New York State’s highest court has agreed to hear arguments in a case aimed at shedding light on the failed prosecution of alleged Orthodox child molester Avrohom Mondrowitz.
Mondrowitz fled to Israel following his 1984 indictment on multiple counts of sexual abuse. Alleging that the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office had bowed to pressure from the Orthodox community in failing to vigorously pursue his extradition, journalist and attorney Michael Lesher has sought documents from the DA relating to the case under the state’s Freedom of Information Law.
The state’s highest court announced on April 28 that it would hear an appeal on an appellate court’s rejection of a lower court ruling ordering the DA’s office to release the documents.
“The longer this goes on and the more steadfastly they refuse to give [the documents] to me, the more I suspect there’s something there that they don’t want the public to know,” said Lesher. But he admitted that he had little idea as to what information the documents actually hold.
Mondrowitz, a Brooklyn-based psychologist, was among the first of a series of high-profile rabbis or yeshiva teachers to be indicted on charges of sexual abuse that have rocked the Orthodox community in recent decades. Press reports have stated that the five-count indictment against him is based on complaints from more than 100 victims.
Mondrowitz has never faced trial in the United States. The Israeli Supreme Court ruled in January 2010 against enforcing a 2007 extradition request.
Lesher represents six alleged victims of Mondrowitz, all Orthodox men now in their 30s. But his involvement in the case dates back to an earlier open records request he filed with the Brooklyn DA as a journalist in 1998. According to court documents, Lesher maintains that the documents he obtained from this earlier request revealed that, in 1993, under pressure from the Orthodox community, the Brooklyn DA’s office asked the federal government to drop its efforts to extradite Mondrowitz.
In 2007, following the DA’s revival of extradition efforts, Lesher filed a second open records request for documents relating to the extradition. That request was denied on the grounds that it would interfere with an ongoing investigation. Lesher objected, saying that the 2007 request was no different from the 1998 request, which the office had fulfilled.
In their response, the Brooklyn DA’s office argued that a 2007 updating of the extradition treaty to cover Mondrowitz’s crimes made the investigation active at the time of Lesher’s second request in a way it wasn’t at the time of his first request.
The lower court found that, since Lesher had requested documents specifically relating to the extradition effort, they were subject to mandatory disclosure. But the appellate court disagreed. In a unanimous decision, the appellate court found that the DA’s office had shown that the documents, if released, would interfere with an ongoing investigation, and that the documents would also identify victims of a sex crime, also cause for exemption from open records laws.
The Court of Appeals’s decision to hear the case came as a surprise, according to the New York Law Journal, which noted that it is rare for the court to hear appeals on cases in which the appellate court has reached a unanimous verdict.
Lesher is hopeful that the documents will answer pending questions. “I don’t feel that I can close the book on this case without being able to tell its last chapter,” he said. A spokesman for the Brooklyn DA’s office declined to comment on the appeal.
Oral arguments in the case are expected in the fall.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.