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Barry Freundel had been the spiritual leader of Georgetown's Kesher Israel since 1989. By Benjamin Freed
Kesher Israel. Photograph by Flickr user Adam Fagen.

Georgetown's Kesher Israel synagogue is officially searching for a new spiritual leader after its board of directors fired Rabbi Barry Freundel, who was charged in October with six counts of voyeurism after being accused of placing hidden video cameras in a women's changing room. The modern Orthodox congregation, which suspended Freundel following his October 14 arrest, made the firing official in a statement on its website Monday.

"Since the day of his arrest, Rabbi Freundel had been suspended from Kesher Israel without pay," the statement reads. "Based on last week's action by the Board of Directors, his relationship with Kesher Israel has permanently ended. As he is required to do under his contract, Rabbi Freundel has been asked to vacate the rabbinic residence by January 1, 2015."

Moving trucks were spotted November 3 outside the O Street, Northwest, home occupied by Freundel, who joined Kesher in 1989, and his family. The house, located a few blocks away from the synagogue, is owned by a family trust connected to Kesher. The synagogue counts many high-profile Jews among its congregants, including Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, former Senator Joe Lieberman, and New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier.

Freundel faces up to six years in prison for allegedly hiding cameras in a women's locker room at the National Capital Mikvah, a ritual bath used by observant Jews. Since his arrest, other Jewish organizations have distanced themselves from Freundel, including the Rabbinical Council of America, a major Orthodox governing body that investigated Freundel in 2012 in response to complaints that he behaved inappropriately around prospective female converts. Police also found tiny video cameras in Freundel's office at Towson University, where he was a visiting professor.

The statement released today also notes that Fruendel has been officially tossed from his role as the mikvah's supervising rabbi.

"The alleged acts leading to this step were a gross violation of law, privacy, halakha,"—Jewish law—"and trust," the Kesher statement reads. "They breached the high moral and ethical standards we set for ourselves and for our leadership. Our collective heart breaks for the consequences, both seen and unseen, of these alleged acts to all the potential victims and our entire community."

Freundel was released on his own recognizance following his arraignment and is scheduled to appear in court January 15. The office of US Attorney Ron Machen has set up a website and telephone hotline for people who believe they may be victims of the alleged peeping.

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

Posted at 12:46 PM/ET, 12/01/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Prosecutors are getting ready to indict the DC mayor, but they'll have a hard time proving it in court. By Harry Jaffe
Photograph via Flickr user chesbayprogram.

In the game of chicken between US Attorney Ronald Machen and his prey, DC Mayor Vince Gray, the prey seems to have the upper hand.

According to Mike DeBonis’s story in today’s Washington Post, Machen, pursuing Gray for alleged campaign-finance irregularities, offered the mayor a deal: plead to one felony count and avoid further prosecution.

Gray’s response: No dice.

It's worth noting that the offer was relayed through Gray's attorney, Bob Bennett, the mayor was not in the room. Bennett has steadfastly refused to allow Gray to speak to federal officials, a smart move in a case in which, as with so many corruption investigations, several people have gone down for lying to the feds.

Instead, Bennett and Gray are forcing Machen to prove his case on its own merits, in court. That puts Machen in the position of weighing whether he has enough to convince a jury. Does he?

“They apparently have not come up with the proverbial smoking gun,” says one defense attorney who has represented public officials in federal cases.

If neither the FBI agents on the case, nor Machen's prosecutors have not found an e-mail, a document, a recorded conversation, or other hard evidence that would convince a jury that Gray knew of the off-the-books campaign fund, testimony from witnesses that Gray knew of the dirty money amounts to hearsay.

Jeff Thompson, the alleged mastermind of the shadow campaign, fingered Gray for personally asking for his dirty cash in March when he pleaded guilty to illegally funneling more than $2 million to Gray’s 2010 bid and other political campaigns. That was good enough to get Thompson off with a relatively light sentence. But how would it sound to jurors if Thompson gets grilled on the witness stand by Vince Gray’s defense attorneys?

