standard Two Years Chasing a Tight-Lipped Cast of Characters

The initial, unsuccessful investigation of the congressman lasted two years and centered on suspicious funding for his 2010 election campaign. Many of Grimm’s business associates and other contacts were pursued during this time, often booked on separate but related charges, and pressured to testify against him. Few of them did. (Update: prosecutors have now disclosed who cooperated–see below).

Clockwise from top left: Bennett Orfaly (via Youtube), Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto (Wikimedia Commons), Josef Von Habsburg (Oakland County Sherriff's Office), Carlos Luquis (Texas Attorney General's Office), Ofer Biton (LinkedIn), and Diana Durand (LinkedIn).

Clockwise from top left: Bennett Orfaly (via Youtube), Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto (Wikimedia Commons), Josef Von Habsburg (Oakland County Sherriff’s Office), Carlos Luquis (Texas Attorney General’s Office), Ofer Biton (FailedMessiah), and Diana Durand (LinkedIn).

Brooklyn and Staten Island mafiosos. Israeli-American porn distributors. A mental patient con artist turned government informant. Shady Austin real estate developers. A fundraising paramour from Houston with questionable business practices. Imprisoned money launderers. A mystical Rabbi with a seemingly generous congregation on the Upper West Side. And a few backstabbing aides with visa trouble.

These are the characters who inhabited the universe of Congressman Michael Grimm.

Here’s a run-down:

  • Diana Durand, 47, of Houston, is Mr. Grimm’s alleged former paramour. She was arrested by the F.B.I. on a criminal complaint in January, charging she used “straw donors” to mask more than $10,000 in illegal donations to Grimm. [The New York Times.] 
  • Bennett Orfaly, a Chef, co-founded the now-infamous “Healthalicious” restaurant on the Upper East Side and ran it with Representative Grimm from 2006 to 2010 (through the defunct Granny Sayz LLC). Mr. Orfaly‘s mafia ties were well-known; he was so close with the Gambino crime family he considered captain Anthony “Fat Tony” Morelli an “uncle” and visited him frequently in Federal lockup in Fort Dix, NJ, where he is serving a tax fraud charge. [New York Post]. A civil lawsuit by former Healthalicious restaurant workers (as to unpaid wages and other claims) was settled with Orfaly; Grimm had asked that any agreement with him be postponed until after the election. [The New York Times].
  • Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto is a mystical Rabbi with congregations in Israel and the Upper West Side. The enigmatic religious leader was at the center of the original allegations of illegal fund-raising for Grimm’s 2010 campaign. Pinto’s congregation–many foreign nationals–were believed to be strong-armed into nearly $500,000 in illegal donations to Grimm’s campaign [The Brooklyn Courier]. Another story is that these donations were illegally siphoned off by aides to Grimm’s campaign [Ynet News Israel], perhaps in exchange for Grimm’s help with the aides’  visa troubles, or to fund their backstabbing efforts to discredit and ruin the Rabbi [The New York Times], or both. 
  • Pinto denied knowledge of the illegal fundraising scheme and ultimately filed a blackmail complaint against Grimm with the F.B.I., which required him to testify against Grimm [Ynet News Israel]. 
  • Separate from Grimm, Pinto has his own slew of police bribery allegations [Jewish Voice NYThe Jewish Daily Forward], both here and in the holy land, and attempts at quid pro quo deals involving cash and perks in exchange for visa help for his own family members [The Jerusalem Post]. He has been offered a plea deal, but not without a year of jail time [The Real Deal]. The planned home for the congregation’s new synagogue on the Upper West Side is now on the market. [The Real Deal]
  • Even more impressive is that the Rabbi seemingly accomplished all this without being able to speak a word of English.  [The Jewish Daily Forward].
  • Ofer Biton was one of the prominent aides to Rabbi Pinto and also a fund-raiser for Congressman Grimm, and therefore at the center the congregation-campaign-donation scandal. In August 2012, Biton was arrested for visa fraud. Federal Agents threatened him with serious charges unless he testified against Grimm. He ultimately pled guilty, receiving three years probation. [CBS New York]. But the extent of his cooperation against Grimm in exchange for the plea is unclear. [NY Daily News].
  • Carlos Luquis was a Texas luxury real estate developer Grimm invested with while still working as an F.B.I. agent. Luquis was also supposedly director of a company called Austin Refuel Transport, which Grimm co-owned since 2008. In 2006, Luquis was convicted of helping to steal $2 million from electricity customers in the State of Texas, serving 18 months in prison. [NY Daily News].
  • Ben Zion Suky is an Israeli expatriate of originally secular origins, but with increasingly religious leanings and close ties to Rabbi Pinto. He assisted the Rabbi in purchasing an apartment upon his arrival in Manhattan [The Jewish Daily Forward]. Despite his cloak of piety, Suky runs a pornography business and has had numerous run ins with the law, often involving charges of illegal distribution.  Along with Ofer Biton, Suky was another connection between the Congressman and Rabbi Pinto. Suky and his wife even donated $9,600 of their own to Grimm’s 2010 campaign [The Bensonhurst Bean]. That same year, he and the Congressman appeared on an Israeli television network program together [Yeshiva World News].
  • Josef Von Habsburg, whose full fake name was Josef Franz Prach von Habsburg-Lothringen, was known to his acquaintances as an international businessman and the heir to an Austrian royal fortune. He was actually a former mental patient and elaborate con artist whose original name was Josef Meyer or Josef Meyers. Meyer(s) worked as an undercover agent directly alongside Grimm in the F.B.I. (where several of their efforts went awry). [The New Yorker]. By 2010, he had withered away to a Michigan deadbeat dad on the run. [The Detroit News]. He was eventually caught and was sentenced to 3-to-15 years in prison for unpaid child support, but not before he was able to swindle an $80,000 commode from a Rockefeller heiress [Daily Mail].
  • A Long Island developer named Thomas Kontogiannis was sentenced to 8 years imprisonment for his $1 million bribe of Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-CA). Before he became a Congressman, Grimm pressed for a lighter charge (or no charge) for Kontogiannis, for reasons unclear. [NY Daily News]. According to unconfirmed reports, Congressman Michael Grimm, nicknamed “”Mickey Suits,” had direct illicit dealings with Kontogiannis, either for the F.B.I., the Republican Party, the Mob, or a combination [Down With Tyranny].

