An urgent call during Kol Nidre: The time this top prosecutor had to work on Yom Kippur
It was the holiest night of the year. Geoffrey Berman, then the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, was at Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan reciting the Kol Nidre prayer, the beginning of the evening service on Yom Kippur, in 2019, when his phone vibrated. The call was from a federal prosecutor asking about two Soviet-born Jews who were set to flee the country, both under investigation for suspected campaign finance violations. He wanted to know: Should they be arrested before they could board their flights?
“For once I was glad that I was nowhere near the front of its vast sanctuary,” Berman writes in his forthcoming memoir, titled “Holding the Line: Inside the Nation’s Preeminent US Attorney’s Office and Its Battle with the Trump Justice Department,” slated for publication on Tuesday and obtained in advance by the Forward. “I always have the same faraway seats, and this allowed me to leave the synagogue without being noticed.”
The men in question, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, associates of former New York City mayor and Berman’s past law partner Rudy Giuliani, had bought one-way plane tickets to Frankfurt, Germany, the prosecutor informed him.
Parnas and Fruman, Republican donors with deep ties to the Jewish community, were implicated in efforts to remove Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, from her job and gather information on the Ukrainian business dealings of Hunter Biden, the son of then former Vice President Joe Biden. They were also accused of illegally funneling money to America First Action, a pro-Trump super PAC, as well as to the election campaign of former Rep. Pete Sessions, a Republican from Texas.
Berman writes that although he “should not have been working on the holiest day on the Jewish calendar,” he left the synagogue and went back to his apartment, spending the rest of the night debating with his team about how quickly they could obtain an indictment and the urgency of barring Parnas and Fruman from travel. He decided, though many pushed back, that they should not be allowed to leave the country.
The pair was arrested the next evening at Dulles International Airport in Virginia and charged with conspiracy, falsification of records and lying to the Federal Election Commission about their political donations.
Berman, who was fired by former President Donald Trump in June 2020, also details in the book his work to return to their rightful owners art and other valuables stolen by the Nazis during World War II.
“There were satisfying days in the Southern District, but it’s hard to say there were many happy ones,” Berman writes. “September 12, 2018 was a happy day.” He had organized a ceremony for that day at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City to return “Deux Femmes Dans Un Jardin,” painted in 1919 by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, to Sylvie Sulitzer, the last remaining heir of her grandfather, Alfred Weinberger, a prominent art collector in prewar Paris.
Berman also facilitated the return of a 1639 painting, “A Scholar Sharpening His Quill” by Salomon Koninck, which was stolen by the Nazis in France from the children and heirs of renowned Jewish art collector Adolphe Schloss and taken to Adolf Hitler’s personal headquarters in Munich.
“I was passionate about these art repatriation cases,” Berman writes, because it was an opportunity to “redress wrongdoing” and bring back some of the remains of once vibrant Jewish communities in Europe.
The book also reveals an incident with Giuliani — first reported by The Guardian on Thursday — in which he scolded an Orthodox Jew, mistaking him for a Muslim, while having dinner with some clients at a Manhattan restaurant in 2016.
A drunk Giuliani ranted about Islam when one of the executives whose family emigrated from Egypt — and who was wearing a yarmulke and had ordered a kosher meal — confronted him and said he was familiar with Islam and that it was not a violent religion.
“I’m sorry to have tell you this, but the founder of your religion is a murderer,” Giuliani shot back, thinking the executive was Muslim, even though the former two-term mayor “was clearly acquainted with Jews,” Berman writes, according to the Guardian report.