The pressure is mounting on Machen to show that his public corruption crusade has been successful. He’s scored guilty pleas from three DC council members and five of Gray’s campaign aides. But the probe is getting moldy as it completes its fourth year. Though he can extend his tenure, if Gray chooses to go to trial, the prosecutor might be passing the case on to his successor.

At this point that all adds up to advantage Gray.

Sources close to the case said Gray was also asked if he would consider pleading to a misdemeanor. His response: no dice.

Posted at 04:36 PM/ET, 11/18/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Barry Freundel has lived at the house owned by the Kesher Israel synagogue for at least 16 years. By Harry Jaffe

Moving trucks are scheduled to show up at the Georgetown home of Rabbi Barry Freundel Monday, according to signs posted in front of his home on O Street, not far from the Kesher Israel synagogue that provided the house for its longtime religious leader.

Freundel was arrested October 14 and charged with six counts of voyeurism for allegedly hiding video cameras in the synagogue's mikvah, a ritual bath, to record women as they undressed and showered before entering. Police officers were seen carting computers and hard drives out of Freundel's house on the day of the arrest.

Freundel, 62, pleaded not guilty and was released on his own recognizance, while police and prosecutors investigate videos and forensic evidence. He is scheduled to appear before a status hearing on November 12. The US Attorney’s office has set up a website for potential victims.

Signs posted on the street listed Freundel’s wife, Sharon, for contact information. Calls to her were not returned. The O Street home, which is owned by a trust with ties to Kesher Israel, has been the Freundels' home for at least 16 years. Fruendel has been rabbi at Kesher Israel, a modern orthodox synagogue, since 1989. The congregation includes such luminaries as former Senator Joe Lieberman and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.

In addition to being Kesher Israel’s spiritual leader, Freundel has also been a visiting professor at several colleges around Washington and an administrative leader in the greater Orthodox community. He held teaching positions at the University of Maryland, Georgetown Law School, and Towson University. He was suspended from Kesher Israel and the universities following his arrest.

Students in Freundel’s classes at Towson University told investigators he encouraged them to use the National Capital Mikvah, opened next door to Kesher Israel in 2005.

The Rabbinical Council of America, the country’s primary group for Orthodox rabbis, reported that it had received complaints in 2012 from women about Freundel forcing them to do clerical work, but none led to any disciplinary action. The organization has also suspended Freundel from its ranks since his arrest.

Meanwhile, investigators have found enough evidence to charge Freundel with six counts of spying on women, but they are checking video cameras and computers they seized from his home and his office at Towson University for more evidence.

There is no indication where Fruendel and his family are headed.

Find Harry Jaffe on Twitter at @harryjaffe.

Posted at 10:52 AM/ET, 11/03/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Barry Freundel was investigated by his fellow rabbis for allegedly mistreating potential converts. By Benjamin Freed
Rabbi Barry Freundel outside DC Superior Court after he pleaded not guilty to voyeurism charges. Photograph by Harry Jaffe.

The Rabbinical Council of America, a major governing body for the United States Orthodox Jewish community, says in a press release Monday that it investigated Georgetown Rabbi Barry Freundel, who was charged last week with six counts of voyeurism, back in 2012 over accusations that he acted inappropriately with prospective converts. The accusations reviewed by the rabbinical group were not sexual in nature, but they do suggest Freundel's alleged activities began well before his arrest at his home last Tuesday.

Freundel, who pleaded not guilty to the voyeurism charges, was investigated by his fellow rabbis two years ago after conversion candidates at Kesher Israel complained that he had coerced them to perform clerical work for him and contribute money for the operation of Washington's beit din, a ritual Jewish tribunal. Freundel headed the group of rabbis overseeing conversions from 2006 to 2013. According to the rabbinical council's statement, Freundel was also found to be a co-signer for a checking account opened by one of his converts, which triggered an investigation. Freundel avoided punishment in the matter as long as he stopped using conversion candidates for office work and financial donations.

