Child Abuse Case Tests the Freedom of Information Law

With extradition unlikely in the foreseeable future, the case has become a struggle between Lawyer Michael Lesher and Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes (above).

A decades-long investigation into allegations of child molesting against an Orthodox rabbi has also ignited a battle over New York’s Freedom of Information laws that may have ripple effects nationwide, The Jewish Daily Forward reported.

Attorney and journalist Michael Lesher argued on Feb. 14 in New York State’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, for Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes to release documents concerning the failed extradition of Avrohom Mondrowitz.

Mondrowitz, an American Orthodox rabbi, fled to Israel from Brooklyn in 1984 before he was formally charged for sodomizing five boys. After failed extradition attempts, Mondrowitz remains in Israel, in jail since 2007.

The Forward highlights the tension between the lawyer and the district attorney. For years, Lesher has fought to release documents from the Mondrowitz case, but Hynes has said that doing so would violate the civil rights of the victims and damage his case.

Lesher, who represents six alleged Jewish victims, has long accused Hynes of dragging his heels on extraditing Mondrowitz from Israel. He claims that Hynes has feared upsetting Brooklyn’s bloc-voting Orthodox Jewish community since taking up the elected post in 1990. He believes the files stored in Hynes’ office could prove it.

While Mondrowitz remains in Israel for the foreseeable future, the District Attorney’s handling of the case is at issue, The Jewish Week explains:

Lesher, who represents several Orthodox alleged victims of Mondrowitz at no charge, believes the documents may shed light on why efforts to extradite Mondrowitz stalled for so many years and to what extent, if any, pressure from the politically powerful ultra-Orthodox community played a role.

“This record ought to show us something about what Hynes’ office was really doing while Mondrowitz’s victims struggled to have him brought back to face justice — its actions, its considerations, its motives and any outside pressures brought to bear on the D.A,” Lesher told the Jewish Week.

Lesher’s freedom of information case before the Court of Appeals is still pending, but The Jewish Daily Forward notes that the outcome could affect other cases across the United States.

Freedom of information specialists said the court battle could have wide-ranging implications for similar cases across the country, where government agencies have been similarly obstructive when requested to release documents.

Robert Freeman, executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government, said state freedom of information laws nationwide are founded on the same principles.

“They say government records are supposed to be exposed except to the extent that an exception can be properly applied,” said Freeman.
“If the Court of Appeals reverses [the lower court’s decision] and requires disclosure, my guess is it might serve as a message to other jurisdictions,” Freeman said.

In May 2009, a Kings County Supreme Court judge handed Lesher a short-lived victory, according to the Forward.

A Kings County Supreme Court judge agreed with such a position when it found, in May 2009, that Hynes’s office had to disclose correspondence with federal agencies that regarded Mondrowitz “subject to redactions.”

Hynes appealed that decision, and won, in January 2011.

Still, as Lesher awaits the results of his appeal, he remains optimistic.

Lesher said that because federal and state freedom of information laws are similar, if he wins in the Court of Appeals it may have a “ripple effect,” forcing the federal agencies to turn over their papers, too.

“I don’t usually win,” Lesher said. But with one Supreme Court decision in his favor, “I am confident I am going to prevail.”

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