Grand Jury Scrutinizes Right-Wing Bingo King
A grand jury in Los Angeles County has been seeking information about the California gambling operations of Dr. Irving Moskowitz, a Miami Beach philanthropist known for his financial support of Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Scott Wildman, a former Democratic member of the California state Assembly, told the Forward that he had been called to testify on March 3 before the grand jury, which meets behind closed doors. Wildman said the questions posed to him focused mainly on the casino and bingo hall that Moskowitz owns in the impoverished city of Hawaiian Gardens, just south of Los Angeles.
In particular, Wildman said, the questions dealt with a 154-page investigative report issued in 2000 by the staff of the state legislature’s Joint Legislative Audit Committee, which Wildman chaired. The report detailed a series of alleged improprieties in the establishment and operation of Moskowitz’s casino and bingo hall.
“They were concerned about the fact that very little investigative work had been done subsequent to the report,” Wildman said, “and that very few of the issues had been looked into.”
Moskowitz’s supporters in Hawaiian Gardens frequently credit tax receipts from his casino with keeping the cash-strapped municipality afloat. But opponents, including the Coalition for Justice in Hawaiian Gardens and Jerusalem — an orga- nization composed mostly of Jewish peace activists — have long accused the 76-year-old physician of commandeering the political structures of the tiny city to serve his philanthropic interests, particularly his funding of controversial projects in Israel and the territories.
The battle over the Hawaiian Gardens casino represents one of the most dramatic instances of the Middle East conflict spilling over into local American politics. The Hawaiian Gardens bingo hall, a not-for-profit operation launched in 1988, and the casino, a for-profit operation opened in 1997, are major sources for the millions of dollars that tax documents show Moskowitz has poured into the coffers of right-wing settlement groups such as Ateret Cohanim and the Everest Foundation.
Moskowitz’s money has frequently been used with the goal of establishing a Jewish presence in predominantly Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. Construction at Moskowitz-connected sites repeatedly has sparked unrest and worldwide protests, including the 1997 opening of an archaeological tunnel near the Temple Mount that led to battles in which 76 people died.
Despite the international implications of the battle in Hawaiian Gardens, the involvement of California authorities in the town’s controversies has always focused narrowly on local issues, including the integrity of the city’s political process and the gambling operations’ labor practices — much of which was discussed in Wildman’s legislative report.
In 1995, the Los Angeles Superior Court considered a case brought against the planned casino by the Committee Against Card Clubs Association, a group that Moskowitz’s lawyer, Beryl Weiner, says was funded by competing gambling operations. After a series of countersuits by Moskowitz, the two parties reached a settlement in 1997, with both sides agreeing to stipulate that the establishment of the casino was “valid.” Moskowitz also agreed to pay the community group about $280,000.
In a letter to the Forward, Weiner wrote: “All investigations and challenges relating to the development of the casino have already occurred…. In addition, all applicable statutes of limitation have expired.”
Weiner, in his letter, wrote that he was not aware of the recent activity of the grand jury, but that, “there would not be any reason for a grand jury investigation, nor could any such investigation be justified.”
Grand jury proceedings are confidential — defendants are not always alerted when they are being investigated — and jury officials will not reveal any cases on the current docket. But sources familiar with the proceedings have confirmed to the Forward that other witnesses appearing before the grand jury also have been asked about Moskowitz’s gambling operations.
The matter is being handled by the public integrity section of the grand jury, which evaluates possible criminal charges. Criminal grand jury proceedings generally result from an investigation by a police department or district attorney’s office, and when they produce an indictment, can lead to a public criminal trial. It is unclear from the information provided to the Forward if the grand jury is focusing on the conduct of Moskowitz, Hawaiian Gardens officials or both.
The grand jury’s activity comes at the same time that the California Gambling Control Commission is reviewing Moskowitz’s application for a permanent gambling license, which would replace the temporary license under which the casino has operated since opening in December of 1997. The California Attorney General’s office already has endorsed Moskowitz’s application, but the commission is still hearing arguments from both sides and has not announced when it will make a final decision.
