Home


 

I chat by phone with Larry Cohler-Esses Sunday, June 20, 2004.

Larry speaks softly. "I went to the University of Illinois. I majored in Anthropology. I went to the Journalism school for my masters degree (on the Jewish Defense League in Brooklyn) in 1982. I became the editor of the Jewish Student Press Service (JSPS). It was founded by Jewish antiwar activists in the late '60s to be a Jewish students forum for all the stuff going on on campuses. JJ Goldberg, Lisa Schiffren (the woman who wrote Dan Quayle's speech about Murphy Brown), Aron Hirt-Manheimer (editor of Reform Judaism magazine), Yossi Klein Halevi, Larry Yudelson, who was the editor after me.

"I was hired by the JSPS on the basis of my masters project. Then I started working for The Long Island Jewish World. That was also an important paper because a lot of people went to there (Walter Ruby, Yossi Klein Halevi, Sue Grossman, who later became one of the first female Conservative rabbis). It was a writers' newspaper. It paid very little and it let you write what you want. You could go out and report and write without fear or favor.

"In 1986, the editor made an arrangement with eight different Jewish newspapers (the Consortium News Combo) to send me down to Washington D.C. That didn't last too long because there were too many editors asking me to do too many contradictory assignments. They canned me. I got picked up by The Washington Jewish Week (1986-93). Then I was at The Jewish Week (New York) from 1994-2000."

"I hear you pissed off the establishment on a regular basis."

"I'm glad to know that. I didn't know that then because they didn't talk to me much."

"What are the principle obstacles to doing good Jewish journalism?"

Larry thinks for about ten seconds. "Money. Not meaning only salaries, but money to support the expenses involved in going to places and reporting firsthand. The censorship or influence of the owners of the papers. The self-censorship that people employ when they sense what the boundaries are. The expectations of readers. People don't read Jewish newspapers for the reason they read regular newspapers. People read regular newspapers to get information, whether they agree with the paper or not. People read Jewish newspaper to affirm their sense of identity. Often that means you are writing articles that people don't particularly want to know about.

"If you want to know to know about Israel, you can get most of your information from The New York Times and the Washington Post. You read the Jewish newspapers to get your sense of Israel's rightness and correctness in the world affirmed."

"What's your view of the way AIPAC attempted, during your tenure, to keep the Jewish press in line?"

"It was atrocious. That's not their mission. Their mission statement doesn't say anything about them mucking around in Jewish newspapers. AIPAC tried to get me fired, Andy [Silow-Carrol] fired [from The Washington Jewish Week in 1992]. They never came to me with complaints about my coverage (with one or two exceptions). They didn't even go to the editor. They went to the owner and publisher of The Washington Jewish Week.

"There was an AIPAC conference where James Baker (US Secretary of State under George Bush Sr) called on supporters of Israel to give up on their dreams of a [territorially] greater Israel. In interviewing members of the audience after the speech, I talked to an AIPAC macher from Iowa. I quoted him accurately saying, 'That speech was garbage.' It went in the newspaper. I never heard anything until the owner of the paper, Dr. Leonard Kapiloff, called me into his office, showing me a letter from [AIPAC leader] Tom Dine to him, passing on a letter from this Iowa macher that not only is that quote not correct, Larry Cohler never even interviewed me. It's fabricated. Dr. Kapiloff had enormous respect and admiration for Tom Dine. He made it clear that the burden was on me.

"Fortunately, I had run out of notepaper that day. So the fellow I'd interviewed had given me his business card. So I had put my notes containing the key quote scribbled on the back of his business card. And I still had it. I showed that to the owner and that mollified him.

"The letter from Dine said this is an example of why we have a problem with Larry Cohler. I would like you and me to have dinner to discuss this problem.

"I remember once I was in the Israeli embassy with a couple of Israeli diplomats. One of them, who hadn't been in Washington that long, was talking freely to me. He said he was giving me this stuff because I'd know what to do with it. We were on the same team. The other diplomat, who'd been in Washington a while and knew my writing, said, no, no, it's not that way. You should treat it the same way as if you were talking to an Israeli reporter.

