A case that could increase the ability of the government to withhold information under New York State’s Freedom of Information Law, or FOIL, has gone before the New York State Court of Appeals. The case, which pits the District Attorney of Kings County, New York, against an an attorney and investigative journalist, dates back to 1984 when an Orthodox Jewish man was accused of sexually abusing children, but fled to Israel before he could be arrested and tried.
According to LegislativeGazette.com, Wvrohom Mondrowitz was eventually indicted on 14 criminal counts, including five counts of sodomy in the first degree. Attempts at the time by Kings County District Attorney – then Elizabeth Holtzman – to have him extradited from Israel failed. It wasn’t until 2007, 22-years later, before another Kings County District Attorney, this time Charles Hynes, now in his sixth term, would try to force Mondrowitz back to U.S. to face the child sexual abuse charges. That legal battle came to an end in 2010, when the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that Mondrowitz would not be extradited.
The same year Hynes renewed attempts to have Mondrowitz extradited, journalist and attorney Michael Lescher filed a FOIL request for documents from the case, which was denied by Hynes’ office. According to LegislativeGazette.com, Lescher, who also represents several of Mondrowitz’s alleged victims, wanted the documents in order to ascertain if Hynes had failed to press for the Mondrowitz extradition earlier due to the strong influence the Orthodox Jewish community. According to a report from Jewish Week, Lescher was also hoping the documents would show whether Hynes made the extradition request in January 2007, as the he publicly claimed, or later, after “a period of dithering or outright resistance.”
“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 DA,” Lesher recently told the Jewish Week.
“If there’s nothing in this file to embarrass the DA, why has he fought for so long to conceal it?” Lesher asked.
The Jewish Week report also points out that for years, Hynes’ critics have charged that he treats the Orthodox Community in Brooklyn with “kid gloves.”
According to LegislativeGazette.com, Hynes argued that the files should remain confidential so as to protect the identities of the alleged victims, which he maintains could be surmised even if they are redacted. He also argued that the files are exempt from FOIL under the Public Officer Law, because Mondrowitz could come back to the U.S. at some point and stand trial.
According to Jewish Week, a Brooklyn Supreme Court judge granted Lesher access specifically to the correspondence related to the extradition. But an appellate court ruled in favor of Hynes, and reversed that order.
But Lescher appealed, claiming that the Israeli Supreme Court’s denial of extradition in 2010 means the case against Mondrowitz is closed, and further argues that the documents being sought, those related to the extradition, would not jeopardize the case in any way. Lescher is also asserting that if the lower court’s decision is allowed to stand, it would create “an altogether new FOIL exemption that would allow law enforcement agencies to assert ‘blanket’ withholding privileges for virtually all documents in their possession.”
The New York Court of Appeals heard oral arguments on the case, known as Hynes vs. Lescher, on February 14. According to LeglislativeGazette, the Court of Appeals could order that all of the documents, with redactions be turned over to Lescher, or it could uphold the lower court ruling denying him anything under FOIL. A third option could send the case back to the appellate court, with an order that it determine which files should be turned over to the reporter, and which can be withheld.