TRENTON, N.J. – The spiritual leader of the Syrian Jewish community in the United States was sentenced Wednesday to two years of unsupervised probation for using a charity he controlled to illegally funnel money to Israel.
Dressed in a black suit and a traditional black hat, 89-year-old Rabbi Saul Kassin appeared frail and confused Tuesday, asking his lawyers to explain to him what was happening and accusing the FBI and the court of unfairly targeting him.
"You did all this to me under almighty God," Kassin said in a long statement before the judge imposed his sentence. "Aggravation, sorrow, many nights I could not sleep."
U.S. District Judge Joel Pisano spared Kassin a prison sentence, citing his age, but fined him $36,750, in addition to the nearly $370,000 Kassin agreed to forfeit after he was caught up in New Jersey's largest-ever corruption bust.
The chief rabbi of Congregation Sharee Zion in Brooklyn, N.Y., Kassin pleaded guilty in March to one count of unauthorized money transmitting. According to the criminal complaint, he had used the Magen Israel Society, a charity he controlled, to deposit thousands of dollars in checks from Solomon Dwek, the son of another New Jersey rabbi. Kassin then issued checks to other organizations at Dwek's behest, taking a 10 percent commission.
Dwek had become a cooperating witness for the FBI after pleading guilty to a $50 million bank fraud, wearing a wire as he presented the illegal deal to Kassin as part of a federal sting operation dubbed Operation Bid Rig.
Despite pleading guilty and admitting to his role in court documents submitted by his legal team, Kassin absolved himself of guilt Wednesday, citing his lifetime of charitable activities, invoking Torah teachings that guide his life and reading from one of what he said was hundreds of support letters he had received.
That led the judge to advise the rabbi that equivocating on his guilt now could jeopardize his lenient sentence. Kassin could have faced 18 to 24 months in prison under federal sentencing guidelines.
Pisano said Kassin's old age — not his lifetime of good deeds or service to his community — was the reason he declined to incarcerate the white-bearded rabbi.
"When somebody comes in here and sits where you are sitting, you're just another citizen," Pisano said.
But the judge seemed most surprised at a brazen request by Kassin to have the $367,500 he forfeited returned to him.
"I want that money back, to donate it," Kassin said, his chair quivering slightly as he spoke. "They kept it for two years almost — it's enough."
Pisano quickly snubbed that request, saying Kassin bore the blame for any misfortune that befell the beneficiaries of his charity as a result of his knowing participation in an economic crime.
Though Kassin lives in Brooklyn, he appeared before a federal court in New Jersey because the illegal money transfer took place in Deal, N.J., an insular enclave of the Syrian Jewish community where many of New York's Syrian Jews vacation in the summer. Two other rabbis from Deal were among 46 people arrested in 2009 as part of the federal sting that also ensnared high-level elected officials and public workers.
The ongoing investigation became New Jersey's largest-ever corruption bust and a ready-made media spectacle. About half of those charged later pleaded guilty.
Josh Lederman can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/joshledermanAP