Chamber Of Secrets

A Pregnant Mother Goes Undercover To Keep Custody Of Her Children

Frieda Hanimov's American dream was once a big house in a swanky New York neighborhood. It's a world away from the poverty where she grew up.

Her parents fled Russia, emigrated to Israel, and at the age of 18, this young nurse made her way to America. Just a few weeks later, she met the man she would marry, Yury Hanimov, whose business was diamonds. They would have three children, Yaniv, Sharon, and Natti.

Life was good. But after 13 years of marriage, Yuri announced to his wife that his business was failing. The dream house had to be sold, and they moved to a small apartment in Brooklyn.

Frieda says her husband told her they had to pretend to be divorced. She claims it was part of a scheme to hide their assets. "He gave me diamonds," she says. "He told me that it's worth over $6 million. He told me not to show it to anybody."

"They shine. They're gorgeous," adds Frieda, showing Correspondent Lesley Stahl the diamonds.

But one day, Yury didn't come home. Frieda says he just disappeared with his clothes, and was unreachable by phone. And the diamonds? "Zircon," says Frieda.

The diamonds were fake, but the separation papers Frieda signed were real. And she says she had unknowingly signed away her rights to any of her husband's assets.

"This is a crime. What he did to me was a crime," says Frieda, who hired a lawyer to try to stop the divorce.

She pinned her hopes on the wisdom of a New York State Supreme Court justice, Judge Gerald Garson. "He would see that this is a set-up," she says. "And you know, a woman married to her husband, a mother of three, will get her rights."

But when she walked into his court, her hopes were shattered. "The judge tells me that I better settle this case and I don't have any chances," says Frieda. "He told me if I'm not gonna settle, I'm gonna end up in jail."

The judge chastised her for renting an apartment she co-owned with her husband, without his permission. Stunned by the judge's behavior, Frieda says she saw no choice but to agree to the divorce.

"I said, 'To hell with the money. I'm a nurse. I'll make it. As long as I have my kids, I'll just continue with my life. It's not the end,'" says Frieda.

Two years later, Frieda fell in love, got married and became pregnant.

Frieda says her ex-husband got jealous, and began trying to convince the children they would have a better life with him. Her 13-year-old son, Yaniv, liked the idea.

One night, when Frieda came home from work, her ex-husband called the police on her. "[They said,] 'Your son said that you hit him with a belt,'" recalls Frieda.

Yaniv was standing outside with his father, and told the police his mother had beaten him with a belt three days earlier. Frieda says her son had a fresh red mark on his face, one that looked like it was new: "My ex-husband pointed to my son and said, 'You see? You see the red line? This is mommy hit him with a belt.'"

She says she has no idea how the red mark got on her son's face: "I don't know. Kids play basketball, they jump. I don't know."

"I never hit my kids. Never ever. I'm against it," adds Frieda. "My kids are well dressed. Very clean. Honors in school. I'm proud to be their mother."

Frieda was arrested, and at that point, she says her son protested. "He said, 'No, no it was a misunderstanding.' Then he went to my ex-husband and started hitting him and saying, 'Daddy, you lied to me. You said they're not going to hurt Mommy,'" recalls Frieda.

"They put me in a cell with I will say 30-50 people. All knocked out. Me shaking. Pregnant," says Frieda. "Sitting and crying and I can't believe my son did this to me. It's for no reason. I never hit my son."

Then the news got even worse for Frieda. Her ex-husband filed for custody; he wanted all the children. And the man deciding the fate of her family was Judge Garson.

"When Judge Garson called me into his chamber room, he asked me who I wanted to live with, my mother or my father. So I told him my mother," says Sharon. "He told me that he's an adult and he decides, whether I like it or not. So what's the point of me talking to the judge if he didn't even want to hear what I wanted to say?"

"I told him my mom," says Natti. "And he said, 'You never know what's gonna happen. It's up to me.'"

Frieda says she wasn't going to sit and wait: "I'm not going to lose my kids." She heard about a man, Nissim Elmann, who could help, a businessman who was boasting around town that he could influence the judge.

