By Maxine Dovere
A letter from New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, directing rapid repayment (by December 31, 2017) of loans made by the Jewish National Fund (JNF) to two of its employees Mr. Schneiderman’s office deemed to be “officers” of the organization, was published by the Forward this past Friday, July 28. The Attorney General’s letter instructed that loans to “officers” of a charity were legally impermissible.
New York Jewish Life interviewed JNF CEO Russell Robinson on July 27 in preparation for an extensive profile on the American based charity, and its Israeli counterpart, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael – KKL, The Fund for Israel. The timing of the interview was coincidental – topics discussed did not include executive compensation or any improprieties.
Following the Forward story detailing the Schneiderman letter, New York Jewish Life contacted JNF spokesman Adam Brill at the organization’s headquarters. NYJL’s story on the work of JNF, in American and in Israel, will run in the near future.
Brill told NYJL on Friday that while “laws changed in New York State in 2014 to prohibit officers from taking loans, the federal government does not have such a law.” He noted that the organization’s 990 – shorthand for an annual financial statement – lists those who “control policy and make major decisions” as “officers.” However, “according to JNF bylaws,” said Brill, those who received loans “are not considered officers or directors. These titles are limited to board members only.” The executives involved, said Brill “can receive loans.” He also stated that the parties involved “are paying back (the funds) in complete compliance.”
The JNF spokesman suggested that the Forward reporter, observing titles listed on the organization’s 990, had raised “hypothetical questions” with several sources, including a lawyer formerly with the Attorney General’s Charities Bureau.
The Forward article by Jonathan Nathan-Kazis does not pull punches, with the first sentence stating, “One of the American Jewish community’s most iconic charities appears to have broken New York state law by loaning its CEO over $500,000 to help him buy property.”
Brill noted that the Forward reporter who wrote Friday’s story on the loans had written critically of JNF in the past. In this matter, he “made the allegations” and queried about hypothetical situations. “The lawyer queried then provided answers without reading the bylaws,” added Brill. He stated that the two executives involved “are not officers or directors.” A statement verifying that loans are in compliance is being prepared by JNF to be issued early in the week of August 1 “to make sure there is no sense of impropriety.”
JNF administration “wants to make sure donors understand that something was blown up where there is no fact to support the accusation,” the 116 year old organization’s spokesman insisted. “At the end of the day, Russell (Robinson) and Mitch (the other loan recipient) want to protect the integrity of JNF and will pay back the loans in 30 days.”
Asked by NYJL why there had been no mention of the brewing controversy during the Thursday interview, Brill responded “why talk about something where there is no story? There is no basis. The allegations are false.” Brill then described an annual call from the Forward reporter who “every year calls and takes apart the 990. This is what they do to us and other reputable organizations. No one is panicking. Russell and Mitch are taking this very personally, will repay the loans immediately (within thirty days) and put to bed any sense of impropriety.”
Our interview ended with a clear message from JNF: “The Forward is on a witch hunt.”