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New York Paroles for Sale

In January 1997 the parents of a young Korean prisoner walked into the Brooklyn offices of federal prosecutor Zachary Carter to report that a volunteer fund raiser for Republican Governor Pataki said he would use his influence to win parole for their son if they contributed to the Governor's campaign war chest. They contributed, but their son remains in jail. Thus began a federal investigation which brought about the grand jury indictment of Parole Commissioner Sean McSherry on counts including lying, perjury, and obstruction of justice, and the arrest of Ronald Hotaling, a former special assistant to the Division of Parole, charged with giving "false, evasive and misleading" information to a grand jury and to a special deputy in the investigation.

The scandal was first exposed in the Daily News April 1998 story of John Kim, "armed robber, ... who had two big assets: a model record as a [prisoner] and politically connected allies who contacted parole officials on his behalf." He had been sentenced in 1992 to 4 to 12 years. His father, Nam Soo Kim, is pastor of the Full Gospel Church of New York, one of the city's largest Korean congregations. The elder Kim hired attorney Edward Hammock, a former Parole Board chairman and, at the suggestion of businessman Yung Soo Yoo, Republican fund-raiser for Pataki and member of his transition team, donated $1,000 to Pataki's campaign coffers in 1995. According to the News, Kim also spoke with Grace Koh, a member of his congregation and Pataki's $41,000 a year adviser on Asian American affairs. Koh then wrote to the 19-member parole board and called parole officials on behalf of pastor Kim's son. A three member panel of the board unanimously granted young Kim parole in April 1996, against the recommendation of the prosecuting attorney. Kim is now a student at a New Jersey college.

McSherry, appointed Parole Commissioner by Cuomo in 1989, and questioned after the federal investigation began eight years later, said he was unable to recall the hearing in the John Kim case. Nevertheless, he testified to the grand jury in August 1998 that he "suddenly recalled the events while riding a roller coaster." He told the grand jury he had known nothing of Kim's case or the money donated by Kim's father until he learned of them from a parole officer, Nicholas Daisernia. According to the indictment, however, Daisernia never made any such statement. He also claimed his decision to parole Kim angered parole officer, Thomas Burke. Burke, he said, argued against Kim's release. At the time of the Kim hearing, however, Burke was on vacation in another state.

The families of two other young Korean prisoners together contributed $21,500 to Pataki's campaign, hoping to win parole for their sons. One's parole has not come up, the other's was denied. Pataki's offices refunded the contributions pointing out that this proves contributions do not sway parole decisions.

Shlomo Helbrans, a Hassidic rabbi imprisoned for having kidnapped a young student in his charge was moved to a work-release program by state officials in June 1996. Actually, however, he was ineligible for the program since federal officials wanted to deport him; the transfer was rescinded when the federal prosecutor, Alan Vinegrad, who had originally charged Helbrans, protested. He was told senior state officials had ordered the transfer.

Appeals were made on Helbrans' behalf by Pataki fund raiser, Leon Perlmutter, prominent in the Satmar Hasidic sect, a group courted by Democratic and Republican politicians alike. Pataki's coffers were $45,000 richer as a result of Perlmutter's connections: one Satmar businessman, Abraham Lefkowitz, contributed that amount for himself and through his company in 1994. Rabbi Helbrans was paroled in November 1996; he is now running a yeshiva in upstate New York and fighting deportation to Israel. Perlmutter was also influential in the release of two Israeli drug dealers, Ziv Oved and Moshe Cohen, released and sent to Israel in 1996. Neither completed even the minimum term of his sentence. The chairman of the panel that approved Oved's and Cohen's release was Pataki's appointee and nearby Putnam county neighbor, Brion Travis.

Paul Shechtman, then criminal justice director and director of the Division of Parole, had objected to the inclusion of the two drug traffickers in Pataki's deportation program. A deputy director of the Division, Edward Mruczek, had also expressed his dissatisfaction with the idea of releasing Oved and Cohen to Shechtman, who had conveyed all of this to Perlmutter, according to the New York Daily News . Shechtman, it should be noted, was responsible for sending the names of prisoners eligible for parole to the three-member parole board panels.

According to an October 9, 1998 story in Newsday, "A member of the state Conservative Party, McSherry's late father was a friend of Conservative Chairman Michael Long. McSherry has given $750 this year [1998] to the Conservative Party, which is a major Pataki backer." Long backed him for the Parole Board post and characterizes him as a good guy; "there is no way he could be involved in any criminal activity," he told Newsday . A month after his grand jury appearances McSherry went on medical leave from his $76,461 job. He faces up to 40 years in prison and $250,000 fine if he is convicted on all the charges; arrested after the indictment, he was released on $15,000 bail. Hotaling, who had been special assistant to the Parole Board until 1996, for his part, pleaded not guilty to obstruction of justice and faces a maximum of 10 years in prison if he is indicted and convicted; he was freed on $10,000 bail.

These two are not alone, according to Newsday . "Several Pataki aides and fund raisers, including ... most recently state economic development czar Charles Gargano, have testified before Brooklyn grand juries investigating allegations that parole favors or state contracts were exchanged for political contributions to Pataki's campaign."

That the accusation of Hotaling and the indictment of McSherry came less than a month before the gubernatorial elections of November 1998 was not missed by Pataki's backers: "The timing of this certainly smacks of politics," said Michael Marr, a Pataki campaign spokesman.

Zachary Carter, the federal prosecutor in the case, was appointed by President Clinton.

Sources: New York Times, Daily News, Newsday

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