In the course of the licensing proceedings, the Coalition for Justice has argued that Moskowitz does not have the “good character” necessary for a casino license because of his philanthropic giving to pro-settlement organizations in Israel. At the same time, some of Moskowitz’s supporters have voiced skepticism about the concern of coalition members for the welfare of Hawaiian Gardens, citing the group’s roots in Jewish peace activism.
“None of these people know anything about Hawaiian Gardens,” said Leonard Chaidez, the mayor pro-tem of Hawaiian Gardens, who said that he and all the current members of the Hawaiian Gardens city council are Moskowitz supporters. “If Dr. Moskowitz wants to send his money to Israel, that’s his business.”
The casino is a private operation, so its financial records are not public. But, according to Chaidez, in February the casino took in $5.7 million, $644,000 of which came back to the Hawaiian Gardens city government in taxes.
Moskowitz’s nonprofit bingo parlor funnels its proceeds to a charitable foundation, the Irving I. Moskowitz Foundation. In 2001, the last year for which tax records are available, the foundation donated about $500,000 to beneficiaries in Hawaiian Gardens, and more than $2.9 million to Israel-related causes. Of that sum, $1.75 million went to a single charity, the American Friends of the Everest Foundation, which was founded by Moskowitz to fund religious institutions and land acquisition in Jerusalem, according to Israeli news reports.
The anti-Moskowitz coalition previously focused much of its attention on Moskowitz’s giving overseas, but has recently shifted its public emphasis to local issues. Last fall, the coalition submitted an 80-page report to the gambling commission detailing long-standing allegations against Moskowitz that have been aired in various public forums, including the Hawaiian Gardens Redevelopment Agency public hearings, the 1995 county court proceedings, and the depositions to the Joint Legislative Audit Committee chaired by Wildman.
The audit committee is a special body formed by the legislature to investigate improper interactions between government agencies and private business. The staff report on Moskowitz was released at a public hearing in 2000. It was never formally endorsed by the legislature itself, leading some to dispute its official status. But experts in state politics say such procedures are standard.
“There’s no other process than having the expert staff write it and have it released at a public hearing,” said Thad Kousser, a professor of political science and expert in California politics at the University of California at San Diego. “That’s about as official as committee reports get in the legislature.”
The report on Moskowitz recommended that state and local law enforcement authorities “investigate for criminal or corrupt activity” the actions surrounding the 1995 Hawaiian Gardens redevelopment project, which included the casino. It also recommended that the state force Moskowitz to pay back $12 million in city redevelopment funds he received for the casino, and that his attorney, Weiner, be referred to California’s state bar association for investigation.
The report noted that Moskowitz spent half a million dollars of his own money to campaign for the 1995 referendum, something the report deemed illegal under a state law that bars casinos’ financial backers from influencing election initiatives about their establishments. In addition, the report cited numerous instances in which Moskowitz and his casino allegedly exerted undue influence over the political operations of the town.
The report also questioned whether there was a conflict of interest involving Weiner, who served as legal counsel both to Moskowitz and to the city’s redevelopment agency when it provided the multimillion dollar grant for the construction of the casino.
In his letter to the Forward, Weiner dismissed the conflict of interest allegation, saying he had acquired “a written waiver of conflicts of interest” from the city of Hawaiian Gardens before taking on both jobs.
Weiner has long disputed the legitimacy of the report, noting that Wildman received political contributions from the co-director of the Coalition for Justice, Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak. In his letter, Weiner wrote that the report authored by Wildman “has been touted as an official report of the Committee when it is anything but.”
A few months after the report was released, Wildman was stripped of his chairmanship when he attempted to create a subcommittee to continue investigating the situation in Hawaiian Gardens. Wildman was relieved of his duties by Robert Hertzberg, the first Jewish speaker of the California Assembly.
Soon after, Wildman’s term as assemblyman ended and no further action was taken on his report.