"I said, 'Let me call him,'" says Frieda. "And he tells me that this judge is in his pocket."

Frieda says Elmann told her he could prove it by dialing the judge himself. She listened in to the conversation, and says she heard a man say that she was going to lose her children in 30 days. She then hung up the phone, terrified.

Frieda began calling every law enforcement agency she could think of, including the FBI. "I was very hysterical," she says.

She was directed to Bryan Wallace, Kings County assistant district attorney, who was the first investigator to take Frieda seriously. "There was a businessman named Nissim Elmann who claimed that he had influence in Judge Garson's part," says Wallace. "Of course, my antennas went up."

"We're not talking about a traffic ticket here or someone jumping a turnstile. We're talking about corruption in the court system. And the pawns that are being played with here are children," says prosecutor Noel Downey, who works with Wallace in the Rackets division.

"We explained to her that we needed to, in essence test her, to see if what she was telling us was the truth," says Michael Vecchione, Downey and Wallace's boss, who knew that proving corruption in the courts would be difficult.

"I told them, 'Put wires on me,'" says Frieda. "I'll prove you this judge is corrupted."

"We couldn't cover her inside the warehouse. It's a rather stark and daunting place. It's kind of brick and closed up and so once Frieda went in that location [she was on her own]," says Vecchione. "Her allegations were that a Supreme Court Judge had been bribed. She was about to lose children."

Frieda, three months pregnant, was on an undercover mission to expose corruption. She headed to a warehouse in downtown Brooklyn to meet with Elmann.

"We didn't really know what Nissim Elmann was about. We didn't know what he was capable of," says Vecchione, who assigned detectives Jeanette Spordone and George Terra to Frieda.

The detectives wired up Frieda. "She was a tiger. She was protecting her cubs," says Spordone. "It was ballsy of her to go in there. We pulled up and watched her go in. We really didn't know what was going on inside that warehouse."

Frieda found Elmann right in his office. Their conversation was mostly in Hebrew. Elmann tells Frieda that the judge is looking at papers submitted by her ex-husband. Frieda then pleads with Elmann, who shows her his cell phone, with Judge Garson's phone number on the screen.

Elmann, an electronics salesman, guarantees she'll win custody of her two younger children, but it will cost her.

Two weeks later, Frieda, wearing a wire again, visits Elmann to negotiate a price for her children. The price to keep custody of Sharon and Notti was $9,000.

Frieda says it worked. She says Judge Garson and Paul Siminovsky, a lawyer assigned by Garson to represent her children, soon began treating her differently. "I was seeing results," says Frieda. "In the beginning, I was so dangerous. Now, I'm a very good mother."

"She saw such a difference, how people treated her from top down," says Downey. "We noticed it as well."

Now, it was up to the district attorney to figure out how an electronics salesman from Brooklyn could possibly be influencing custody decisions. They put a tap on Elmann's phone.

On tape, Elmann assures Siminovsky that he's working to get him money from various divorce litigants. Simonovsky also brags about boozing it up with Judge Garson.

Detectives begin tailing Siminovsky, who is seen in a surveillance tape hugging Elmann. "Siminovsky and Elmann have a very tight relationship," says Downey. "Siminovsky has a very tight relationship with the judge."

Investigators believed they had figured out the food chain, literally. Vecchione showed 48 Hours the bar where "Siminovsky and the judge would meet for lunch, drinks and dinners."

"They were very well known at the Archives because they were there every afternoon," adds Spordone. "Very friendly. They were buddies."

"I'm talking about an attorney who would bring the judge out to lunch, to drinks, to dinners," says Downey. "Not once, but we're talking several hundred times. Every time, Siminovsky paid."

"Paul Siminovsky would pick up the tab. It was a given," says Terra. "People know that this lawyer is before this judge on a case. It's wrong. It's inappropriate. It's unethical."

If this was what going on in public, authorities wanted to know what was happening behind closed doors. Were judicial decisions being bought?

