Supreme Court Nixes Appeal by 'Spiritual Guru' Rabbi Who Bribed Cop

Wealthy and charismatic Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto had sought leniency vis-a-vis 1-year jail term, now set to begin next month.

Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto, center, in the Supreme Court in November, 2015. His appeal for a reduced sentence was turned down and he will start his one-year term next month.
Olivier Fitoussi

Israel's Supreme Court turned down an appeal on Tuesday by Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto over the one-year jail that he received following his conviction for bribery in a plea agreement.

The charismatic ultra-Orthodox rabbi, who has had a following of prominent Israelis and who was also popular in New York, admitted to bribery and attempted bribery of Maj. Gen. Efraim Bracha, the head of the national fraud unit of the Israel Police. Pinto also admitted to obstruction of justice. Following the denial of the rabbi's appeal by a three-justice panel, he will now began serving his one-year sentence on February 16 at Nitzan Prison in Ramle.

Supreme Court Justice Menachem Mazuz called Pinto’s appeal an attempt to "in one way or another, evade the agreements he had arrived at with the state in the context of a plea bargain.”

Mazuz added that all the arguments Pinto was attempting to present on appeal had already been taken into consideration in that agreement.

“The punishment that was imposed is the absolute minimum required by the rabbi’s acts and we have no choice but to confirm it,” said Mazuz.

The plea deal did not stipulate a specific punishment, which was left to the Tel Aviv District Court to decide. It ruled last May that he would serve a one-year sentence, which is what the prosecution had suggested, and pay a one-million-shekel fine.

Rejecting the request by Avidgor Feldman, Pinto’s lawyer, that the jail term be reduced to community service due to the rabbi’s medical problems, Mazuz said Tuesday that poor health is not grounds for easing punishment because the Israel Prison Service can provide the prisoner with the medical treatment he needs.

For his part, Feldman contended that the district court did not fully consider the terms of the punishment when imposing its sentence, despite recognizing circumstances that could have called for leniency.

Pinto is thought to be one of Israel’s wealthiest rabbis. The great-grandson of a famous Moroccan-born mystic known as the Baba Sali, he amassed his fortune while serving as "spiritual guru" to the rich and powerful in Israel, New York and elsewhere.

Pinto was indicted in September, 2014, for giving 400,000 shekels ($102,000) in bribes to Bracha, whom he had known since 2007 and who had regularly attended events the rabbi had organized. Last July, Bracha committed suicide.

While his appeal was pending, Pinto left the country with the permission of the court to receive medical treatment in the United States. Twice he failed to return after promising to do so; ultimately, he came back to Israel in late October. On one occasion, his lawyers said, the rabbi collapsed at the door of the plane that was to bring him to Israel and was hospitalized in New York.

The plea deal was struck followed protracted negotiations, during which Pinto provided information seen as incriminating Maj. Gen. Menashe Arviv, the former head of the Lahav 433 unit of the police, which is sometimes referred to as the Israeli FBI. That investigation is ongoing and no decision has been made on whether criminal charges will be filed against Arviv.

In handing down his ruling on Pinto's punishment last May, Tel Aviv District Court Judge Oded Mudrik accepted the prosecution’s request for a 12-month jail term and rejected a defense request for probation, or at most community service, based on Pinto’s medical situation and family issues. Mudrik said if it had not been for the plea agreement, his minimum sentence would have been two years in prison. However, he and the Supreme Court concurred that the agreement was not unreasonable and that there were no grounds to interfere with it.