"I had good fortune in working for Dr. Kapiloff. He had a strong self image of being independent and iconoclastic. For reasons I never quite understood, he looked at me in an avuncular and almost paternalistic way. He thought I was a foster son of his. Especially after the Tom Dine incident convinced him that I was a diligent and conscientious reporter, he defended me. Because he got so much flack over me, and he didn't want to fire me, he fired editors. All the stories in question were about me. I felt like I was walking over bodies while leading a charmed life.

"The only legal threat I ever received came from AIPAC. They wanted me off the AIPAC beat. The counsel for AIPAC (the late David Ifshin) called Andy and hinted there could be legal problems. He said they were going to go over my articles with a fine-tooth comb and look for grounds for a lawsuit. They never sued.

"You asked a lot of questions -- did I get pressure? Was I intimidated? I led a charmed life. I worked for an independently-owned, philanthropic newspaper that was not shaped in any way by the Federation. He was subject to a lot of influence by a lot of people but it happened that he liked me. Because he liked me, I had more freedom then than I have now. I was the first and only journalist from a Jewish newspaper to get a visa to go to Syria. I spent a week reporting from Syria. I went to Yemen. In 1988, he sent me to Tunis, where the PLO was then in exile. I did a series of interviews with the mastermind of the Munich Olympic's massacre.

"This was the Jewish newspaper that members of Congress and the State Department see. It wasn't the type of stuff you normally find in a Jewish newspaper.

"I was very happy from a journalistic point of view. The salary was low -- $35,000 annually when I left in late 1993. I made about $70,000 when I left The Jewish Week in NY in 2000. Only editors made more. I think the managing editor made $70,000 when I arrived.

"I wrote some stories about New York state Assemblyman Dov Hikind. It led to him being indicted along with three others for bribery. He was a member of the Jewish Defense League under Meir Kahane. He retained a lot of connections to that crowd. They tried to intimidate me during the trial. The judge had to call in an FBI agent to interview me to find out who had verbally threatened me in the court room.

"When I went to attend a press conference in which Hikind defended himself in Borough Park, a lot of people threatened to beat me up and I was hustled away...Dov Hikind was very powerful. He was close to Governor Pataki. But he was not a favorite of the Jewish Establishment. The Jewish Establishment was probably as pleased as punch that I wrote those articles."

"Any prominent leaders in Jewish life refuse to talk to you?"

"The board members of AIPAC would never agree to speak with me (with a couple of brief exceptions when I caught them on the phone at home)."

"How much freedom did you have working for The Jewish Week (New York)?"

"It was pretty good. There were some boundaries. Gary Rosenblatt understood and was sensitive to writing about Federation agencies in a critical fashion. He didn't prohibit it. He was just very sensitive about it. If I came to him with such a story, it had to be very good and meet a high standard."

"Do you have a copy of your masters thesis on the Jewish Defense League?"

"No. The JSPS published it. The editor then asked me if I wanted to succeed him as editor based on that work."

"Did you get any physical threats while researching that?"

"No, they befriended me. I was on the inside."

I chuckle. "Charm 'em and betray 'em.

"What do you miss and what do you not miss about working in Jewish journalism?"

"I miss engaging in issues that I cared about at the level of my own sense of identity. I don't miss the lack of resources. The New York Daily News has an editorial staff of about 200. I was like a farmer from Iowa who was trying desperately to look like the big city didn't phase him. There was a whole staff of librarians waiting at my beck n'call to search for me. From real estate databases to how to locate people with unpublished numbers to doing LexisNexis searches."

"Do you have more status in shul working for the New York Daily News or The Jewish Week of New York?"

"The Bible of American Jews is The New York Times. My wife is a Conservative rabbi. Through her, I'm a member of a couple of overlapping spiritual communities. If it were not for her, I would not be a member of any minyan or spiritual community.

