JERUSALEM – Israeli authorities have placed a multimillionaire celebrity rabbi with a strong American following under house arrest and banned him from traveling abroad as they investigate allegations that he bribed a high-ranking officer for access to his police file, police said Monday.
Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto’s legal saga took a dramatic twist this week: Investigators interrogated Pinto for three hours Sunday, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said, but cut short the questioning after news came that Pinto’s wife – also questioned in the affair – had overdosed on pills and was rushed to the hospital. The Israeli media called it an apparent suicide attempt.
Pinto is under 15-day house arrest and a six-month travel ban, Rosenfeld said, but police allowed him to visit his wife in the hospital. He said police are continuing their investigation and would question the rabbi again if necessary.
Pinto is among a group of rabbis who have amassed vast fortunes by becoming spiritual gurus to the top rung of society, attracting many followers among the rich and powerful in Israel, New York, and elsewhere.
He is ranked by the Israeli edition of Forbes Magazine as Israel’s seventh wealthiest rabbi with an estimated net worth of about $19 million.
Israeli media reported the police began tracking Pinto after he approached the head of the investigations department in the Israeli police – who is reportedly an adherent of the rabbi – and allegedly offered him a large sum of money in exchange for access to a separate investigation involving him.
That investigation, Israeli media reports said, concerned an aide to Pinto, a charity executive suspected of embezzling donations and selling food intended for Holocaust survivors.
According to the English-language Jerusalem Post, Pinto’s wife brought the police officer’s wife a suitcase full of cash to deliver to the police officer. Israel Radio reported Pinto had given him $200,000.
Spokesman Rosenfeld would not confirm the details of the media reports, but said Pinto had offered the policeman a “considerably large amount of money.”
Pinto and his wife deny the allegations, Pinto spokesman Amir Dan said. “The rabbi answered all the questions in his investigation,” said Dan. “He is sure that after the facts come to light, the police will understand that the suspicions are completely baseless.”
Dan had no comment on the suicide attempt report, nor on Pinto’s connection to the charity.
A former Pinto aide has also come under investigation on allegations related to illegal congressional campaign financing in New York.
In Israel, the current investigation has sparked concern about the close ties between Israeli police officials and spiritual gurus like Pinto. Top police chiefs are known to be followers of Israel’s wealthiest rabbis, and they frequently appear in uniform at their gala events.
Israel’s daily Haaretz said police were considering banning officers from attending rabbis’ public events while in uniform. Rosenfeld could not verify that report.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg because beneath it hides an intolerable reality,” wrote commentator Nahum Barnea in the Yediot Ahronot daily. “A handful of rabbis, whose disciples attribute to them superhuman qualities, has accumulated tremendous economic and political power in recent years.”
Barnea commended the police official for reporting the suspected bribery attempt, but wrote that “it would not be out of place to ask why the lieutenant commander was seeing Pinto in the first place.”