Morris Talansky is the ordained rabbi, former Great Neck macher, and sometimes successful businessman who may bring down the government of Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert. In May, Talansky told Israeli prosecutors that he delivered envelopes of cash to Olmert, which he claimed were for both campaign and personal expenses. Olmert insisted on cash, Talansky said. “I just didn’t really understand the system in Israel,” said Talansky, and so he acquiesced.
But in cross-examination scheduled for this week in Israel, Olmert’s lawyers are expected to paint the roly-poly 75-year-old Talansky as an aggressive, threatening businessman who has long had a reputation as a bully. Talansky has characterized himself as a naïve lover of Israel taken advantage of by a cunning politician.
A transcript of secret tapes obtained by New York Magazine suggests that Talansky can indeed be willful and determined, and even threatening.
Twenty years ago Talansky invested in a Pittsburgh office building which quickly went bust. He felt he’d been fleeced by the sellers, among them a couple of Long Island rabbis.
In the 29-page handwritten transcript, Talansky demanded his money back at meetings and in phone calls, which were secretly recorded. If he didn’t get it, he said, there’d be consequences. At one point an angered Talansky suggested that a bomb would be placed in the car of Richard Penzer, the lead seller on the building. One rabbi confronted Talansky over this.
“There were threats mentioned about blowing up his” — Penzer’s — “car,” he told Talansky.
At first Talansky denied that any threats had been made, then he acknowledged the bomb threat.
“Yeah, okay,” he conceded. “That was the anger when millions of dollars are at stake.”
Talansky, who one participant at the meetings described as a “wild man,” also introduced a mysterious character named Bernie into discussions. Bernie, he said, had lost a lot of money in the deal. No one ever met Bernie. But Talansky, Bernie’s confidant, let the rabbis know that Bernie was not someone to be trifled with. The transcripts make clear that the rabbis were afraid. For good reason: Bernie apparently wanted to kill one of the participants before Christmas.
Is he “some type of Mafia guy?” one rabbi asked.
Another participant responded, “That’s what Talansky implies … Someone told me this guy Bernie is someone you want to stay away from.”
The rabbis grew more frightened when, on Sunday morning, January 19, 1992, three bulky “goons” showed up at the Lawrence, New York, home of Richard Penzer. One of them, Michael Sciotto, later said that he’d gone to collect a debt for Morris Talansky, according to Sciotto’s affidavit.
“I was petrified,” says Penzer. “I had young kids at home.”
Sciotto later changed his story. After viewing a photo of Talansky, he said the person who sent him to Penzer’s door wasn’t Talansky, but someone who said he was Morris Talansky.
Talansky’s career has involved more than one charge of aggressive behavior. He’s currently under investigation by Nassau County for allegedly assaulting his 84-year-old former dentist over a bill dispute. Once he accosted Fed Schulman, a former business associate he claimed owed him $300,000, according to a police report filed by Schulman. Later a man calling himself “Rocco” and an associate began showing up at Schulman’s office. He claimed he’d bought the $300,000 note. He left threatening messages on Schulman’s phone, one of which Schulman recorded. Schulman’s attorney, Sheldon Gopstein, summarized the message this way: “We’ve been patient long enough. You owe us $300,000 … Me and my partner are going to come up there.” —Steve Fishman