"As far as status, I might as well be writing for the Buenos Aires Daily Herald. It's not what they read. I more frequently heard about what I was writing when I was The Jewish Week than at the Daily News."

"Have you studied what Judaism says about Judaism and has this created any conflicts for you in how you practice your craft?"

"No. I don't think it has much relevance to me. It would have some academic interest. I am aware of real problems and conflicts that could exist between journalism and the injunction against lashon hara. I've always considered my standard for journalism to be secular."

"Do you ever have any discussions with your wife on these themes of Judaism vs journalism?"

"In the beginning we did. She saw my investigative journalism as a Talmudic thing, because a lot of investigative journalism involves close reading of texts. But that's different from what I think you are getting at -- the difference between Jewish ethics and journalism. I don't think we ever discussed that as a Jewish issue."

Larry married in 1996 and became Larry Cohler-Esses.

"There is no evidence that there's enough of an audience out there for a Jewish newspaper that could survive as a for-profit enterprise."

"Did you have a lot of stories that you couldn't publish?"

"I got to publish pretty much everything I had to say. There were a few occasions when the editing prevented me from saying it in the way I wanted it said."

I ask Larry if he was offered drugs or whores to influence his writing. He writes me:

In Tunis, the Tunisian female aide to Abu Iyad, the mastermind of the Munich Olympics massacre, came to my hotel one night while I was writing my story and offered herself to me. I have no idea if this was to influence my writing, or because she liked me, or because she saw me as a ticket out of Tunis.

Nothing happened. I was on deadline and didn't have the time. But the next day, she and her girlfriend drove me on a tour of the Tunisian coast. She later called me in Washington from Tunis a couple of times.

Later:

I think I was a tad too cheeky when I wrote nothing happened because I was on deadline and didn't have the time. There were much more important and overriding reasons; the main one being I'm not stupid. At the least, I had read my share of spy novels, and this seemed like a bad one whose plot was well known.

It may dent the romantic allure of your book, but it's also relevant to note that she had a serious weight problem and was a simple and unsophisticated Tunisian woman. She had zero apparent interest in the Palestinian cause beyond its offering her a job by virture of the exiles' presence in Tunis. She had a keen interest in coming to America. The night she came, it was to declare that she had seen me in Abu Iyad's office and, then and there, decided she wanted me; by which, it turned out, she meant she wanted to be with me romantically, not sleep with me. Or, at least, not just sleep with me. I'm not sure, because we never explored that avenue. She wanted me to take her away. As I said, she called me at home a couple of times long distance from Tunis afterward.

We should also talk some more about Abu Iyad. He became a long distance source on PLO matters after our interviews---until his murder by an agent of Abu Nidal on the eve of the first Gulf War, probably for his pushing the PLO internally to side with the Americans rather than w/ Saddam, as Arafat chose.

All this highlights something broader about Washington Jewish Week during the 1980s and 1990s. By virtue of its geographic location and the quality of its staff then, it was an extraordinarily influential paper; much more so than the Forward today. Alongside the usual Jewish journalism awards, It received four "Laurels" from Columbia Journalism Review in four years in the late '80s and early '90s and regularly broke stories picked up by the mainstream press.

Jerusalem Report, 12/20/90

Editors should think twice before they cross their reporters. A case in point: Martin Pomerance, editor of the Washington Jewish Week, who was forced to resign recently, after only 16 months on the job.

Staff reporters, alienated by Pomerance's unpredictable and erratic style, did some extracurricular investigative reporting based on rumors about his past. One discovery: Pomerance was apparently involved in a number of art swindles in Israel eight years ago.

A lawyer by profession, Pomerance came to in Israel from the United States in 1978 and opened the "Hillel" art gallery in Jerusalem. "When he arrived in Israel," says an art collector who had dealings with Pomerance, "he presented himself as a millionaire. He was charming, articulate, and had an extravagant lifestyle."

