A year ago J Street — the putatively progressive fledgling counter to the Israel lobbying group AIPAC — was riding high. They had just received a write up in the New York Times Magazine that was somewhere between a press release and a love poem and, with a complaisant Obama in the White House, the tiny organization seemed poised to be a significant player in the Middle East discussion.
My, as grandma said, have times changed.
For starters, J Street’s director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, has shown himself to be a Junior Beltway Pinocchio, serially denying his organization had the financial backing of George Soros (to the tune of $245,000) until, when confronted with the facts by the Washington Times‘ Eli Lake, finally acknowledging it with this risible entry on his organization’s website: “J Street has said it doesn’t receive money from George Soros, but now news reports indicate that he has in fact contributed.”
News reports? I guess in Washington no one admits they lied, not even supposedly idealistic young men trying to tell other people how to live, maybe especially them. Why Ben-Ami continued to prevaricate about Soros is hard to say — possibly to separate him and his group from the more outlandish Soros-supported propagandists at MoveOn, etc. — but, besides being dishonest, it wasn’t a particularly bright thing to do. Forms 990 — the “Return of Organization Exempt From Income Tax,” which document all donors to groups like his — are public record, as well they should be.
J Street’s 990, as Jeff Dunetz first made public apparently and many now know, revealed a great deal more. The finances of J Street are, to put it mildly, mighty strange — and the strangest element is a woman named Consolacion “Connie” Esdicul, a Filipina living in Happy Valley, Hong Kong, who, for reasons unknown, took such an active interest in the Middle East she donated more than triple the sum of George Soros to J Street — to wit, exactly $811,697. Where this odd figure comes from is baffling. China? $811,697 converts to 5430577.6088 yuan renminbi, not exactly a round number either. (It does come out as something closer to 600,000 euros, depending on the day, but even that is imperfect.)
J Street informs us that Ms. Esdicul was introduced to them by Bill Benter. Benter, a businessman/math whiz, is apparently known as one of the most successful sports bettors in the world, having invented a sophisticated form of computerized parimutuel betting that allows him to outwit competing gamblers at Happy Valley, which turns out to be a racetrack as well as a Hong Kong neighborhood known by some for money laundering. Benter is from Pittsburgh, is married to Vivian Fung (a Hong Kong native whom he married in a Tibetan Buddhist rite), and has his own foundation. More of him in a moment.
So who is Connie Esdicul? She has remarkably little footprint on the Internet for someone able to donate nearly a million dollars to one organization. Others have looked into this with good result, but Pajamas Media’s “crack investigation team” has this to offer:
Ms. Esdicul is evidently from a Philippine family from the Manila area. This is the Friendster page (Asian version of Facebook) for the Esdicul clan. This is Connie’s (Consolacion’s) Flixtsr page. She has fourteen friends to share her movie choices, several of whom seem to be family members. (These would include Bing Esdiscul Santos under the user name cfbbing. If you look at the Esdicul clan on Friendster, you will see their company listed as CFB, Inc.)
Connie is also a member of the Hong Kong Rotary Club where she entered a draw and came in eighth, winning a prize valued at $650 (probably optimistically, given that it is a roller ball pen set):
|Parker IM Series – China 60th Anniversary Frontier and Roller Ball Pen Set||$650||204||Consolacion Esdicul|
You can find the link here. Scroll all the way down, there were a lot of prizes. And that’s the point. Unless I am badly mistaken, this is not even remotely the kind or class of person that makes million dollar donations.
She is a cut-out.
This is also, to some degree, corroborated by where she lives. PJM’s “crack investigative team” has probably located her apartment building via Google Earth. But we’re not going to show it to you, other than to tell you that it has a good view of the track. Ms. Esdicul deserves some privacy. She’s not Al Gore and she doesn’t, like Al, deserve to be outed for hypocrisy. She may be (relatively) an innocent party in all this — somebody’s girl friend (she has no ring in any photos) or “executive assistant.” Fifth business.
I rather doubt that’s true of Benter. His own foundation is determinedly and publicly apolitical, showing uncontroversial donations like the Boy Scouts. But the Way Back Machine (2007) tells us a bit more about this guy than that he had a Tibetan Buddhist wedding. He was a supporter of a group called CALME, a Middle East peace organization with peacenik rhetoric similar to J Street’s. The list of CALME’s supporters is short, but if you scroll it, you will find William Benter and further up S. Daniel Abraham, another of the small number of donors on the J Street 990.
This all happened at virtually the same time Benter’s “associate” Connie made her donation. Does this mean Benter laundered 800k of gambling profits through Esdicul to J Street? Of course not. But it certainly sounds suspicious.
And there’s more. Benter had a partner named Alan Wood, now deceased. Wood made frequent trips to Manila, apparently. I could go on, but I’d like our crack investigating team to do more research.
But I wonder if it’s necessary. J Street may already be toast. And if you detect an undertone of schadenfreude when I write that, you are correct.