MANHATTAN (CN) – Once the Yiddish paper known as the “conscience of the ghetto,” the now-bilingual Jewish Daily Forward sparked righteous fury from a Brooklyn father who claims the paper smeared him with illegal wiretaps because he blew the whistle on rape in a devout and insular community.
The defamation complaint that Samuel Kellner, of Borough Park, filed Friday stems from allegations that cantor Baruch Lebovits sexually abused Kellner’s 12-year-old son and other children.
Indicted in 2008, Lebovits was convicted in Brooklyn two years later, but he was freed on appeal because of evidence withheld from his lawyers. The disgraced cantor then went after Kellner with allegedly doctored recordings depicting him as an extortionist.
For a time, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office sought to retry Lebovits while simultaneously prosecuting his accuser. The charges against Kellner were ultimately dropped as shaky, while Lebovits copped to lesser counts that shuttled him in and out of prison within 86 days this year.
Before Lebovits pleaded guilty, his family allegedly tried to revive the case against Kellner by leaking illicitly recorded tapes – including lawyer-client communications – to The Forward’s Paul Berger, who ran excerpts in a November 2013 article.
The paper’s Twitter handle @jdforward sent out a teaser: “Hear convicted extortionist Sam Kellner in his own words,” even though Kellner had not been convicted of anything, according to Kellner’s new lawsuit in Manhattan Supreme Court.
The Forward later issued a retraction and apology for the Tweet, but stood by the article.
Kellner’s 27-page defamation suit against Berger, the Forward and two related entities opens with a shot at the newspaper’s storied, muckraking reputation.
“It came to be known as the ‘as the voice of the Jewish immigrant and the conscience of the ghetto’ and ‘fought for social justice,'” Kellner says. “In November 2013, Paul Berger led it in a different direction, as the propaganda wing of a criminal conspiracy to pervert the course of justice for victims of a notorious and serial rapist of children.”
In a dig sure to sting any publication, let alone one that serves the Jewish community, the complaint then likens the Forward to the Soviet propaganda organ.
“It became Pravda for pedophiles,” the complaint states.
Berger abandoned the reporter’s credo to dispassionately “get closer to the truth,” and chose, “instead, an entirely squalid one: low grade character assassination of Sam,” the complaint states.
Kellner quotes three paragraphs from the story as particularly offensive.
“In one recording – which has been verified by the Forward – Kellner tells the family of a child molester who had pleaded guilty that he can help get the man off and that, citing the Hasidic bloc vote, they should tell the DA, ‘Hey, you took a Jewish man, you railroaded him into a deal… and we won’t forget it,'” one allegedly defamatory passage states.
“During the conversation, which was longer than one hour and held on the street in Boro Park, Kellner counseled the family on how the self-confessed molester might avoid jail time,” the article continues. “He told them that they must appeal to leading rabbis to ‘put the squeeze’ on the Brooklyn DA, who is beholden to the rabbis for communal votes. The goal, Kellner said, ‘is, he shouldn’t spend one day in jail.'”
Later in the article, Berger allegedly reported: “Kellner also told the family they can buy off prosecutors with meals, New York Yankees tickets and other gifts to have the case thrown out.”
Kellner says the recordings came from an “illegal listening device in Sam’s vehicle,” and the contents were doctored to “change the context in which Sam’s words were spoken.”
Opponents tried to pay Kellner off, and he rejected the offer, the complaint states.
Kellner also alleges that the Lebovits family had been “peddling excerpts from these recordings to various reporters on condition of no further distribution (in case they were obtained by law enforcement).” (Parentheses in original.)
“Reputable reporters refused to accede to this condition; conversely, Berger rushed in, putting himself and his paper at the service of a notorious, decades-long, pedophile who was desperately trying to avoid retrial and the justice his evil deeds deserved,” the complaint states.
Kellner also takes shots at Brooklyn’s top prosecutor, who is not named as a defendant in the complaint, for dropping the case his son and another alleged victim brought.
“It was nothing less than abandonment and a betrayal,” the complaint states.
The assistant prosecutors on the case did not even give notice that the alleged victims’ cases were dismissed, Kellner alleges.
“The suffering and courage of a victim, however, meant nothing to the district attorney when his case was dismissed behind his back,” the complaint states. “His misfortune was that he is a child not of Park Slope but of Borough Park. His misfortune was that he sought justice and placed his trust in an office that regarded the children of his community as children of a lesser God.”
The Brooklyn District Attorney’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Sam Norich, publisher of the Forward, stuck to his guns, saying he believes the lawsuit is “without merit.”
“Our article treated all parties in this dispute, including Mr. Kellner, fairly,” Norich said in a statement. “We stand by our reporting.”
Kellner seeks punitive damages for defamation.He is represented by Manhattan-based attorney Niall MacGiollabhuí of the Law Offices of Michael Dowd.
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