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Seattle Rabbi Claims Innocence of Money-laundering Charge

March 23, 1988
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The director of the Chabad House here says he is innocent of federal charges he took part in an operation to launder millions of U.S. dollars and illegally transport them to Panama.

Rabbi Sholom Ber Levitin, 47 and leader of Seattle’s Hasidic community for 16 years, was arrested here last Friday along with three other suspected members of the reputed operation.

The rabbi spent three days in the Snohomish (Wash.) County Jail before being released on $50,000 bail posted Monday. In a telephone interview from his northeast Seattle home, Levitin professed his innocence. “Everything will be okay,” Levitin said. “I am definitely innocent.”

He refused to comment on his alleged role. “It will all come out in court,” he said.

Thirteen suspects including the rabbi were named in the federal complaint, following an investigation by the U.S. Customs Service, the Internal Revenue Service and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Baruch Zeltzer, 32, a resident of Chabad House in Seattle’s University District and believed to be an Israeli citizen; Avi Hazan, 24, a Seattle businessman; and Sergio Dias, 26, also of Seattle, remained in jail here as of Monday afternoon.

U.S. Customs Service special agent John Hynes said in an affidavit that Levitin, Zeltzer, Hazan and Dias received the cash. It was sent by Adi Tal, 27 , of Edison, N.J., who was arrested along with his wife, Jacqueline Tal, 26,and Nir Goldeshtein and his wife, Zoe Lawton, all of New Jersey.

According to the federal complaint, which originated in New Jersey, the Seattle suspects allegedly converted the cash to cashiers’ checks by presenting to several banks amounts of less than $10,000. Sums under $10,000 do not require the filing of currency-transaction reports under federal law.

The checks were then collected and express-shipped to Panamanian bank accounts, avoiding federal currency-reporting requirements, according to federal court papers.

Three other suspected members of the operation, Moshe Begim, Guy Marom and Alon Redko, were arrested in Los Angles.

CHARGED WITH TWO VIOLATIONS

Each suspect was charged in U.S. District Court with violating federal currency-transaction and transportation- reporting laws. If found guilty, each suspect could receive up to five years in jail and a $10,000 fine.

Adi Tal, described in the court papers as the central figure in the operation, is a former employee of El Al Israel Airlines. The court papers say that he was supervised by two men in Colombia, Enrique Kore and a suspect known only as Kimaro.

The affidavit, filed in New Jersey, describes two intercepted phone conversations between Levitin and Tal in January and March regarding the alleged money-laundering operation.

Federal officials refused to comment on the source of the money or its intended use. Indictments of Levitin and the others are expected to be forthcoming from a federal grand jury in New Jersey, according to Ron Friedman of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle.

If indicted, Levitin would then be arraigned in federal court in New Jersey, Friedman said.

Levitin’s arrest was greeted with amazement from throughout the Seattle Jewish community.

The Chabad House community issued a statement, read by Rabbi Yechezkel Kornfeld, saying that it believes Levitin to be “totally innocent” and will be proven so in court.

Chabad members and Levitin’s attorney, Murray Guterson, were bitter that U.S. Magistrate John Weinberg would not release the rabbi on his personal recognizance Friday in time for Shabbat.

Efforts to reach a spokesman at Lubavitch world headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y., were unsuccessful.

The rabbi himself thanked the community for “its overwhelming response” of support and concern.

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