fictitious names to further throw the authorities off his trail.

The indictment also said that Metzger had instructed Eisenstadt to lie to police when questioned in order to protect Metzger.

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