On a cold December night, detectives from the district attorney's office made their way into Judge Garson's chambers. They placed a tiny camera in his ceiling.

"We had a microwave dish that would read signals going back to our office," says Vecchione. "We had people who were monitoring it, all day long and into the evening."

Just weeks after Frieda, terrified she was going to lose her children, started working undercover to try to prove whether Judge Garson was taking payoffs, the district attorney began surveillance of the judge and his meetings with Siminovsky.

"You have this attorney Siminovsky getting inappropriately cozy with a judge who's appearing before, that he has cases with," says Downey.

One of Siminovsky's clients was Sigal Levi's estranged husband, Avraham Levi. Detectives secretly listened in as Judge Garson told Siminovsky that his client would win the family home – and that Levi would "walk away with nothing." At a later date, Garson instructs Siminovsky how to write a memo on the issue.

According to investigators, the judge and the lawyer said things about other women, too. "The way he spoke about women was really just beyond sexist," says Downey. "I think it borders on disturbing."

Investigators say they heard Siminovsky tell Elmann what Garson said about Frieda. "The judge was admiring her lips," says Vecchione.

But the worst thing that was going on in Garson's chambers, according to investigators, were the kickbacks – in the form of lucrative work. "You see Siminovsky's assignment numbers almost triple," says Vecchione.

Investigators say all the wining and dining of the judge paid off for Siminovsky in a big way. If a child needed representation in a custody case, Garson would assign Siminovsky as the law guardian – and the divorcing parents or the taxpayers would foot the bill, often tens of thousands of dollars.

Garson's behavior was especially appalling for Joe Hynes, the district attorney in charge. For him, the investigation was personal.

"I saw the way the courts treated my mother when she was being beaten up by my father. I have a very special interest in making damn sure that kinda stuff doesn't continue," says Hynes. "Frankly, I was shocked that it was going on at all. I thought that there had been significant changes in the way the courts acted towards women litigants and their kids."

The district attorney thought he had the goods on Siminovsky, but he wanted Judge Garson. He told his staff to offer Siminovsky a deal and get him to flip. They would recommend that Siminovsky serve no prison time.

It was an offer he couldn't refuse. Simonovsky took the deal; he would wear a wire and go see the judge.

The district attorney bought a $275 dollar box of cigars. "And one afternoon, after Siminovsky went to lunch with the judge, and after he paid for the lunch again, came back to the robbing room, gave him the box of cigars," says Vecchione. "And said, 'This is thanks for your help in the Levy case.'"

Next, Siminovsky brought $1,000 in cash as a thank you to Garson for referring a case to him in another court.

"You see him reach into his pocket and he takes out a thousand dollars, and he hands it over to the judge and the judge takes it and put it into his pants pocket," says Vecchione, describing what is happening on the tape. "Siminovsky leaves, and the judge takes it out of his pocket. Takes a couple of bills and puts it into another pocket and puts some in an envelope."

Judge Garson then calls Siminovsky back to his office. He tells Simonovsky that it's too much money and tries to give it back. But Siminovsky insists, and in the end, Garson keeps the money. "What we had all suspected he would do, he actually did," says Vecchione.

"Joe Hynes, the district attorney in this case, would like nothing better than to tag Jerry Garson with the fact that he accepted a bribe," says attorney Ronald Fischetti, who represents Judge Garson, and says the judge's behavior may look bad, but there's nothing illegal about any of it.

"He never fixed a case. He never accepted any money on any cases whatsoever. The $1,000 was a referral fee that Paul Siminovsky said, 'You referred me a case. I received a fee. And here's the $1,000 dollars.'"

Are judges supposed to take referral fees? "Absolutely not. And he tried to give it back three times," says Fishetti.

"But he didn't try to give it all back," says Stahl.

"He did. The whole $1000," says Fischetti. "You see him counting it out. Put it in an envelope, opened a drawer, gave it back to him. That's our position."