In 1982, Pomerance allegedly was involved in the sale of works from a number of Israeli artists, at prices well below their true value. Facing a police investigation and two court orders prohibiting him from leaving the country, Pomerance boarded a tourist boat in Eilat, dove into the water and swam to Egypt, according to newspaper accounts. Israeli sources assume he used false papers to enter Egypt, from where he returned to the United States.

"Pomerance was not a professional journalist, but was masquerading as one," says former Washington Jewish Week employee Jon Greene, laid off by Pomerance in September for "budgetary reasons."

What most upset reporters was Pomerance's habit of firing people without warning. According to Greene: "People were producing, yet they would be fired. This left us with the feeling that we had no security."

At last report, Pomerance was hunkering down "someplace in Washington," presumably searching for some security of his own.

The Lobbyists From AIPAC, Girding for Battle in the New World Order

Copyright 1991 The Washington Post

June 13, 1991, Thursday, Final Edition

BYLINE: Lloyd Grove, Washington Post Staff Writer

Subject: Israel.

Target: Nancy Kassebaum.

Methods: Sweet reason, shock therapy.

A dozen pro-Israel activists filed into Kassebaum's Senate office. Two staffers carried in extra chairs, and the Kansas Republican helped set them up.

"The question," Shaol Pozez told Kassebaum, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "is how do we go about getting this peace process going?" A retired discount shoe store tycoon, sporting athletic footwear this morning, Pozez used to share a back-yard fence with her father, Alf Landon -- which is why he was there. She nodded, politely. The pleasantries were over.

"Israel," Pozez told her, "will do everything short of national suicide to make peace."

"Isn't the PLO going to have to be there at some point, Shaol?" she demanded of Pozez, a frequent political contributor -- though not, in recent years, to Kassebaum. The room fell deathly still at the mention of the Palestine Liberation Organization, as though someone had just suggested ... national suicide. "It seems to me that this is an opportunity," Kassebaum went on, her jaw set, "and everybody's got to be willing to give."

Frowns spread around the room.

So much for sweet reason.

Kassebaum's visitors that morning, most of them with Kansas connections, were from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee -- AIPAC, for short -- the foreign policy equivalent of the National Rifle Association. Their mission, a life-defining one, is "strengthening the American-Israel relationship," mainly by securing American aid for the Jewish state and blocking U.S. weapons sales to hostile Arabs.

AIPAC is one of the most resented and respected, admired and feared, lobbying organizations in the United States. Kassebaum is one of very few in Congress who will speak bluntly about the group on the record.

"Sometimes," she said, "they're just absolutely, totally inflexible."

If so, perhaps it's because so many Jews, no matter how comfortable in American society, feel themselves linked to a long history of worldwide persecution, culminating in the Holocaust in which 6 million perished. Israel, in the minds of some, may be the only safe haven -- and thus deserves special treatment.

Those in Congress and elsewhere who disagree, or complain about AIPAC's heavy-handedness, tend to do so sotto voce -- terrified of being branded with the epithet "antisemite" or, even worse, "self-hating Jew." In March, half the Senate and a third of the House accepted invitations to schmooze with 2,100 true believers at AIPAC's 32nd annual policy conference, an impressive show of pro-Israel power. In the oft-repeated catch-phrase of AIPAC's detractors, the lobby has made Israel "America's 51st state."

But now, with the arrival of the post-Gulf War era, AIPAC is grappling with a potential "New World Order" in which foregone conclusions will be a thing of the past.

In stark contrast to Ronald Reagan's, the Bush administration is perceived by Israel and its supporters as one of the least friendly to Israel in history. No matter that AIPAC helped Bush gain authorization for Desert Storm by lobbying Congress behind the scenes. Since the war, to which Israel's contribution was absorbing Iraqi missile strikes without retaliating -- the administration has been prodding the stiff-necked Likud government and its Arab antagonists into an as-yet-undefined peace conference. Bush and his surrogates have called upon the tiny country to give up territory to its enemies, and condemned Jewish settlements in occupied Arab lands as an "obstacle" to peace, a stance the Likudniks regard as biased by definition.

