Jerusalem — Morris Talansky, the Long Island businessman at the center of the allegations of financial impropriety swirling around Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, has retained the services of an American lawyer and longtime Jewish communal insider who himself is no stranger to scandal.
Neal Sher, a former leader of the Justice Department’s Nazi prosecution unit and onetime executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, is assisting Talansky in connection with his cross-examination by Olmert’s lawyers. Sher told the Forward that Talansky is a longtime personal friend.
It was only six years ago that Sher found himself embroiled in a scandal of his own. In 2002, he resigned his post as chief of staff in the Washington office of the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims amid allegations that he had misappropriated funds for personal use. When asked about the scandal in the context of his current work with Talansky, Sher responded: “Ancient stuff, totally irrelevant to this.”
While Talansky’s court defense is being handled primarily by Israeli lawyers, Sher is advocating on behalf of his client in the media and advising him in instances in which American law has come up. Last week, for instance, Olmert’s lawyer suggested that Talansky had violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which regulates the activities of Americans representing foreign governments or officials.
“I explained that that’s absurd — it’s meant for agents for governments who try to affect U.S. policy, and the suggestion it applies to a fundraiser for Israeli causes does not fit,” Sher said.
Sher made a name for himself during 11 years as director of the Office of Special Investigations of the Justice Department, from 1983 to 1994, when he oversaw the denaturalization and deportation of dozens of Nazi war criminals. He led the investigation into the Nazi past of then Austrian president Kurt Waldheim and was credited for Waldheim’s placement on the watch list of persons ineligible to enter the United States. Sher went on to serve as Aipac’s executive director from 1994 to 1996.
Sher’s 2002 resignation from his job at the Holocaust insurance claims commission came after an internal investigation by the commission over alleged misappropriation of funds for personal use. Sher was investigated after he admitted “unauthorized reimbursements” of travel expenses, according to an internal document written by the commission’s chairman. A year later, Sher was disbarred from the Bar Association of the District of Columbia by order of the D.C. Court of Appeals.
Sher fully reimbursed the insurance claims commission and has criticized the disbarment as overly harsh. At the time, he told the Forward that he decided not to fight the disbarment “purely due to the fact that the cost would be absolutely prohibitive.”
He is currently a member of the New York State Bar Association and specializes in litigation, art law and government relations.
Sher said that he first met Talansky during the 1980s, when the Long Island businessman was executive director of the American Committee for Shaare Zedek Medical Center. Sher said that the two have been friends ever since. Talansky’s fundraising work is how he first met Olmert, who at the time was Israel’s health minister and was considering a run for Jerusalem mayor, an office to which he was elected in 1993.
In addition to providing legal advice, Sher is also speaking out in defense of Talansky in the face of withering attacks from Olmert’s camp. While some have suggested that Talansky may be motivated by politics, Sher stressed that his client had no such agenda and that his role in the whole affair is simply that of a witness. “He has no dog in this fight,” Sher said.
With reporting by Nathan Jeffay in Jerusalem and Marc Perelman in New York.