Chamber Of Secrets
Frieda Hanimov, a pregnant mother, goes
undercover to keep her children, and expose an
allegedly corrupt Supreme Court justice. (CBS/48
(CBS) This story originally aired July 2, 2005.
It was updated Aug. 2, 2007. 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 19, 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
divorce. She claims it was part of a scheme to hide
their assets. "He gave me diamonds," she says. "He told
me that itís 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, in a broadcast
that first aired in 2005.
But one day, Yury didnít 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 husbandís 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 donít have any chances," says Frieda. "He
told me if I'm not gonna settle, I'm gonna end up in
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,'" Frieda recalls.
Two years later, Frieda fell in love, got married and
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
"They put me in a cell with, I will say, 30 to 50
people. Me shaking. Pregnant," says Frieda. "Sitting and
crying and I canít 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.
(CBS) "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
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,
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 Garsonís part," says Wallace. "Of
course, my antennas went up."
"We're not talking about a traffic ticket here or
someone jumping a turnstile. Weíre talking about
corruption in the court system. And the pawns that are
being played with here are children," says prosecutor
Noel Downey, who was working with Bryan Wallace in the
Michael Vecchione, their boss, knew proving corruption
in the courts would be difficult and explosive.
"'Put wires on me,'" says Frieda. "I'll prove you this
judge is corrupted."
Says Vecchione, "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. 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
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
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
Elmann, an electronics salesman, guarantees she'll win
custody of her two younger children, but it will cost
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 Nati was $9,000.
And Frieda says it worked. Judge Garson had appointed
lawyer Paul Siminovsky, to represent her children.
Suddenly, Simonovsky was treating Frieda very
"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
On tape, Elmann assures Siminovsky that heís working to
get him money from various divorce litigants. Simonovsky
also brags about boozing it up with Judge Garson.
(CBS) 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."
"Iím talking about an attorney who would bring the judge
out to lunch, to drinks, to dinners," says Downey. "Not
once, but weíre 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
If this was what was 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
attorneyís office made their way into Judge Garsonís
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 Siminovskyís 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 Ė and that Sigal 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
Ė 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 Ė and the divorcing
parents or the taxpayers would foot the bill, often tens
of thousands of dollars.
Garsonís 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 doesnít
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."
(CBS) 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
It was an offer he couldnít refuse. Simonovsky took the
deal; he would wear a wire and go see the judge.
The district attorney bought a $275 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
$1,000, 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 Ron
Fischetti, who represented Judge Garson and told 48
Hours the judgeís behavior may look bad, but thereís
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 hereís the $1,000.'"
Are judges supposed to take referral fees? "Absolutely
not. And he tried to give it back three times," says
"But he didn't try to give it all back," says Stahl.
"He did. The whole $1,000," 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
"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
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.
(CBS) 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
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
"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. Ö 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 Garsonís name was right
there. Said that's it. I'm doomed. I'm fixed. And it's
Lisaís ex-husband hasnít been charged with any
wrongdoing, but Lisa still believes his friendship with
Elmann hurt her. She believes Judge Garson shorted her
on child support. Judge Garson has not been charged with
fixing any decisions, but an administrative judge was
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
Did he ever bribe Judge Garson? "Absolutely not," says
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
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."
"When you told Frieda that if she didn't pay, she was
going to lose her kids in 30 days, what did you mean?"
"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
Did Elmann mislead Frieda? "I might have done that," he
says. "Just to calm her down."
Elmann says he lied to Frieda when he told her that her
ex-husband was bribing 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
"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 childrenís lives, and I
donít have answers for my children. I just donít," says
But Elmann and his attorney believe that if anyone's
motives should be in question, it should be Frieda's.
(CBS) "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 sheís
the better parent to raise her oldest son. And for two
years after Judge Garsonís arrest, sheís still fighting
Finally, Yaniv, who still says his mother hit him,
agrees to live with her because he wants to be near his
"I got my son back. Itís like my heart is, like, jumping
up and down. This is every motherís dream," says Frieda.
"You know, to have kids back. I canít express that. This
is a big win for me. A big win. Iím 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, Frieda meets with other women. 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 Garsonís arrest, court
administrators formed a new commission to reform New
Yorkís divorce court, and Frieda was right there.
But in this part of New York at least, things are
changing. The district attorney credits Frieda with
forcing the leadership of the court to reexamine how
they pick judges and how they handle custody cases.
"Has Frieda done that? You bet she did," says Hynes.
Now Hollywood has come calling: a movie company bought
the rights to Friedaís story.
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. And now, the women
who thought they had no voice at all will get to be
However tenacious Frieda was, it would take nearly five
years before the case against Judge Gerald Garson would
go to trial. A jury found the judge Ė who handled more
than 1,000 matrimonial cases while on the bench - guilty
of receiving bribes.
Garson stood before the court, ashamed. "I am profoundly
sorry," he said crying, "for the public scrutiny
presented upon the judiciary as a whole. What I have to
say now is to my family. My wife, my children and
grandchildren and friends I know that my own actions and
shortcoming has changed their lives forever. I apologize
to all of you and the pain I have caused you."
But the former judge refused to apologize to all the
women who say they and their children were his victims.
Former Judge Garson was sentenced to a term of three to
ten years in prison.
Paul Siminovsky pled guilty to a misdemeanor and
received a one year sentence.
Nissim Elmann reversed himself and pled guilty to all
the charges against him.
Louis Salerno was convicted of receiving a bribe.
Paul Sarnell was found not guilty of all charges.