As the pro-Israel lobby anointed to speak for the major U.S. Jewish organizations -- not, as some persist in believing, Israel's registered agent -- AIPAC has prospered mightily since its birth 37 years ago. In the past decade, the lobby has quadrupled its staff to more than 100 and quintupled its membership to 55,000 households -- attracting a new breed of non-Jewish activists like Allen Mothersill -- while its member-financed budget has grown even more, from $ 1.4 million in 1980 to $ 12 million in 1991.

It owes much of its growth to Tom Dine, the lobby's executive director for the past decade, a charismatic proponent of pressure-group politics.

Yet AIPAC's rapid expansion has forced it to cope with a host of competing constituencies -- from liberal Democratic Jews to conservative Republican members of Congress, from American doves to Israeli hard-liners. The lobby also faces mounting and contradictory criticism, from a wide array of political activists both here and in Israel. It is accused, alternately, of climbing into bed with the executive branch at the expense of its friends in Congress; allying itself with the Republican Party at the expense of its ties to the Democrats; and becoming a creature of the Likud Party at the expense of Labor -- "representing," according to Yossi Beilin, a Labor member of the Israeli parliament, "the 'Israel That Refuses.' "

AIPAC officials heatedly dispute the charges, and privately complain that such dissension in the ranks serves only the enemies of Israel and the Jewish people.

AIPAC officials often repeat the maxim that "the Congress is the bedrock of the American-Israel relationship." Indeed, the lobby has spent years cultivating key members of the House and Senate, who have come to believe that their votes on Israel have direct and immediate impact on their political careers. Thus AIPAC is always in a position to make noise about administration actions it doesn't like, and make trouble for legislation it considers bad for Israel.

Tom Dine is fond of quoting Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger: "Dine, I deal with you because you could hurt me."

A Rough Reputation

AIPAC's influence with Congress is due partly to a widespread predisposition to back Israel anyway -- though recent polls have shown that U.S. public opinion, while generally supportive of Israel, can vary sharply in reaction to events in the Middle East. Just as important to the lobby's clout is its reputation for playing rough.

"We are slaves to some of the lobbying groups," Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) complained on the day of the Desert Storm vote. "I do not have to name names," Byrd went on, "but I could."

"My colleagues think AIPAC is a very, very powerful organization that is ruthless, and very, very alert," said another senator who, like so many on the subject of AIPAC, asked that his name not be named. "Eighty percent of the senators here roll their eyes on some of the votes. They know that what they're doing isn't what they really believe is right, but why fight on a situation where they're liable to get beat up on?

"There's no countervailing sentiment," this senator added, noting that the small but ardent circle of pro-Israel activists, unlike its Arab-American counterpart, gives millions of dollars every election cycle to candidates for office. "If you vote contrary to the tremendous pressure of AIPAC, no one says to you, 'That's great.' "

The 1984 defeat of Sen. Charles Percy (R-Ill.) -- the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee who crossed the lobby once too often -- is one of several in recent years ascribed to pro-Israel money. "All the Jews in America, from coast to coast, gathered to oust Percy," Dine claimed in a speech after the 1984 election. "And American politicians ... got the message."

Yet many U.S. Jews are uncomfortable with such talk, and see the specter of antisemitism behind every public reference to the "Jewish lobby," as AIPAC is frequently called by its opponents. Rep. Tim Valentine (D-N.C.), whose House amendment to cut the $ 650 million in extra aid for Israel received a mere 24 votes, blamed the Jewish community for its lopsided defeat.

"I do plan to find an opportunity to talk to my Jewish friends," the congressman vowed, "and say, 'Do you realize the impression that this thing makes, when you come down with full force, all the strength that you have, for a few bucks? My God, what does that say?' " Asked what it said, Valentine responded, "I don't know. You know what I mean."

