The lawyers representing Golan Cipel, the Israeli at the heart of the political tumult in the Garden State, are attempting to debunk claims that their client was a partner or pawn in an elaborate scheme to bring down New Jersey Governor James McGreevey.
In an exclusive interview with the Forward, one of Cipel’s two attorneys, Rachel Yosevitz, denied the latest and most shocking claim: that their camp had issued an 11th-hour demand seeking the governor’s pledge to approve plans for a medical school to be run by Touro College, a New York-based institution led by Orthodox Jews. Media reports identified Timothy Saia as the lawyer who floated the Touro demand to McGreevey’s allies. Saia reportedly issued the demand to McGreevey ally State Senator Raymond Lesniak just half an hour before the governor resigned, saying it came from Cipel attorney Allen Lowy.
Yosevitz, however, denied this version of events, insisting that Saia, a lawyer who works in Livingston, N.J., had volunteered himself as an intermediary between the two parties. She added that Cipel’s team viewed him as negotiating on behalf of McGreevey. Touro’s attorneys say they have never heard of Saia.
“At no time did [Saia] ever represent Golan,” Yosevitz said. “When [Saia] came to the meetings, he came with the governor’s representatives. The only person negotiating on behalf of Golan was Allen.”
The Cipel camp claim is the latest twist in the convoluted saga of the governor’s downfall, which is now being linked in some media reports to Charles Kushner, a top McGreevey fundraiser who is also a leading Jewish philanthropist in the state and a supporter of Touro College. Reports of the Touro link and Cipel’s stint as a consultant to the college fueled speculation that Cipel had been acting in tandem with or under the direction of a secret adviser. Media attention focused mainly on Kushner, who was expected to plead guilty this week in a federal case stemming from campaign finance charges. He is accused of attempting to blackmail a witness, his brother-in-law, by paying a prostitute to solicit him while being videotaped. Kushner’s lawyer, Ben Brafman, denied any link between his client and the McGreevey affair.
Some observers were also eyeing Democrat Robert Torricelli, the senator-turned-lobbyist who abandoned his re-election campaign in 2002 amid an ethics scandal.
“Either the media or someone else is trying to find a connection with Charles Kushner and this scandal,” Yosevitz said, referring to Cipel’s allegations. “It’s like the fourth conspiracy theory I’ve heard. There is no truth to it whatsoever. All this is doing is deflecting from the actual facts — they don’t want to face the facts that this is a harassment case.”
Meanwhile Kushner’s lawyer and Touro College’s lawyers are all denying that their clients had anything to do with Cipel’s decision to threaten McGreevey with a sexual harassment lawsuit or with the subsequent failed negotiations that preceded the governor’s resignation.
Kushner, who reportedly sponsored Cipel’s visa application and reportedly employed him for a time, is a Touro board member and, according to media reports, was to be the top financial backer of the new medical school, which he hoped would bear his mother’s name. Toricelli’s lobbying firm has been representing Touro in its bid to secure the state’s approval to build the medical school.
In an interview with the Forward, Touro attorney Franklyn Snitow denied that Cipel or any lawyer involved with the talks had been negotiating with the approval of the school. It has been almost a year, Snitow added, since Cipel worked for the school. Snitow downplayed Kushner’s involvement with the medical school project and said that no decision had been made about naming the institution.
However, Snitow was reluctant to discuss Torricelli’s role in helping Touro build its medical college, which would be the first private one in the state. He confirmed that Torricelli, now a lobbyist, is representing the institution in its bid to win approval for its medical school.
When asked to elaborate, Snitow said: “We are not going to get into it.” He declined to discuss rumors that Torricelli might be the source of the mysterious demand on McGreevey by Saia. “To be honest, that’s not the focus of our inquiry,” Snitow said.
An aide to Torricelli told the Star Ledger this week that Torricelli is providing Touro with general advice, fund-raising strategy and advice about opening a medical school.
What no one seems to be disputing is that Cipel and McGreevey met on a trip that McGreevey took to Israel in 2000 that was sponsored by New Jersey Jewish federations when he was the mayor of Woodbridge with an eye on the state house. The two men clicked instantly, say those who witnessed the encounter at a wedding hall in Rishon Letzion, the Tel Aviv suburb where Cipel worked as a municipal spokesman. He previously served as a chief information officer at the Israeli Consulate in New York.
Cipel, who has denied that he is gay, insisted that his first encounters with McGreevey were not romantic or sexual. “McGreevey seemed very impressed with my knowledge of the American political scene,” he said in an interview with Ha’aretz.
McGreevey offered Cipel a campaign job almost immediately, and soon Cipel was on his way to New Jersey to help out with the gubernatorial campaign. Campaign staffers found Cipel an apartment close to McGreevey’s condominium when he arrived in the United States.
Cipel was dogged by controversy within weeks of his appointment in January 2002 as homeland security adviser by the just-installed McGreevey administration (see Page 1). Even after he left the administration, Cipel maintained his role as an unofficial liaison between McGreevey and the Jewish community.
David Mallach, former director of the MetroWest, N.J., Jewish Community Relations Council, said his group encountered no problems working with Cipel.
“For a guy like Jim McGreevey, who already had a lot of good Jewish relationships, Cipel’s role wasn’t a key one,” Mallach said.
Others who know both men say Cipel’s claim of no consensual relationship will be a hard sell.
David Twersky, then editor of New Jersey Jewish News, was friends with both men and said he warned them that their relationship was obvious and eventually would cost them. Cipel denied the relationship, and McGreevey dismissed the claim without outright denying it, Twersky recalled.
After Cipel left his job working for McGreevey, Kushner helped him find other work. Cipel went through a quick round of highly paid public relations jobs. He lost them, reportedly, because he kept failing to turn up for work.
McGreevey’s staff members accuse Cipel of trying to extort as much as $50 million from the governor, according to news reports. Cipel’s lawyers say the figure they wanted to settle for was much lower. Yosevitz told the Forward that a deal was about to be struck when McGreevey suddenly resigned — a claim that has been denied by McGreevey’s staff. Cipel’s lawyer said that he would decide next week whether to file a lawsuit.
“At this point Golan went back to Israel,” Yosevitz said. “The idea is for him to be there for a few days thinking about things without any reporters, and then come back [to meet] with his attorneys to discuss whether he wants to go forward with the lawsuit.”
With Reporting From the Jewish Telegraphic Agency