But Garson ended up taking it. "You've heard of the law of entrapment, I'm sure," says Fischetti, who adds that Garson showed Siminovsky no special treatment in exchange for all those meals.

"The only bribe he's accused of taking is lunch and dinner with Paul Siminovsky in order to have favorable treatment for Paul Siminovsky and give him law guardianships. Now I tell you, I mean, that it is so ridiculous on its face. A person like Jerry Garson, who's a Supreme Court judge, is not going to throw on his robes for a hamburger."

"But the judge is on tape telling and coaching Siminovsky on how to win the case in front of him," says Stahl. "He's giving him lessons. He's telling him how to write memos. That's on tape."

"I understand that. He had made a decision regarding the property in that case, and what he was doing is telling Paul Siminovsky, in his own words, that he had ruled his favor, and you're gonna win. And that's wrong," says Fischetti.

"He says, 'Your client's gonna win. But he doesn't deserve it,'" says Stahl. "It sounds as though he's saying, 'I shouldn't be doing this. But because of our relationship, I'm going to."

"That's not correct," says Fischetti.

But 48 hours after Judge Garson took that money, detectives picked him up and brought him to a place they call "the Gulag." The $1,000 was still in his pocket.

When Judge Garson saw what investigators had on tape, they say he offered to cut a deal. But in the end, it fell apart.

Nine months after Frieda went undercover, the authorities arrested Garson and charged him with receiving a bribe. Accepting all those free lunches could put the judge behind bars for up to seven years.

When investigators raided Elmann's warehouse, they found a treasure trove of documents. "When these drawers are opened, you feel like you're in a satellite file room for the matrimonial court," says Downey.

Investigators arrested Elmann, retired court clerk Paul Sarnell, and Judge Garson's court officer Louis Salerno. They were accused of taking bribes to steer cases to Garson's court.

A surveillance tape shows Salerno accepting a bribe, a bag full of electronics, right on the courthouse steps.

"It's a conspiracy, first and foremost," says Downey, who adds that the unraveling of it all started with Frieda.

But there were dozens of women who say that because of Judge Garson, they lost custody of their children.

Sigal Levi, the woman whose divorce Garson was discussing in the undercover tape, had always suspected corruption. In fact, she's the one whose tip to Frieda about Elmann started Frieda on her crusade.

Garson was arrested before he ruled on Levi's case, but her estranged husband pleaded guilty to conspiring to bribe the judge. "He told me he went to the right people to take care of me," says Sigal Levi.

Her husband paid Elmann $10,000. Ironically, he says he's the victim, and that he only did it because Elmann threatened him and said he'd lose everything if he didn't pay up.

"I knew about Sigal's divorce probably before she did. I knew her name, what was going on," says Lisa Cohen, who knew because she and her husband were friendly with Elmann.

"I knew that he had the judge in his pocket. I knew that he was very friendly with the judge as well as he had a very intimate rapport with Paul Siminovsky. … From the horse's mouth, he told me, 'Any favor you need, the judge is in my pocket.'"

So when Cohen and her husband went through their own divorce later that year, she says she was terrified: "I received the notice in the mail to appear in Supreme Court. And sure enough, Judge Garson's name was right there. Said that's it. I'm doomed. I'm fixed. And it's all over."

The district attorney has not charged Cohen's ex-husband with any wrongdoing, but she still believes her husband's friendship with Elmann hurt her. She feels Judge Garson shorted her on child support.

Garson has not been charged with fixing any decisions, but an administrative judge has been appointed to review his divorce and custody rulings.

Elmann, the man alleged to be the gatekeeper of Garson's corrupt court, sat down with 48 Hours for his first interview. He had his lawyer, Gerald McMann, by his side.

Did he ever bribe Judge Garson? "Absolutely not," says Elmann.

And Siminovsky? "I was not under the impression that I was bribing him," says Elmann.

In fact, Elmann has been charged with conspiracy to bribe practically everyone in Judge Garson's court, from employees Salerno and Sarnell, to Siminovsky, to Judge Garson himself.