Understandably, perhaps, AIPAC prefers to operate outside the spotlight. "A lobby is like a night flower," AIPAC's director of foreign policy issues, Steven Rosen, once wrote in an internal memo. "It thrives in the dark and dies in the sun."

Thus the lobby has a touchy relationship with the Fourth Estate, a medium that other public affairs groups routinely exploit. Often, it finds itself criticizing reporters. In May, it launched a grass-roots letter-writing campaign to CNN, protesting a special report that was critical of Israel. Reporter Mark Feldstein said hundreds of letters poured in. Along with some well-argued ones, taking their cue from AIPAC's "Monthly Update" to members, "some of it was pretty nasty," Feldstein said. "You know, 'self-hating Jew' was used, 'the Nazis would be proud of you,' 'the Jews have always been their own worst enemies.' "

AIPAC's president, Mayer Mitchell, an Alabama businessman, has a policy of simply not speaking to the press. The four AIPAC employees permitted contact with journalists seldom speak for attribution, and Dine would only agree to go on the record for this series if his quotes were read back to him for approval. At AIPAC's recent policy conference, one of about 800 college students in attendance was asked to explain her commitment. "You really have to talk to the people in the press department," she replied, turning away.

In 1987, AIPAC's then-communications director, Barbara Amouyal, argued that this press-shy attitude was counterproductive to the lobby's aims. During her tenure, however, she often found herself trying to keep stories out of the news. Once, she pleaded with two Jewish newspapers not to print an item about a birthday party for Steven Rosen, during which a stripper performed on AIPAC premises. As an inducement to one of the papers, she offered, ironically, access to Tom Dine. She left AIPAC in frustration after 11 months.

Afterward, two AIPAC internal memos were aired by the CBS program "60 Minutes" and other news organizations in October 1988, resulting in the worst publicity AIPAC has ever endured, plus a formal complaint to the Federal Election Commission. Amouyal supplied one AIPAC memo urging news stories supporting a pro-Israel Senate candidate and attacking Jesse Jackson's "extramarital affairs." A second memo, which several reporters received over the transom, urged various political action committees to send money to pro-Israel candidates -- suggesting that AIPAC employees had involved themselves in political campaigns, contravening a long-standing AIPAC policy. AIPAC officials still sputter in anger when they discuss Amouyal and her alleged misdeed.

In January 1989, a coalition of Arab Americans, former diplomats and an ex-congressman accused the lobby of violating federal campaign spending limits by orchestrating the donations of 27 pro-Israel PACs. (AIPAC, which is not a political action committee, took its name long before PACs were invented.) The FEC ruled last December that there was "insufficient evidence" to support the charge -- though not everyone was persuaded.

"I think it's disingenuous for AIPAC to say, as for some peculiar reason they frequently do, that they don't direct any money," said Sen. John Chafee (R-R.I.), an occasional critic of Israel who was targeted in 1988, when his opponent, Richard Licht, received an estimated $ 213,850 in pro-Israel PAC money.

The night before the FEC's announcement, the lobby's director of media liaison, Toby Dershowitz, visited the editor of Washington Jewish Week at his apartment. Over tea, she asked Andrew Silow Carroll not to assign his regular reporter, Larry Cohler, to the story. She argued that Cohler's previous AIPAC stories were inaccurate, and since several had been cited in the FEC complaint, he was a "player" in the case. Carroll recalled that he told her he'd think about it.

The next day, the ruling was announced and Carroll put Cohler on the story. A few days later, as Cohler was writing, Dershowitz phoned Carroll at his office. Also on the line was David Ifshin, AIPAC's legal counsel. "Mr. Ifshin has some things to say, and I think they're worth a listen," Dershowitz said, according to Carroll's notes of the conversation.

