After the lawyer for the co-defendant in a police-corruption trial devoted roughly five days of cross-examination to attacking the credibility of the chief prosecution witness, the lead lawyer for former NYPD Deputy Inspector James Grant used less than two hours Dec. 6 to try to establish that the favors from the witness accepted by the ex-cop were the kind friends did for each other rather than a quid pro quo.
In the process, not surprisingly, attorney John Meringolo also sought to undermine the narrative presented by the witness, Jona Rechnitz, that he and co-defendant Jeremy Reichberg had paid for several expensive trips and lavish meals for top police commanders, including Inspector Grant, by focusing some of his questions on the numerous scams Mr. Rechnitz pleaded guilty to once he became a government witness.
Hoping He Gets a Pass
While he faces up to 20 years in prison on his conviction for honest-services fraud, Mr. Rechnitz testified last year in a case against former Correction Officers Benevolent Association President Norman Seabrook that he hoped to avoid any time behind bars as a reward for his cooperation.
In nearly two weeks on the stand in U.S. District Judge Gregory Woods’s Pearl St. courtroom, Mr. Rechnitz outlined a picaresque odyssey he allegedly took with then-business partner Mr. Reichberg in trying to become influential first within the NYPD and later with Mayor de Blasio. He detoured along the way to explain how campaign contributions to then-County Executive Rob Astorino got him and Mr. Reichberg appointed chaplains in Westchester County, a designation that came with parking privileges.
Emails whose contents were revealed at trial that Mayor de Blasio had either forgotten about or withheld from reporters seeking information about his dealings with the two Orthodox Jewish businessmen raised doubts about his claim that he barely knew them. They showed that Mr. Rechnitz in late 2013 lobbied the then-Mayor-elect to appoint then-NYPD Chief of Department Philip Banks III—whom he and Mr. Reichberg had showered with a series of trips outside the country and expensive meals—as his Police Commissioner. Mr. de Blasio passed over Mr. Banks in favor of William J. Bratton, but in February 2014—his second month in office—emailed Mr. Rechnitz that the Chief’s “future is bright.”
When Mr. Banks abruptly announced eight months later that he was retiring from the department rather than accept Mr. Bratton’s plan to shift him from being the NYPD’s top uniformed officer to the job of First Deputy Commissioner, Mr. Rechnitz wrote the Mayor asking whether he could refuse to accept the Chief’s resignation.
Feared of Background Check?
His testimony over the course of three trials—two involving Mr. Seabrook, who ultimately was found guilty of accepting a $60,000 bribe delivered by Mr. Rechnitz in return for investing $20 million in union money in a hedge fund that subsequently filed for bankruptcy protection—hinted that Mr. Banks, who was close with the correction-union leader and accompanied him on several trips with Mr. Rechnitz, had an ulterior motive for quitting. Because First Deputy Commissioner is a civilian NYPD job, his accepting the potentially more-powerful position would have subjected Mr. Banks to a background check, which likely would have uncovered some of his questionable associations and business dealings.
Among his associates, besides Mr. Rechnitz and Mr. Reichberg, was Hamlet Peralta, a restaurateur who has been convicted of running a Ponzi scheme involving a wholesale liquor business. While no criminal charges have been brought against Chief Banks, Mr. Rechnitz during his testimony stated that he and Mr. Reichberg used their friendship with him—which led to their being able to park in a spot in the Police Headquarters garage designated for the Chief of Department—to seek favors from other cops, including high-ranking commanders.
Those favors ranged from the relatively benign—access to special events and the ability to park in areas normally reserved for cops—to having Mr. Rechnitz’s boss receive a police escort through the Lincoln Tunnel and getting ranking officers to mediate business disputes within the Orthodox Jewish community. He testified that when Mr. Reichberg had to undergo surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital, he was given a police guard outside his room—something normally extended only to officers who have been injured in the line of duty—which was illustrated by a photo that showed Chief Banks in a hospital bed adjacent to that of the recuperating businessman.
