Coalition for Justice in Hawaiian Gardens and Jerusalem
The Jewish Journal
Corruption in Hawaiian Gardens?
By Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor
A key committee chairman of the California legislature has released a report charging that Irving Moskowitz, a major funder of pro-settler initiatives in Israel, conspired with a public agency to operate an illegally financed casino.
The report also urges that Moskowitz and the agency be investigated for possible criminal and corrupt activities and that he be required to return $12 million in public funds. Assemblyman Scott Wildman (D-Los Angeles), who heads the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, made public the 149-page report prepared by the committee's staff.
Moskowitz has long been a controversial figure in Hawaiian Gardens, a tiny, low-income city in southeast Los Angeles County, where he operates a bingo club and a card casino, and in Jerusalem, where he has bankrolled Jewish settlements in Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. The 72-year-old Moskowitz was born in New York, raised in Milwaukee and now lives in Miami. He is a retired physician and hospital developer, devoutly Orthodox. Hawaiian Gardens is less than a square mile in size and has some 15,000 residents, mostly working-class Latinos.
In 1988, Moskowitz took over the city's floundering bingo parlor, and within a short time, the 800-seat, nonprofit enterprise was taking in $33 million a year. He also acquired one-third of all the commercial property in Hawaiian Gardens.
Moskowitz soon gained a kind of godfather status in the small city, liberally supporting various civic and communal projects and subsidizing the municipal government at the rate of $200,000 a month, which annually came to about half the city's total budget.
Periodically, Moskowitz stopped his monthly payments. He did so in September 1997, forcing the city to lay off its entire 21-person police force.
In Israel, meanwhile, the tax-exempt Irving I. Moskowitz Foundation has provided an estimated $25 million to Orthodox settler groups to establish Jewish housing developments in Arab neighborhoods, moves opposed as politically incendiary by both Likud and Labor governments.
Additional moneys went to American organizations opposed to the Oslo peace process, such as American Friends of Ateret Cohanim, National Council of Young Israel, Zionist Organization of America, PRO-Israel, the Washington-based Center for Security Policy, and Americans for a Safe Israel.
The current investigation and report focuses on Moskowitz's for-profit casino and card club. After many years of wrangling and planning, the casino opened last December under a temporary license. According to Wildman's report, the Redevelopment Agency of Hawaiian Gardens subsidized the acquisition of the casino with $12 million, despite legal restrictions against the use of public funds to subsidize gambling operations.
According to the report, "A city that embarked on an economic revitalization effort almost 20 years ago has little to show for its efforts save for an inappropriate gaming establishment, approximately $12 million in expenditures of public funds, and financial dependence on the goodwill of one owner/developer, who is operating an illegally subsidized gaming operation."
The report has been forwarded to California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, who has the authority to deny the casino a permanent license and to initiate further investigations. The report is currently under review by Harlan Goodson, director of gambling controls, a spokesman said.
Also criticized in the report is the casino's location, adjacent to a middle school, a hospital, a place of worship and public park.
Another target of the report is Beryl Weiner, Moskowitz's attorney, who, it is charged, has represented both Moskowitz and the Redevelopment Agency at the same time in an apparent conflict of interest. Weiner vigorously denied this charge, as well as all other accusations in the legislative report, which he denounced as "flawed and biased" and fit only for the garbage can.
On one key point, Weiner said that the sum advanced by the Redevelopment Agency was $9.5 million, rather than $12 million.
He put anticipated gross receipts by the casino at around $36 million for the current fiscal year, of which $4 million to $5 million would be transmitted to Hawaiian Gardens as license fees. At this rate, said Weiner, the indebtedness to the agency should be paid off in a few years.
Moskowitz's nemesis for the past two years, largely responsible for focusing media and public attention on his activities, has been a citizens group called the Coalition for Justice in Hawaiian Gardens and Jerusalem. The coalition was founded and is largely energized by Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, 51, who says he became first aware of Moskowitz's "anti-peace" activities in Jerusalem while spending two years in Israel. Back in Los Angeles, Beliak turned his attention to Hawaiian Gardens and discovered that "it's the kind of company town in which Moskowitz calls all the shots."
When a congregational pulpit opened at nearby Temple Ner Tamid in Downey in 1997, Beliak applied and was hired.
A year later, the coalition was launched when Beliak persuaded a dozen colleagues, attending the national convention of Reform rabbis, to picket the casino. Beliak says that the coalition has no formal membership but has the support of 500-600 rabbis of all denominations, Christian clergy and Latino activists. Financial backing comes primarily from the liberal-oriented Shefa Fund, which has given the coalition $70,000 over the past two years. In addition, $10,000 has been raised by local supporters, says Beliak, who adds that he earns an annual salary of $1 as the coalition coordinator.
Besides officiating as rabbi of Ner Tamid, a Reform congregation, Beliak also serves two smaller Conservative congregations, Adat Chaverim in Los Alamitos and Beth Shalom in Whittier. He also teaches classes at Leo Baeck Temple and the Claremont Graduate School.
Copyright 2000, The Jewish Journal