The Rabbinical Council of America looked into Freundel again in summer 2013 after it received a phone call from a person alleging that Freundel shared a sleeper car with a woman who was not his wife on a Chicago-bound train. That investigation was dropped after the organization could not verify the authenticity of the tipster, who claimed he was a railroad worker.

Freundel, who was suspended by Kesher Israel's board of directors following his arrest, is also suspended from the rabbinical council. But his arrest is rippling through US Orthodox Judaism. The council says that in light of charges that Freundel allegedly placed a hidden camera in a women's changing room next to Kesher Israel's mikvah, a ritual bath frequented by prospective converts, every beit din that oversees conversions will appoint a female ombudsman whose name and contact information will be distributed at the beginning of the conversion process.

Posted at 03:39 PM/ET, 10/20/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Rabbi Barry Freundel pleaded not guilty to six counts of misdemeanor voyeurism. By Benjamin Freed, Harry Jaffe
Rabbi Barry Freundel leaves DC Superior Court after pleading not guilty to voyeurism charges. Photograph by Harry Jaffe.

Disheveled and disoriented, Rabbi Barry Freundel walked out of DC Superior Court Wednesday after US marshals unlocked the chains he wore into the basement hearing room for his arraignment hearing on six counts of misdemeanor voyeurism.

Wearing a buttoned-down blue shirt, jeans, and a yarmulke, Freundel, 62, pleaded not guilty to allegations that he videotaped at least six women in a showering and changing room at Georgetown's Kesher Israel synagogue using a camera disguised as a clock radio, according to court documents filed Wednesday. He appeared in DC Superior Court today following his arrest yesterday on a misdemeanor voyeurism charge.

Prosecutors say Freundel placed the recording device in the changing room used by women headed into the synagogue's mikvah, a ritual bath used by observant Jews. In the Orthodox community, female worshipers often participate in the mikvah as a cleansing ritual following menstruation or childbirth. Police found recordings of women undressing or changing from as early as June, according to the court documents.

"This is just the beginning of the investigation," prosecutor Sharon Marcus-Kurn said during the hearing. "There are serious potential criminal charges here."

One video dated September 13 shows Freundel manipulating the device with the camera pointed directly at his face, according to a police affidavit. An additional six videos recovered by police show another four women undressing or changing clothes before taking a shower. Freundel is also seen on a video dated October 6, the affidavit reads.

The investigation into the alleged mikvah peeping was quick, according to the charging documents filed in court. A person associated with the mikvah told the Metropolitan Police Department on Sunday that Freundel had been seen plugging in an object that looked like the recording device found this week. Police obtained an emergency warrant Monday evening to retrieve the device and examine its contents.

Freundel was arrested Tuesday morning at his Georgetown home a few blocks away from Kesher Israel in a scene that attracted a large police presence to an normally quiet block. Officers also collected a computer and several hard drives from Freundel's home, according to eyewitnesses of the arrest.

Kesher Israel's board of directors suspended Freundel without pay indefinitely, and the synagogue released a statement Tuesday night saying that it has been cooperating with law enforcement.

As the rabbi of Kesher Israel, a modern Orthodox synagogue that counts many high-profile Jewish Washingtonians among its members, Freundel has been the spiritual leader for individuals including Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, former senator Joe Lieberman, and New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier. He's also had teaching appointments at several regional colleges, including Towson University, which also suspended him.

Freundel was released without bond and will next appear in court November 12. While police already seized Freundel's passport, Judge William Nooter declined Marcus-Kurn's request that the rabbi be outfitted with a GPS monitor. Freundel was also ordered to stay away from Kesher Israel, as well as from individuals to whom he administered mikvah rites or with whom he counseled on converting to Judaism.

Find Benjamin Freed and Harry Jaffe on Twitter at @brfreed and @harryjaffe.

