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Contradictions Abound for Israeli at Center of Mcgreevey Resignation

August 17, 2004
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Golan Cipel is the petty officer who said he fought terrorists while in the Israeli army, the Israeli consulate information officer who called himself a counterterrorism specialist, the homeland security honcho who couldn’t get security clearance. Now that people close to New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey have identified the Israeli as the gay lover who brought the governor down, Cipel is saying he is neither gay nor a lover to McGreevey.

The Democratic governor’s relationship with Cipel, who served for a time as McGreevey’s liaison to the Jewish community, led to the governor’s admission last week that he is gay — and to his resignation from the governor’s seat he has held since 2002.

McGreevey admitted to a relationship with a man, but did not go into details; staff members have named Cipel.

“I realize the fact of this affair and my own sexuality, if kept secret, leaves me, and most importantly the governor’s office, v! ulnerable to rumors, false allegations and threats of disclosure,” McGreevey said at a televised news conference announcing his resignation on Aug. 12. “So I am removing these threats by telling you directly about my sexuality.”

In an interview this weekend with the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot, Cipel, 35, vigorously denied a consensual affair with the 42-year-old governor.

“It doesn’t bother me that it is said I am gay, but I really am not, I’m straight,” Cipel said. “He hit on me over and over. It got to a point where I was afraid to stay with him alone.”

It’s not the first time in his career that Cipel has been at the center of contradictory accounts, nor is it the first time that such accounts rocked McGreevey’s administration.

Much of the murkiness had to do with Cipel’s experience with the Israeli military and later with its foreign service.

Cipel was dogged by controversy within weeks of his appointment in January 2002 as homeland security adv! iser by the just-installed McGreevey administration.

For one thing, federal homeland security officials would not grant the Israeli national the clearance necessary to read the material that was critical to carrying out the job.

The substantial experience in public security the McGreevey administration attributed to Cipel appeared on closer look to be at best inflated, according to investigative reporting in 2002 for Gannett’s New Jersey newspapers by Sandy McClure in New Jersey and Yossi Melman, a veteran investigative reporter with the daily Ha’aretz in Israel.

Among other presumed qualifications cited by McClure in a letter from McGreevey’s chief counsel to the immigration service were:

His experience as chief information officer at the New York Consulate General, which the letter said “involved responsibility for developing and maintaining the country’s terrorism portfolio, keeping government authorities abreast of terrorist activities and threats, maintaining a database of such activities.”

In fact, Cipel was employe! d as a local hire by the New York consulate in the mid-1990s and lacked the clearance to read security-sensitive material that someone hired in Jerusalem would have had. He dealt with the media and was never involved in anything related to terrorism, then-consul general Colette Avital said, according to the newspaper investigations.

“As a Naval officer in the Israel Defense Force, Mr. Cipel functioned as a special operations officer and was appointed as media adviser, disseminating data on military operations and anti-terrorism measures to the media while insuring that sensitive information was not disclosed,” the letter said.

Cipel indeed served in the Navy, Melman told JTA, but the “media adviser” description apparently referred to his reserve duty on the homeland, which, according to Melman, is “basically considered one of the lowest commands in the Israeli general staff.”

When the investigation came to light, Republicans and some Democrats were soon on th! e warpath.

“He wasn’t going to be able to pass the simplest of four -way background checks to be a state trooper,” Guy Gregg, a Republican state assemblyman, said at the time.

Cipel resigned his position with the McGreevey government in August 2002.

McGreevey’s friend and campaign donor Charles Kushner — himself now the target of a federal investigation involving alleged blackmail — helped find Cipel work.

He went through a quick round of highly paid P.R. jobs. He lost them, reportedly, because he kept failing to turn up for work.

The contradictory accounts of Cipel’s career continue to pile up. McGreevey’s staff accuse Cipel of trying to extort as much as $50 million from the governor, according to news reports.

Cipel’s lawyers say the figure they wanted to settle what they said was a sexual harassment suit was much lower. They now say they have not decided yet whether to go ahead with the suit.

A deal was in the offing when McGreevey suddenly resigned, Cipel’s lawyers say; No such thing, say McGreevey’s staff. One thing is clear and acknowledged by all sides: Cipel and McGreevey met on a trip McGreevey took to Israel in 2000 that was sponsored by New Jersey federations, when McGreevey was the mayor of Woodbridge, N.J., with an eye on the state house.

The two men instantly clicked, say those who witnessed the encounter at a wedding hall in Rishon le-Zion, the Tel Aviv suburb where Cipel worked as a municipal spokesman.

Cipel insisted his first encounters with McGreevey were not at all romantic.

“McGreevey seemed very impressed with my knowledge of the American political scene,” he said in another interview over the weekend with Ha’aretz.

McGreevey offered Cipel a campaign job almost immediately, and soon Cipel was on his way to New Jersey to help out with the gubernatorial campaign.

The sudden move caught his boss, Rishon Mayor Meir Nitzan, a little off-guard.

“He was a good worker, organized but not outstanding,” Nitzan told JTA. “The whole story surpris! es me. I guess it shows you work with people but do not really know th em.”

Campaign staffers found Cipel an apartment close to McGreevey’s condominium when he arrived in the United States.

Later, McGreevey himself reportedly viewed a townhouse Cipel was to buy before the purchase was completed.

Even after he left the administration, Cipel maintained his role as an unofficial liaison between McGreevey and the Jewish community.

David Mallach, former director of the MetroWest, N.J. Jewish Community Relations Council, said his group encountered no problems working with Cipel.

“For a guy like Jim McGreevey, who already had a lot of good Jewish relationships, Cipel’s role wasn’t a key one,” Mallach said.

Others who know both men say Cipel’s claim of no consensual relationship will be a hard sell.

David Twersky, who was then the editor of the New Jersey Jewish News, was friends with both men, and said he warned them both that their relationship was obvious and would eventually cost them dearly.

Cipel denied a relationship! , and McGreevey dismissed Twersky’s concerns without outright denying it, Twersky recalled.

“He would have had to leave Israel and come to New Jersey, work for the campaign, all the while resisting McGreevey’s advances, nevertheless getting this plum job, leaving it only to get a series of high-paying lobbyist jobs on the recommendation of a man who was frustrated,” said Twersky, now the international affairs director for the American Jewish Congress.

“It is absolutely preposterous, it makes no sense, it is ridiculous on the face of it.”

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