The power of state freedom of information laws will be tested when a scrappy New Jersey lawyer who represents victims of an alleged ultra-Orthodox child abuser faces off against Brooklyn’s district attorney in court later this month.
Michael Lesher will argue in New York State’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, on February 14 that District Attorney Charles Hynes must release a trove of documents.
The papers relate to a decades-long investigation of Avrohom Mondrowitz, an American Orthodox rabbi and self-styled child psychotherapist who fled to Israel from Brooklyn in 1984 before police could arrest him on charges of sodomizing five non-Jewish boys. Mondrowitz, who was indicted on those charges in 1985, is alleged to have abused dozens of Jewish children, too, but because of communal fears of reporting to the secular authorities at the time, many alleged Jewish victims did not come forward.
Lesher, who represents six alleged Jewish victims, has long accused Hynes of dragging his heels on extraditing Mondrowitz from Israel. He claims that Hynes has feared upsetting Brooklyn’s bloc-voting Orthodox Jewish community since taking up the elected post in 1990. He believes the files stored in Hynes’ office could prove it.
Four years ago, Lesher used freedom of information laws to demand that Hynes release his files on Mondrowitz, including all correspondence between his office and federal agencies regarding efforts to extradite Mondrowitz from Israel.
Hynes refused. The D.A. claimed that releasing the information could jeopardize any future prosecution of Mondrowitz. He also argued that because of civil rights laws, he could not divulge information that might reveal the identity of abuse victims.
Last December, Hynes also used the need to protect victims’ identities to justify his refusal to release to the Forward the names of 85 Orthodox individuals who Hynes said had been arrested on sex abuse charges in Brooklyn over the past three years. Hynes had recently touted his record on arrests of alleged Orthodox child abusers. But when asked to identify them, he declined even to name 14 abusers who had been convicted.
Doing so, Hynes claimed, would potentially enable readers to identify victims.
“Under the Civil Rights Law of New York State, we cannot release the names of any victims of sexual assault or any information that would tend to identify them,” a spokesman for Hynes’s office told the Forward in December.
At the time, legal experts and law enforcement officials said that it was not unusual to maintain the anonymity of some offenders, particularly for abuse committed within a family. But they expressed surprise that the Brooklyn D.A. would effectively issue a blanket ban on naming Jewish offenders.
The same week, Hynes announced the sentencing of non-Jew Gerald Hatcher, 47, for raping his girlfriend’s 11-year-old daughter in their Brooklyn home.
Hynes spokesman Jerry Schmetterer told the Forward on February 7 that the D.A. released Hatcher’s details because the “case was well known by reporters who covered the sentencing.”
Schmetterer declined to comment on the pending case against Lesher.
But freedom of information specialists said the court battle could have wide-ranging implications for similar cases across the country, where government agencies have been similarly obstructive when requested to release documents.
Robert Freeman, executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government, said state freedom of information laws nationwide are founded on the same principles.
“They say government records are supposed to be exposed except to the extent that an exception can be properly applied,” said Freeman.