Under cross-examination Dec. 4 by Mr. Reichberd's lead attorney, Susan Necheles, Mr. Rechnitz said that his email to the Mayor urging him to appoint Mr. Banks as Police Commissioner had been crafted by him and Mr. Reichberg after “Chief Banks had given me the points he wanted included.” That Nov. 22, 2013 email to the Mayor-elect also counseled Mr. de Blasio that in picking the Detectives who would staff his security detail, “Our advice to choosing the right team is to reach out to Chief Banks…as he will make sure you are surrounded by the right people.”
Mr. Rechnitz’s testimony during direct examination by Assistant U.S. Attorney Martin Bell that he and Mr. Reichberg had lavished particular generosity on Chief Banks and what he called his “right-hand man,” then-Deputy Chief Michael Harrington, was used by Mr. Meringolo in his cross-examination to make the case that while Inspector Grant was friendly with both businessmen, he hadn’t been the object of nearly as much spending as the two Chiefs.
“Jimmy Grant wasn’t in Banks’s inner circle,” the attorney said to Mr. Rechnitz.
“No,” the witness replied.
Regarding a Dec. 3, 2013 email in which Mr. Rechnitz asked Inspector Grant to give him 23 of the courtesy cards distributed by the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association for friends and associates, as well as himself and his wife, Mr. Meringolo noted that contrary to the witness’s explanation of their value, “There’s no guarantee you can get out of a ticket with a PBA card.”
“No guarantee,” Mr. Rechnitz agreed.
Minimized Client’s Help
Mr. Meringolo established that virtually any NYPD officer would have access to the PBA cards to be distributed to friends and family. He also elicited from Mr. Rechnitz that he had sought and been granted favors from commanders who outranked Inspector Grant, while establishing that his client had done relatively little to help Mr. Rechnitz that required actions outside NYPD guidelines.
The attorney got the witness to talk about instances in which he helped acquaintances with an obvious eye to helping himself, and others in which he did so apparently out of friendship, citing two referrals he made to Benjamin Brafman, the prominent criminal-defense lawyer.
In one case in which he used his connection to Mr. Brafman, regarding Mr. Peralta and the scheme that eventually got him a five-year prison sentence, Mr. Rechnitz noted that the incarcerated man owed him money from a loan, adding, “I wanted to make sure he was treated properly so I could get paid back.”
Asked about making the connection between the attorney and Chief Banks when he ran into tax problems, however, Mr. Rechnitz told Mr. Meringolo that he did it as a way of helping a friend.
‘All Part of Bribing’
But when Mr. Grant’s lawyer, referring to their numerous trips together paid for by Mr. Rechnitz to places including Los Angeles, Israel and the Dominican Republic, asked, “Did you think you were bribing him when you played golf with him?” the witness responded, “I thought that all the conduct—giving gifts to him and expecting things in return—was part of bribing.”
No criminal charges were brought against Chief Banks.
Asked about a statement he made to Federal prosecutors in June 2016, shortly after he agreed to cooperate in their probes involving several illegal activities, that he “maybe” contributed to the cost of railings at Inspector Grant’s house, Mr. Rechnitz replied he couldn’t say definitively whether money he had given to Mr. Reichberg wound up being used for that purpose: “Other than what Jeremy told me, I don’t know anything about that.”
Mr. Meringolo asked about his arranging a two-night stay in Rome in August 2013 that Mr. Grant planned to celebrate having spent 20 years with his wife. After Mr. Rechnitz estimated he paid about $1,100 to cover the cost of the room, the attorney asked, “Did you ever see documentation that Jimmy Grant paid for his room in Rome and then he cancelled his credit-card [charge] because you paid for it?”
He was less specific about the more-lurid details of a trip the two men took along with Mr. Reichberg and another cop to watch the 2013 Super Bowl in Las Vegas. Also accompanying them was a prostitute who Mr. Rechnitz said had sex during the flight with individuals including himself and Inspector Grant.
The witness, under questioning by Mr. Meringolo, testified that a friend, Marco Franco, and Mr. Reichberg had arranged for the prostitute, and that he believed Mr. Franco stayed with her once they were in their suite in Las Vegas.
