Downtown restaurateur Claire Criscuolo took pains to impress on a federal jury what a decent man Rabbi David Avigdor is—so decent, she announced to the courtroom, he would have made a good priest, too.
Criscuolo (pictured outside court Thursday), who owns and operates New Haven’s landmark downtown Claire’s Corner Copia, was the latest high-profile community figure to appear in Chief Judge Alvin W. Thompson’s second floor courtroom in Hartford’s federal building. A jury there is hearing the case against five people accused of helping to swindle private and government lenders out of millions of dollars and worsen blight in struggling city neighborhoods in the process.
The defendants include David Avigdor, an attorney who’s New Haven’s senior pulpit rabbi; and Morris Olmer, a former attorney, Beaver Hills alderman and state representative.
Criscuolo was one of several character witnesses to speak on behalf of Avigdor, who oversees her vegetarian restaurant’s adherence to kosher food requirements.
Avigdor is one of only two defendants who are putting on a case in their defense, and the only defendant to elect to take the stand himself. (Read about that here.) The prosecutors and defendants have rested their cases as of Thursday afternoon.
The government alleges that the defendants were part of a ring of 15 people who conned banks out of money by falsifying property appraisals to inflate the on-paper value of homes and paid “straw buyers” to use phony documents to take out mortgages for the fake values. The group would then allegedly buy the homes for the actual price, pocket the difference, and let the homes fall further into blight. Many of the accused conspirators have pleaded guilty to their roles in the scheme; one wore a wire to help the feds build their case against the rest.
Avigdor is accused of signing off as an attorney on the government forms that were supposed to indicate where the money from the sales was going, then wiring proceeds from the transactions to other alleged conspirators by way of a non-existent construction company called Sheda Telle. He took the stand on Wednesday to refute those charges, leading to loud, tense exchanges with Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Glover.
Not only is Avigdor the only defendant to testify; he’s the only one to call character witnesses. Three of them took the stand on Wednesday and Thursday to extol the rabbi’s virtues and tell the jury he could never have done what he is accused of.
Under cross-examination from prosecutors, the character witnesses acknowledged that they are not familiar with any of the facts of the case.
Criscuolo took the stand just after 2 p.m. Thursday, carrying her silver purse with her to the witness box. She wore a loose gray skirt over black tights and flats, and a woolly black and white blazer. A gold cross hung on a chain around her neck.
Under questioning from Avigdor’s attorney, Howard Lawrence, Criscuolo’s testimony was chatty and conversational.
She said she has run Claire’s for 35 years and is also the author of cookbooks, the fourth of which is due to her editor on Friday. (Working title: “Welcome To Claire’s.”)
Claire’s is a vegetarian restaurant? Lawrence asked.
“Also kosher, and organic, and sustainable,” Criscuolo said.
For about 15 years, Avigdor has been the supervising rabbi at Claire’s, Criscuolo said. She sees him a lot: sometimes every day, but never Saturdays, of course. Avigdor researches all the kosher products thoroughly and calls to check up on whatever he doesn’t know, she said. He certifies the restaurant as kosher so observant Jews can eat there.
“He’s very careful,” she said. “It’s all about honesty. It’s all about trust. He’s such a good man.”
Beyond making sure everything is kosher, Avigdor also acts as an adviser and resource for Cricuolo and her staff, she said. He helped counsel a young staff member who had started hanging around with a crowd that had fancy cars and didn’t work during the day. “He talked with her about honesty and trust,” Criscuolo said.
At Lawrence’s invitation, Criscuolo turned toward the jury box. “He’s just a really decent guy. He’s a good father,” she said. “He bought somebody a hat who didn’t have a hat on the street last winter.”
“He should have been a priest,” said Criscuolo, who identified herself as Catholic. “He would have been a nice priest for me.”
Not A Lawyer, Thank God
Assistant U.S. Attorney Liam Brennan stood to cross-examine for the government. He said he’s been to Claire’s, and complimented the food.
“You like David Avigdor, don’t you?” he said.
“Yes, he’s a nice man,” Criscuolo replied.
Brennan then took the opportunity to remind the jury of the charges against Avigdor.
“You’ve never wired money to Sheda Telle construction company, have you?” he asked.
Criscuolo laughed and said she doesn’t even know what that is.
Brennan then named men who have admitted to their roles in the conspiracy. Criscuolo said she doesn’t know any of them. He listed some of the addresses of houses Avigdor allegedly helped straw buyers purchase. She chuckled as she said she’d never been to any of them.
“You’re not a lawyer,” Brennan said.
“No, thank God,” Criscuolo said.
“You don’t know anything about the facts underlying this case,” he said.
Dr. Rabbi, Esq.
Government prosecutors handled Wednesday’s character witnesses in a similar manner. Two people spoke on Avigdor’s behalf. One of these was Goldie Goldberg, who worked alongside Avigdor at New Haven’s Bikur Cholim Shevet Achim synagogue for 27 years. She said she had never known him to lie, steal, or even curse.
The other character witness Wednesday was Dr. Morris Traube. Wearing a lavender tie, rimless eyeglasses and a black velvet yarmulke, he swore to tell the truth. Under Lawrence’s questioning, he told the court that he is a gastroenterologist, a lawyer, and a rabbi. He said he first met Avigdor in rabbinical school in the ‘70s. In 1981, when he moved to New Haven to work at Yale, he and Avigdor grew close, Traube said. Their families lived close by; their wives and children are friends; they co-taught a class on Friday nights, he said. “We’ve been connected very, very closely for a long time.”
“In your opinion, is David Avigdor capable of dishonesty?” Lawrence asked.
Lawrence asked about Avigdor’s “capacity for truth and veracity.”
“Pure veracity, nothing other than that,” Traube said. “I’ve never seen it any other way in the years that I’ve known him.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Glover conducted the cross-examination of Traube.
“You’re fond of Mr. Avigdor. You’re concerned for him,” Glover said.
“Correct,” Traube said.
Under questioning, Traube acknowledged that he doesn’t know the evidence in the case, hasn’t sat in the courtroom and listened to the proceedings, and has no involvement in the events of the case.
“Obviously not,” Traube said.
Glover asked if Traube understands that a jury trial specifically and intentionally excludes people who personally know defendants from being jurors.
And you know that the jury’s decision is based on evidence alone? Glover asked.
“No further questions, your honor,” Glover said.
Previous coverage of this case:
• Wednesday The Rabbi Took The Stand
• Straw Buyer Lured Into A Wild Ride
• After Big Fish Plead, Smaller Fry Point Fingers
• Slum-Photo Doctor Makes A Call
• What Happened At Goodfellas Didn’t Stay At Goodfellas
• Fraud Trial Opens With Oz-Like Yarn
• “Partying” MySpacer Lined Up Scam Homebuyers
• “Straw Buyer” Pleads Guilty
• Neighbors, Taxpayers Left With The Tab
• FBI Arrests Police Commissioner, Slumlord, Rabbi
• One Last Gambit Falls Short
• Was He In “Custody”?
• Is Slum Landlord Helping The FBI?
• Feds Snag Poverty Landlord
• Police Commissioner Pleads