Charging papers against Rabbi Barry Freundel

Posted at 04:57 PM/ET, 10/15/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Freundel, 62, is being charged with voyeurism. By Harry Jaffe, Benjamin Freed

Uniformed officers and plainclothes detectives swarmed a house at 30th and O streets, Northwest, at about 8:30 Tuesday morning. According to neighbors, the house belongs to Barry Freundel, the rabbi at Kesher Israel, a prominent Orthodox synagogue in Georgetown. The neighbors say Freundel was led away in handcuffs by Metropolitan Police Department officers following what appeared to be a major investigation. Cops were later seen removing computers and other items from the residence.

"You don't usually see a rabbi led away a handcuffs," said Michael Friedman, who lives across the street from Freundel.

Police sources confirmed the investigation and the arrest, but said the warrant was sealed. "We're still on the scene," says MPD spokesperson Gwendolyn Crump.

Kesher Israel. Photograph by Harry Jaffe.

Any charges against Freundel are still unknown. A female voice behind the locked front door of Freundel's house declined Washingtonian's request for an interview after the cops left the block. "Sorry, he's not here right now," the voice said.

As Kesher Israel's rabbi, Freundel is the spiritual leader to a congregation that counts Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and former senator Joe Lieberman among its many influential members. Synagogue members contacted by Washingtonian said they are unaware of today's incident.

Freundel has been at Kesher Israel since 1989, and also serves as the vice president of the Rabbinnical Council of Greater Washington, the Orthodox body that supervises kosher dietary laws.

UPDATE, 3 PM: Crump confirms Freundel's arrest and says the rabbi is being charged with voyeurism.

UPDATE, 11:25 PM: In a statement, Kesher Israel's board of directors says Freundel has been suspended without pay.

"This is a painful moment for Kesher Israel Congregation and the entire Jewish community," the statement reads. "At this challenging time, we draw strength from our faith, our tradition, and our fellow congregants. Upon receiving information regarding potentially inappropriate activity, the Board of Directors quickly alerted the appropriate officials. Throughout the investigation, we cooperated fully with law enforcement and will continue to do so."

Kreundel, 62, is expected to appear in DC Superior Court on Wednesday.

Find Harry Jaffe and Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @harryjaffe and @brfreed.

Posted at 01:00 PM/ET, 10/14/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Chief Cathy Lanier says cops wearing cameras will make investigations easier. By Benjamin Freed
Photograph by Flickr user Tommy Wells.

Starting next week, some DC police officers will be patrolling the streets while cameras are rolling. DC Police Chief Cathy Lanier and Mayor Vince Gray announced Wednesday the launch of a Metropolitan Police Department pilot program that will test out body-mounted cameras on cops making their rounds.

Lanier said 160 officers, spread across MPD’s seven districts, have volunteered to wear cameras while they’re on duty as part of the initial launch. The officers will be testing out five different camera models mounted on their shirts, shoulders, or heads. If the $1 million pilot goes well, Lanier said, MPD’s entire roster of nearly 4,000 officers could be sporting cameras within two or three years.

Outfitting officers with constantly recording video cameras could greatly increase the police department’s transparency. Currently, much of the available footage of DC police is taken by bystanders and shared online, which can lead to ugly encounters such one earlier this month in which an officer hassled a person legally recording an arrest outside the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library in downtown.

“It’s not like we’re not being taped every day,” Lanier said. “We’re the last ones to get cameras.”

Lanier said she’s consulted with both the Fraternal Order of Police and the American Civil Liberties Union on the camera program. But putting cameras on cops doesn’t allay every concern about police transparency. The ACLU has voiced concerns about cameras recording when officers enter private residences without planning to use force (such as a SWAT raid) and whether officers could be able to “edit on the fly.” Lanier said MPD will destroy footage after 90 days unless it’s part of an investigation. The videos will also be available for public access under the District’s Freedom of Information Act, she said.