Bilked Wealthy Friend
The lawyer then turned to some of Mr. Rechnitz’s less-admirable conduct, including his attempt to persuade a wealthy friend, Michael Weinberger, to invest $1.9 million in a ticket-resale scheme that he had been brought into by a man named Jason Nissen. They did so, Mr. Meringolo noted, by telling him that Mr. Rechnitz had invested an equal amount to buy up blocks of tickets for in-demand sports and entertainment events.
“That was a lie,” Mr. Rechnitz acknowledged, saying that in fact he put up none of his own money.
“He was a friend of yours, right?” Mr. Meringolo asked.
“Did he lose the money?”
“I’m not sure,” Mr. Rechnitz replied, though he had testified earlier in this trial and in the two involving Mr. Seabrook that he belatedly discovered that Mr. Nissen was running a Ponzi scheme. He acknowledged in response to a question from Inspector Grant’s attorney that he had received a commission of between 5 and 10 percent for every investment he brought to Mr. Nissen, meaning his minimum haul from getting Mr. Weinberger involved would have been about $100,000.
Mr. Meringolo briefly brought up the fact that Mr. Rechnitz, who is 36, had once cited his family’s experience during the Holocaust as his rationale for using money to ingratiate himself with top police commanders.
He also elicited from the witness that he had his health insurance covered since 2012 by Taly Diamonds, a firm operated by a friend and business associate, Yaron Turgeman, even though he was not an employee. Mr. Rechnitz continued to be covered even after he made his cooperation agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which stipulated that the deal could be voided if he engaged in criminal activity beyond what he had already admitted.
Unaware It Was a Crime?
“At the time, you didn’t know that this was a crime?” Mr. Meringolo asked.
“I wasn’t doing it for a better rate,” Mr. Rechnitz replied. “I think it may have cost me more” than if he had obtained health coverage as an individual rather than an employee.
Asked by the attorney whether any of the employees at his firm, JSR Capital, received health coverage, Mr. Rechnitz said they didn’t.
He admitted that in addition to heavy gambling in Las Vegas, he wagered with illegal bookmakers in New York, saying that during the football season, “I placed some bets for me and Chief Banks.”
Mr. Meringolo asked him about his storing diamonds from Mr. Turgeman, who at the time was vacating his store for a new one, in Chief Banks’s safe in his office at 1 Police Plaza.
“A bag of diamonds could be millions of dollars, right?” Mr. Meringolo asked.
“Could be,” Mr. Rechnitz replied.
‘Favor for a Friend’
When the attorney remarked that the Chief “didn’t get anything for that. He did it as a favor for a friend,” Mr. Rechnitz responded, “I don’t know why he did that.”
During Ms. Necheles’s cross-examination on behalf of Mr. Reichberg earlier in the week, she had pressed Mr. Rechnitz about cases in which he claimed to have gotten help from police commanders in return for spending money on them, but it wasn’t clear that they did much for him. She also pointed to instances in which he didn’t seem to have gotten much in return for the contributions he made to Mr. de Blasio’s 2013 campaign and his political projects, such as the failed effort in 2014 to return the State Senate to Democratic control.
Regarding a wealthy friend whose plan for a big development project near Grand Central Terminal ran into trouble earlier in the de Blasio administration, Mr. Rechnitz said he and Mr. Reichberg had arranged a meeting between the developer and the Mayor in Mr. Reichberg’s home.
“You got meetings but you didn’t get results,” Ms. Necheles said.
“That’s correct,” Mr. Rechnitz replied.
She asked about a situation in which his wife’s cousin needed a building-code exemption to be extended for a day-care center she operated after she was served with a notice ordering her to vacate the premises a few months before she planned to retire. Mr. Rechnitz said help didn’t come until late because Mr. Reichberg “procrastinated,” but with the help of chief de Blasio fundraiser Ross Offinger, he “got it done at the last minute.”
‘You Weren’t Getting Results’
Ms. Necheles responded that the extension was granted because Mr. Reichberg went through the normal procedures that any person could use, asking, “If this were a [political] fix, why would [his wife’s cousin] need an expediter and an architect? She had to spend money… because you were not getting ‘access and results,’” citing the phrase the witness had used to explain what he and Mr. Reichberg had expected in return for their political contributions, which exceeded $250,000.
