Amid Controversy, Grimm Nets Boehner Boost

New York Republican Is Being Investigated by FBI on Allegations of Trying to Extort Campaign Funds

Posted March 5, 2012 at 6:49pm

Embattled Rep. Michael Grimm got some welcome news Monday in the form of an endorsement from New York firefighters and a vote of confidence from Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), even as he faces a potential FBI probe into allegations that he tried to strong-arm an influential Israeli rabbi into giving him campaign cash.

According to several sources, the FBI has already begun looking into allegations that in 2010, the New York Republican tried to extort funding from Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto and could launch a formal investigation into the affair.

On Monday, Boehner’s office gave Grimm a boost. “The Speaker has time and again made clear that he holds every Member to the highest standards of ethical conduct, and Rep. Grimm continues to have the Speaker’s confidence,” Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith said.

Back in his district, the first-term lawmaker tried to keep things business as usual. During an event at a firehouse in his Staten Island district, Grimm avoided any talk of the scandals that have threatened to engulf him.

“Thanks to their commitment and service, families throughout Staten Island and Brooklyn sleep soundly at night knowing that these leaders of the FDNY will be there should an emergency arise,” Grimm said in a statement, adding, “I pledge to continue my unwavering support for our nation’s first responders, particularly in the areas of improving working conditions and technology, and by ensuring that they have all the resources they need to do the job as safely and effectively as possible.”

Uniformed Fire Officers Association President Al Hagan praised Grimm’s work as a Marine and FBI agent, saying in a statement that “the Unformed Fire Officers Association looks forward to a long, productive relationship with Congressman Michael Grimm in the months and years to come.”

But despite the “all is well” nature of Grimm’s activities Monday, the Republican was facing an uncertain future.

If the FBI ultimately decides to not investigate him, he could still face other ethics inquiries.

For instance, if a complaint is filed with the Office of Congressional Ethics, Grimm could find his campaign activities coming under scrutiny even though he was not yet a Member of Congress.

“There would have to be allegations that the individual actually promised favors as a Congressman in exchange for donations … because it affects the conduct of the Member,” said Jan Baran, an elections and ethics attorney with Wiley Rein.

Because OCE “can accept any type of query or complaint from anyone in the public,” Baran said, that could trigger at least a preliminary investigation.

Baran noted that while campaign finance issues have been handled traditionally by the Federal Election Commission, OCE has begun looking into those sorts of complaints, including into “campaign contributions and whether they were in exchange for special favors from the Members.”

OCE could then recommend a formal investigation by the House Ethics Committee or the office could launch its own inquiry into the allegations.

Aside from the FBI and Congress, Grimm could also face scrutiny from the FEC.

“As a general matter, campaign finance issues are left up to the Federal Election Commission. You have many Members who have been audited or whose campaigns have been fined but there hasn’t been any related Ethics Committee” activity, Baran said.

FBI officials are trying to determine whether Grimm did in fact look to use his position as a former FBI agent to intimidate or extort campaign funding from Pinto, who leads the Shuva Israel community in New York and Israel and is extremely influential in the religious and business communities.

Former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) informed the FBI of those allegations in the fall of 2010 after Pinto confided in him that Grimm had approached him, Weiner told Roll Call late last week.

According to sources, Pinto made the allegations after he broke off relations with Ofer Biton, a former translator and top aide to the rabbi who has been accused of stealing funds from his congregation. According to news reports, Pinto broke off relations with Biton in March 2010. Pinto came to Weiner with his concerns about Grimm in the fall of that year, weeks before Grimm’s election to the House.

The New York Times earlier this year reported on allegations being leveled by members of Pinto’s flock that Grimm worked with Biton to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars from members of the congregation and helped set up straw donors to funnel Grimm the cash.

Grimm and Biton have strenuously denied those charges, and Grimm’s camp has strongly denied Weiner’s charge that he pressured the rabbi or sought to extort campaign funding from him.

Supporters of Grimm have charged that the allegations are nothing more than a politically motivated smear campaign being orchestrated by Democrats.

In a statement put out over the weekend, former Rep. Guy Molinari (R-N.Y.) called the allegations “a coordinated smear campaign that is fraught with inconsistencies, innuendoes through anonymous sources and outright lies.”

Molinari specifically blamed Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) of fearing that “Grimm will have a big re-election victory that could catapult him to top contender status for a state-wide seat, possibly to challenge Schumer himself for the Senate or even governor. Either way, they are frightened of his potential and are trying to clip his wings early.” Grimm’s attorneys also said he has not been contacted by the FBI or Department of Justice, nor has he received a “target letter” from DOJ informing him he is under investigation.