But Elmann says he never really knew the judge, and that he was just trying to hook people up with a lawyer the judge seemed to favor: "I was really showing off that I'm a big shot, and that was my biggest mistake that I live was showing off."

"When you told Frieda that if she didn't pay, she was going to lose her kids in 30 days, what did you mean," asks Stahl.

"There's no question that his responses to her on many occasions, if they were true, would be criminal. But they weren't true," says McMann. "He was telling these people that 'I have the judge in my pocket. Oh, I just got off the telephone with Judge Garson. I just did this.' None of these things were true, not a single one."

Did Elmann mislead Frieda? "I might have done that," he says. "Just to calm her down."

Elmann now says he lied to Frieda when he told her that her ex-husband had already bribed the judge. And in fact, there is no evidence that her ex slipped anyone any money, and he has not been charged with any wrongdoing.

Still, Elmann convinced Frieda that her ex was up to no good, and took $9,000 from her. He says he gave it all to Siminovsky.

"Not even one cent [did I keep]," says Elmann. "Everything, I give it to, not even one cent."

"What did he do for anybody except his pocket. That's it. What did he do? He destroyed children's lives, and I don't have answers for my children. I just don't," says Cohen.

But Elmann and his attorney believe that if anyone's motives should be in question, it should be Frieda's.

"Frieda Hanimov is not a crusader, trying to clean up corruption in Brooklyn. Nor is Joe Hynes," says McMann. "Frieda is a useful tool so that Joe Hynes can get publicity for his case."

Is McMann suggesting that Frieda is not a very truthful person? "I'm not suggesting it," says McMann. "I'm stating it categorically. She's a liar."

McMann calls Frieda a child abuser who found a way to get the charges dropped. Did she hit her child? Vecchione says, "None of us believe she did. She felt that the husband had been manipulating her child, which is what happened."

But Frieda still has to convince the court that she's the better parent to raise her oldest son. And for two years after Judge Garson's arrest, she's still fighting for custody.

Finally, Yaniv, who still says his mother hit him, agrees to live with her because he wants to be near his school.

"I got my son back. It's like my heart is like jumping up and down. This is every mother's dream," says Frieda. "You know, to have kids back. I can't express that. This is a big win for me. A big win. I'm so glad. We got it."

It seems that women all over the country have heard about what she's done.

"I'm just a mother, who fight the system and won," says Frieda, who's being compared to Erin Brockovich.

Every month, women gather at Frieda's house. And if Frieda hears what she thinks is evidence of corruption, she calls her new friends in law enforcement.

"If I can help those people," she says. "I was there once. If I can help those women, why not?"

In the wake of Judge Garson's arrest, court administrators have formed a new commission to reform New York's divorce court. On this day, Judith Sheindlein is speaking. Before she was TV's Judge Judy, she was a family court judge in New York for 25 years.

She says Judge Garson's case is a wakeup call for New York and the rest of the country. "I don't know all the facts. I only know what I read in the paper," says Sheindlein. "But certainly, here is a man who has brought the judiciary into disrepute because of at least his stupidity. At least his stupidity."

And she says she's met plenty of judges with bad judgment. "There's no question in my mind that decisions are made every day in cases, made because of cronyism," says Sheinlein.

Whether or not Judge Garson is found guilty, the district attorney credits Frieda with forcing the leadership of the court to re-examine how they pick judges, handle custody cases, and train law guardians.

"Has Frieda done that? You bet she did," says Hynes. "Were it not for Frieda, I doubt very much if anyone would have known about it."

Now, Hollywood has come calling. A screenwriter is following Frieda around.

The script line is simple: A Russian immigrant, for whom English is a third language, exposed a potential sewer of corruption in an American court.

Electronics salesman Nissim Elmann has pleaded not guilty and goes on trial next week.

Retired court clerk Paul Sarnell was found not guilty of all charges. Court officer Louis Salerno was convicted of receiving a bribe and is awaiting sentencing.

Judge Gerald Garson has pleaded not guilty and will be tried this fall.
  • Rebecca Leung

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