After the jury was sent to lunch Dec. 4, she said that in another situation in which Mr. Offinger’s help was requested, he had “specifically said, ‘I can’t do anything here.' "
Assistant U.S. Attorney Bell acknowledged that during his direct testimony, Mr. Rechnitz had conceded that “some of the things that he got from Mr. Offinger were relatively limited.”
The following morning, Ms. Necheles got Mr. Rechnitz to admit that his attempts nearly a decade ago to have one police commander put an end to protests outside a friend’s Diamond District jewelry store, in return for which he said he and Mr. Reichberg had agreed to donate $15,000 to the NYPD football team after previously giving it $10,000, had mixed success. The following year, he acknowledged, there had been pop-up protests outside the store on Valentine’s Day, but no rallies were held that Christmas.
A Normal Accommodation?
The attorney asked him about his testimony that he arranged for a police escort for Lin Snider, a customer who had once bought a diamond from him for more than a million dollars, during the Stanley Cup playoffs between the Rangers and the Philadelphia Flyers, who were owned by Ms. Snider’s husband. After Mr. Rechnitz detailed his efforts to coordinate her pickup by an NYPD Lieutenant with the aid of Chief Harrington, Ms. Necheles asked whether he was aware that the Police Department sometimes provided escorts to celebrities and the owners of sports teams.
“No, I’m not,” Mr. Rechnitz replied.
(Chief Harrington after being accused of selling his office in return for gifts and payments by Mr. Rechnitz and Mr. Reichberg, nine months ago pleaded guilty to a reduced criminal charge and was sentenced to probation.)
Describing her client as “a police buff…who loved to wear police clothes and hang out with police officers,” Ms. Necheles asked the witness about a photo of him, Chief Banks and Chief Harrington visiting Mr. Reichberg in his hospital room after his surgery, noting that Mr. Grant was also among the officers who had spent time with him there.
“You all visited him in the hospital because you were all friends,” she said, alluding to the defense claim that the favor-trading about which he testified was the product of friendship rather than illegal quid pro quos. “And then you all spent time with him in his home…when he was recuperating.”
At the end of Mr. Meringolo’s cross-examination, he brought another political figure into the case. After getting Mr. Rechnitz to acknowledge that he was still gambling heavily in Las Vegas, playing cards for $5,000 a hand during his visits there, the lawyer asserted that his life didn’t seem to have changed very much since his guilty plea.
“That’s false,” Mr. Rechnitz said with uncharacteristic emotion. “It’s changed in very dramatic ways.”
Plays Trump Card
The lawyer then asked whether Mr. Rechnitz’s father, a wealthy real-estate developer who has long ties to both Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, had held a $100,000-a-table fundraiser for Mr. Trump during the 2016 campaign.
Prosecutors objected, and Judge Woods sustained them, barring Mr. Rechnitz from having to answer.
But when Mr. Meringolo asked the witness, “Do you feel that you’re going to ask for a pardon from President Trump?” the Judge overruled a prosecution objection.
“No,” Mr. Rechnitz said.
After jurors were sent to lunch, Mr. Bell pointed out to the Judge that prosecutors had previously agreed to a defense request to redact a photo of a visit by Mr. Rechnitz and Mr. Reichberg, dressed in Christmas caps, to a Staten Island home believed to be Mr. Grant’s to conceal a campaign poster for Mr. Trump outside one home on the block. Given that defense lawyers had expressed concern that seeing that sign might have a prejudicial effect on jurors, most of whom are black and Latino, Mr. Bell contended that it was “outrageous” for them to bring Mr. Trump into the trial to try to further taint by association the chief prosecution witness.
Mr. Meringolo responded that Mr. Rechnitz’s father and the President, both of whom were developers, “have a longstanding relationship…I just think it was a relevant question because his family is very hooked up with the Republican Party and he has a relationship with Trump.”
Ms. Necheles added of Mr. Rechnitz, “I think he may have thought he could get a pardon out of Mr. Trump” because of that relationship.
But Mr. Bell argued that this connection “should not be an on-ramp for this kind of prejudicial” question.
Judge Woods, however, denied the prosecutor’s request to strike the question and answer from the court record and instruct jurors not to consider it in their eventual deliberations, ending Mr. Rechnitz’s long slog through cross-examination.
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