Though ultimately Congressman Grimm may have done himself in with his own brazen stubbornness, leading him to lie in a deposition rather than settle a civil lawsuit early [NY Daily News], the substance of which now forming the basis of the indictment against him, these characters and their loose ends no doubt gave prosecutors plenty of trails to start with, and likely hardened them into a commitment to bring Grimm down.

Update: prosecutors now reveal that Grimm’s former “Healthalicious” co-owners and co-managers have cooperated with Federal authorities and agreed to testify against him. [NY Daily News] They have furnished the prosecution with thousands of documents containing e-mails, text messages, and other corroborating communications. [Wall Street Journal] A copy of the prosecutions letter is attached here

This article is part of a series. Related articles appear below.


 

Congressman Michael Grimm (Wikimedia Commons)

Congressman Michael Grimm (Wikimedia Commons)

Brooklyn Brief: The Indictment of Congressman Michael Grimm

A synopsis of the indictment, its ramifications, the political fallout and polarized reaction (largely along party lines).


 

Screen Shot 2014-05-01 at 8.36.29 PM

Indictment Spotlights Workers in the Shadows

They work for five dollars an hour, with frequent requests to stay late, or perform additional tasks. Their tips are often stolen and their wages can go unpaid. For those in the restaurant industry’s shadow economy—catering, busing, cooking and delivery— the story of the workers who brought a civil suit against Michael Grimm is all too common.


 

IMG_1373

“Please! Everybody and their mother is in this.”

Michael Faillace represented the “Healthalicious” workers in a civil lawsuit. He is colorfully combative and unrepentant in his disgust for most restaurant owners, along with the opposing attorneys they retain. But he actually feels bad for the indicted congressman, who he believes was targeted as a “big cheese,” while abuses remain rampant. He is also fond of the use of expletives.


 

Cast of Characters

Two Years Chasing a Tight-Lipped Cast of Characters

The initial, unsuccessful investigation of the congressman lasted two years and centered on suspicious funding for his 2010 election campaign. Many of Grimm’s business associates and other contacts were pursued during this time, often booked on separate but related charges, and pressured to testify against him. It appears few of them did.


Stanley Cohen

With the Power to Indict, the Power to Condemn

It’s not just the Congressman’s case that’s suspect: prosecutions across the political and cultural spectrum are dogged by similar accusations.

 


 

Richardson_Law_021914_524

Expert Check-in: Charges are Warranted

Morghan Richardson, Esq., a criminal defense and divorce attorney, analyzes the charges. Despite the likely ubiquity of the activities alleged in the restaurant industry, the claim that the congressman maintained two sets of records was enough for prosecutors to confidently move forward.


For those presently or formerly in the crosshairs, indictments are seen as a pre-text for a political agenda. Jen Gatien recalls how one case after another was pursued to literally run her father–a prominent owner of several Manhattan nightclubs–out of town.