Ifshin, according to Carroll's notes, said Cohler's reporting on AIPAC had raised serious questions about his accuracy. If he were to cover that week's ruling, Ifshin warned the editor, AIPAC would reexamine his previous stories "with an eye toward litigation."

"That sounds to me like a threat of legal action," Carroll replied.

"Nobody is threatening you," Dershowitz interjected, before the conversation abruptly ended.

Carroll phoned Dershowitz back to tell her that Cohler was his reporter; he had no reason to doubt his journalistic abilities.

"Fine," she replied, according to Carroll's notes. "Then what about writing a positive editorial about our exoneration?"

"We've never pushed anybody around," Tom Dine said recently. "That's part of the lore."

The following 8/8/97 story about Malcolm Hoenlein and the Presidents Conference was delayed 18 months after Malcolm threatened The Jewish Week editor Gary Rosenblatt that he would financially destroy the paper if it ran the story. "The blocks were...a measure of the think skin and malign power of those written about," says a source. Larry went on an unofficial strike for the 18-months the story was delayed, refusing to do any investigative journalism for The Jewish Week. His story is edited so that the lede is buried:

Now it turns out that at least half of that budget, and perhaps as much as two-thirds, comes from outsiders - much of it from an independently incorporated charitable fund established by conference leaders in 1982.

Established in an effort to bolster the budget, which until then came almost exclusively from membership dues, this fund for many years attracted little money. But between 1993 and 1995,it has more than tripled, from $121,000 to more than $432,000. The fund's net assets by 1995 were almost $709,000 vs. a net deficit of $146,000 for the conference itself.

Few members even knew of the fund's existence; others were only vaguely aware of it. Ted Mann, a former conference chairman, was listed as a board member of the charitable fund, but said he did not know about it until last January, when he received a letter from the New York State attorney general telling him he had failed to file required financials records for the charity.

Similarly, though Hoenlein asserts that the fund's existence "was known to everyone invovled," Jacob Stein, a former conference chairman who was listed as a director of the fund, said he knew nothing about it.

News of the existence of the fund, which clearly is legal and even commonplace among Jewish organizations, underscores the perception that member groups are not being told about key conference decisions, a charge Hoenlein disputes.

The disclosure, contained in tax records the group released to The Jewish Week last week after many months of inquiry, raised questions for some members about whether the conference may be beholden to a separate, previously unacknowledged constituency of wealthy donors.

For their part, [Abe] Foxman and other critics candidly acknowledge that much of the problem has stemmed from their own failure, until recently, to inquire deeply into conference affairs. Often, these critics said, they have failed to challenge the way Hoenlein and a select group of former chairmen close to him conducted business. Some said they often neglected to attend conference meetings, insist on seeing a budget or delve into the workings of the group.

The Presidents Conference charitable fund was incorporated in 1982 as a fund-raising tool for the perenially cash-strapped umbrella group. As a 501 c-3 charity under the Internal Revenue Service ccode, the fund was eligible to accept tax deductible donations but strictly limited on lobbying.

The Presidents COnference itself, by contrast, is an unincorporated association classified as a tex exempt 501 c-4 organization by the IRS. This allows it to engage in much more lobbying and political activity, but contributions to the conference are not tax deductible.

According to its application for tax exemption, the conference fund "is not in any way controlled by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations" and "will not be accountable, financially or otherwise, to the Conference."

Just who, then, is it accountable to?

In legal terms, the answer seems clear: From 1992 through 1994, only executive director Malcolm Hoenlein and then-conference chairman Lester Pollack were listed on the fund's annual IRS forms as officers or directors. The fund's tax forms for 1995, filled out after inquiries from this newspaper began, adds several other former chairmen as directors. But one, Jacob Stein, says he knows nothing about the fund.

The Jewish Week first requested in December 1995 public tax records from the conference that the IRS requires tax-exempt groups to make available. Hoenlein, on the advice of counsel, former chairman Howard Squadron, declined to make them available until now. The leaders siad the delay was a result of a concern as to why The Jewish Week was seeking the information.