Body-mounted cameras could also make police work less murky, Lanier said, by allowing supervising officers to review video rather than rely only on witnesses’ after-the-fact recollections. There’s also been a growing public desire for police everywhere to visually document their moves since August 9 when a Ferguson, Missouri police officer fatally shot unarmed teenager Michael Brown. Gray said the MPD camera pilot was planned well before Brown’s shooting.

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

Posted at 12:53 PM/ET, 09/24/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Severance is accused of killing regional transportation chief Ron Kirby and two other Alexandria residents. By Benjamin Freed

Charles Severance. Photograph via West Virginia Regional Jail and Correctional Authority.

Prosecutors in Alexandria filed homicide charges Monday against Charles Severance in connection with three murders carried out over an 11-year span. Severance, who is currently in a Loudoun County jail awaiting trial on a gun charge, is suspected of entering the home of music teacher Ruthanne Lodato on February 6 and shooting her fatally.

Lodato’s murder bore similarities to the slaying last November of Ron Kirby, director of transportation planning for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, and in 2003 of Nancy Dunning, wife of former Alexandria Sheriff Jim Dunning.

The Alexandria Commonwealth’s Attorney is charging Severance with 10 counts, but will not seek the death penalty.

Alexandria Police started looking for connections between the three killings in March, a few weeks after Lodato’s death. Severance became a suspect while in custody in West Virginia, where he was arrested on an unrelated weapons count issued by Loudoun County. Severance was arrested in 1997 and 2005 on Virginia gun charges, and as a convicted felon, is prohibited by state and federal law from possessing a gun. A former Alexandria resident, Severance, 53, ran for mayor unsuccessfully in 1996 and 2000.

Posted at 02:10 PM/ET, 09/08/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The former governor of Virginia and his wife were charged in January on 14 counts of taking gifts from the CEO of a nutritional supplement manufacturer. By Benjamin Freed
Bob McDonnell, as seen in Johnnie R. Williams's Ferrari. Photograph via US Department of Justice.

Former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were found guilty Thursday in federal court for illegally accepting cash, luxury goods, and vacations from the chief executive of a nutritional supplement manufacturer in exchange for promotion by the state government.

A jury in federal court for the Eastern District of Virginia found the McDonnells guilty after a five-week trial that exposed long-simmering rifts between the McDonnells and Johnnie R. Williams, the former CEO of Star Scientific, who lavished the McDonnells over several years in exchange for their promotion of Anatabloc, a tobacco-based supplement made by Williams's former company.

Bob McDonnell was found guilty on 11 corruption counts while Maureen McDonnell was found guilty on eight corruption counts plus one count of obstruction of justice. Both faced a total of 14 counts. The jury of seven men and five women took a little more than two days to deliberate more than a month of testimony and arguments.

The McDonnells were charged in January, just days after leaving the governor's mansion in Richmond. Many of the allegations against the couple stemmed from their former chef, who was profiled in the February issue of Washingtonian.

Among the trials revelations were images of Bob McDonnell cruising around in a Ferrari borrowed from Williams, testimony that Maureen McDonnell had an "obsession" with the businessman, and an argument by the defense that the McDonnells' marriage was too fractured for them to build a conspiracy to cover up Williams's largesse. In total, prosecutors say the McDonnells took over $200,000 in cash, clothing, jewelry, and vacations for pushing Anatabloc on everyone from state government underlings to Ann Romney, the wife of 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

According to the Washington Post, the McDonnells were visibly emotional after the verdict was announced. The former governor "sobbed throughout the proceeding" and stared at the floor as he exited the courtroom. The McDonnells will be sentenced January 6 and each face up to 30 years in prison.

While an appeal is already considered "inevitable," the verdict marks a low point for the McDonnells and Virginia politics at large. Once short-listed as a potential vice-presidential nominee, Bob McDonnell became the first governor of Virginia to be charged—and now convicted—of a felony.

