For Part 1: The Baffling Case of Asher Karni (Part 1)
By Shoshana Kordova and Sara Leibovich-Dar, March 4, 2004
Undercutting the boss?
Karni had a double incentive to stay in South Africa, said Mickey Glass: Jewish community members were pressuring him to teach religious classes, and he received a business offer he couldn’t turn down.
Karni went to work at Eagle Technology, a middleman company that buys technological equipment associated with the defense industry from countries like the U.S. and Israel and sells it to South African buyers. Michael Bagraim, an attorney for Eagle, described the company this way: “If you need to shoot something or explode something and there’s electronic equipment for that, they can sell that.”
When Eagle Technology fired Karni in October 2002, the company claimed that he had been competing with his boss – selling Eagle’s clients the same military technology Eagle sells, but at a lower price and for his own profit.
Karni filed an arbitration suit for unfair dismissal, demanding more than 1 million rand (about $116,400 in 2002), said Bagraim. However, Eagle’s contentions were never proved because Karni dropped the case after several days of cross-examination. The parties settled the case with Eagle issuing a letter of apology “for any hurt feelings,” said Bagraim.
Peter Kantor, Karni’s lawyer in the dispute, called the settlement a “moral victory” and said Karni was dismissed only after sending the company several letters claiming he had not received all the commission payments due him for the previous three years. A case brought by Karni for insufficient remuneration is still pending, but is being delayed until Karni’s return to South Africa, whenever that might be.
Partial transcripts of the arbitration hearings indicate that Eagle accused Karni of making a private 300,000 rand ($34,900 at the time) deal for another company in a transaction that was supposed to have gone to Eagle. The money was then loaned to Karni for his mortgage, Eagle charges.
Due to the settlement, the accusation was never proved or disproved. Kantor, who is based in Cape Town, said his client had sold technological equipment only to companies outside South Africa – with Eagle’s knowledge and consent – and had never competed with Eagle while he was still working for the company, which sells only within the country. “He consistently and totally denied any untoward dealings and competition with [Eagle],” said Kantor, calling the company’s claim “totally untrue.” Kantor said that although Karni had set up his own company – an electronics supplier for the commercial and military industries called Top-Cape Technology – 18 months before his dismissal, any domestic sales Karni made took place only after he was fired from Eagle.
The arbitration transcripts also reveal what can be interpreted as possible inconsistencies in Karni’s presentation of his financial well-being or as an indication that Karni may have wanted to live beyond his means.
When asked at the hearing whether he had said it would have been difficult for him to resign because he was in a “financial predicament” due to a “lack of resources,” Karni said yes. However, he also said he made 700,000 rand a year ($81,490 in 2002) and had recently bought a 1.5 million rand house ($174,600 at the time).
When asked to reconcile his spending with his declared financial straits, Karni said his wife wasn’t happy with the “terrible” area “with all the dirt” in which they had been living for 13 years, on Eagle Technology chief Alan Bearman’s premises. Karni said his wife had been pressuring him to move and that sometimes people reach a decision that the time has come to change their lifestyle.
Karni also admitted in the hearing to sending out a brochure to prospective clients that claimed he had resigned rather than been fired. “Due to internal politics, family-relevant matters and management policies that I don’t agree with, I have decided to go my own way,” he wrote. When asked whether the statement was a lie, he said: “You can call it a lie, a white lie.”
Responding to questions about why Karni was asking Eagle for compensation, he said, “I am not a greedy person, and the money was nothing for me.” Karni’s Top-Cape Web site states about himself, “His experience, integrity, honesty and friendliness placed him and his company as prime supplier to the local and international electronics market place.”
Indeed, the American accusations against Karni have come as a complete surprise to at least one company that has had dealings with him. “When I heard what’s going on with him now, I was in indescribable shock,” said Haim Hoppert, head of the Israel branch of Excalibur, a company that manufactures airplane equipment. “He was always straight with us.”
The sentiment is echoed by one of Karni’s friends from yeshiva, Yosef Gesner, an accountant from Petah Tikva. “As far as I remember him, he’s not one of those people who would do things like this, certainly not for greed. He wasn’t after money and capital.”
For many of Karni’s friends and acquaintances familiar with his business dispute, it has merely fueled their conviction that Karni is the victim of an elaborate set-up. They believe the anonymous South African source who tipped off the U.S. was one of Karni’s local competitors.
Karni’s friends in Cape Town enumerate his good qualities, citing them as near proof of his innocence. Indeed, if Karni ever felt a sense of abandonment as a young orphan, he seemed intent on making sure that others in his vicinity didn’t suffer the same fate. On Fridays, he would regularly drive to the local geriatric home to bring people without close relatives in South Africa to spend Shabbat in his house, said a family friend who asked to remain anonymous. Especially on Shabbat, said the friend, Karni’s “house was always open to people in need,” including “a lot of people who didn’t have family.”
Even among Karni’s positive attributes, it is money that stands out: his friends say he couldn’t stop giving it away. Generosity – along with honesty and integrity – is one of the qualities Karni’s South African friends and acquaintances mention most frequently when asked to describe him.
“We’ve always known Asher as a very straight, honest and upright person,” said one friend. “If he gives a donation to the shul [synagogue], the next day the check will be there.”
Stan Kahn, an active member of the synagogue who has worked with Karni in running it, recounted seeing Karni giving money to a poor man who appeared to rely on the regularity of his charity. “I’ve seen [Karni] every day when he came out of shul – there was a poor guy sitting and waiting there, and there wasn’t a day that he didn’t give him some money,” said Kahn. Karni also made frequent donations to the shul – when he got called up to the Torah, at birthdays, “any celebration,” said Kahn. “He was always the first to give tzedaka [charity]; he was generous.”
But when it came to the apparent source of that money – Karni’s job – he was almost entirely close-mouthed, said several community members, including those who have known him for nearly two decades. “I’ve only known him from the shul, but he seems to be a man of high integrity,” said Rabbi Jonathan Altman, who has led the Morasha synagogue for two years. “I have no idea about his business, I have no idea about his personal life. His business activities were very separate from his synagogue involvement.”
Altman and others said people who knew Karni were shocked by the allegations against him, and that the topic has become a major focus of conversation. On the day of Karni’s first hearing in the U.S. in January, some members of the synagogue even called for a communal day of fasting and prayer on Karni’s behalf, said Altman. He said he told them they could fast if they wanted to but that he would not declare a community fast day “under these circumstances.”
At least one Cape Town resident, though, has trouble reconciling the news reports she has read about Karni with the support he’s getting from the religious Jewish community. Another said she found it strange that people are so willing to donate their money to Karni, saying they believe in him as though he were a god.
How much did Karni know?