UPDATE, 3:55 PM: "Of course we will appeal," Bob McDonnell's attorney, Hank Asbill, told reporters outside the courthouse.

McDonnell's downfall is so jarring to the Virginia political establishment, it's making his successor, Terry McAuliffe, a bit misty-eyed. "I am deeply saddened by the events of the trial that ended in today’s verdict, and the impact it has had on our Commonwealth’s reputation for honesty and clean government," McAuliffe said in a statement released by his office after the verdict. "Dorothy and I will continue to pray for the McDonnell family and for everyone who was affected by this trial."

One person for whom the McAuliffes can spare their prayers: Johnnie R. Williams, the tobacco-derivative huckster turned star witness who got immunity in exchange for his testimony.

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

Posted at 02:34 PM/ET, 09/04/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Bowser's campaign has cut its ties to Lindenfeld. By Benjamin Freed
Photograph via Shutterstock.


Hours after being implicated in a Philadelphia political corruption scheme, DC political strategist Tom Lindenfeld found himself cast out of Democratic mayoral nominee Muriel Bowser's inner circle.

Bowser, who touts her patience and loyalty with people, cut her ties with Lindenfeld not long after he was identified as fitting the description of a political consultant who served as the bagman in a plot to hide an illegal $1 million loan. Such a role would be a big turn for a longtime DC political operative who relished walloping Mayor Vince Gray over the scandal surrounding his 2010 campaign and was enlisted by the Washington Post to write a high-dudgeon editorial about cleaning up municipal politics. But it appears a campaign that Lindenfeld advised in Philadelphia did not always follow his published advice.

According to documents entered in federal court Wednesday in Philadelphia, ten-term US Representative Chaka Fattah’s 2007 mayoral campaign did not disclose $1 million borrowed from a benefactor believed to be Al Lord, the former chief executive of student-loan giant Sallie Mae. The guilty plea for Fattah aide Greg Naylor states that he and his boss attempted to pay off the $1 million and other campaign loans by funneling federal grant money through nonprofit organizations and political consulting firms.

Naylor’s plea document lists “Person B,” described as “a founder and partner in a Washington, D.C. political consulting firm,” serving as the courier. The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News reported Wednesday that this characterization fits Lindenfeld, who consulted for Fattah’s 2007 race. According to plea, this individual and his company took the money around April 2007, when Fattah’s campaign looked doomed. Person B spent about $600,000 on Fattah’s behalf, including $200,000 in “walking-around money.” ("Walking-around money" is not alien to Lindenfeld's DC campaigns. Bowser's finance reports list hundreds of people who were paid up to $200 for canvassing the District in the days leading up to this year's Democratic primary on April 1.)

Person B returned the $400,000 balance after Fattah lost the 2007 election, but soon after, the source of the loan called in the other $600,000, which was not included in the campaign’s outstanding debt. With Fattah’s illicit benefactor pleading “acute financial difficulty,” prosecutors say Fattah arranged for a nonprofit organization to transfer money it received from the Sallie Mae Fund and federal grant programs to a company run by another individual identified only as “Person C.” That person’s and Person B formed a “strategic partnership” in January 2008, with the Sallie Mae and federal money first going from the nonprofit group to Person C’s company, and then onto Person B’s company, which resembles Lindenfeld's LSG Strategies, before finally being paid back to the original donor.

It was a stressful, high-stakes scheme, according an e-mail from Person B to Person C with the subject line, “You are killing me.”

“I made a commitment based on yours to me,” Person B wrote in the January 30, 2008 message. “Please don’t drag this out. I have a lot on the line.”

The transfer went through the following day, but the scheme started to unravel two months later, when the Justice Department started auditing the grant it issued to the nonprofit. Naylor’s guilty plea states that Person B’s District-based political consulting firm never did any work to justify a $600,000 payment from Person C’s outfit. Fattah is currently running for his 11th House term.

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

Posted at 11:45 AM/ET, 08/29/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()