Before he went to prison, and before he was released on orders from President
Even as borrowers complained in court that theyâd been frightened by his threats and ruined by his ripoffs, Braun faced no punishment. It wasnât that the authorities were unaware of him. In fact heâd been operating as a loan shark while out on bail after a 2010 arrest on unrelated federal drug-trafficking charges, wearing an electronic ankle bracelet monitored by the U.S. Department of Justice. His trial was delayed for years without explanation.
Braunâs improbable career as a government-supervised predatory lender seemed to come to an end in 2020, when he was finally sent to a prison north of New York City to serve a 10-year sentence for the drug charges. While he was there, New Yorkâs attorney general sued him for usury, fraud, and harassment related to his lending. But then, in January 2021, he secured a last-minute grant of clemency from Trump. His sentence was commuted, and he was released. âPardon Frees a Drug Smuggler Known for Violence and Threats,â as the New York Times put it in a front-page story.
Trump didnât explain why Braun had been freed. A statement put out by the White House misspelled Braunâs first name, exaggerated the amount of time heâd spent in prison, and didnât mention the attorney generalâs ongoing lawsuit. âUpon his release, Mr. Braun will seek employment to support his wife and children,â it said. According to someone with knowledge of the arrangement, Braun told his probation officer heâd be working for the president of a cleaning service.
But among Braunâs associates and rivals, there were murmurs that heâd gone right back to lending money to very desperate people. A few months ago, tipsters began sending me the names of companies they said heâd started running. A search of court records revealed a network of at least a dozen entities that advance money at high rates and frequently sue borrowers. Tallying the debts in the cases showed the companies had loaned at least $17 million since Braunâs release, and thatâs just the loans that ended up in court. Braunâs name wasnât on any of the legal papers, but the tipsters told me he was in charge of the whole operation. They pointed me to an address in Borough Park, an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in central Brooklyn.
One source said Braun had been arriving there each day around 10 a.m. in a white Bentley Bentayga SUV. And so, on a Thursday morning in November, I waited across the street from a two-story brick building with a bakery and a Judaica shop on the ground floor.
At 10:47 a.m., I spotted him: a thin, balding man of 38, with a reddish tan. He was wearing a blue track jacket and driving a white Bentley just like they said. He steered the SUV toward the building, stopping to honk 10 or so times at someone blocking the ramp to an underground garage. When he looked up, his close-set eyes were unmistakable. Braun was back.
The Justice Department has a backlog of 18,292 requests for presidential pardons or commutations. Government lawyers vet the applicationsâlooking for nonviolent offenders who are serving unfairly long sentences, prisoners suffering from critical illness or old age, and people whoâve shown that theyâve changed their waysâthen pass them along to the White House.
Braun was an unlikely candidate. Prosecutors had accused him of being a high-volume drug trafficker whoâd coordinated with the Hells Angels and other organized crime groups to move $6 million of marijuana a week across the Canadian border into the U.S. At times, the prosecutors said, heâd resorted to violence. He also was still facing the lawsuit from New York Attorney General
Luckily for Braun, Trumpâs approach to clemency was as erratic as the rest of his presidency. Although administration loyalists dispute this, Trump seems mostly to have ignored the formal process. Instead he gave out pardons and commutations to whomever he felt like, including personal friends and those whoâd paid large fees to associates of his. According to the Federal Sentencing Reporter, a legal journal, only about 25 of Trumpâs 238 pardons and commutations went through official review. To pick one particularly egregious corruption allegation stemming from this approach: John Kiriakou, a former CIA officer convicted of leaking secrets to reporters, told me an associate of
Braunâs family seemed eager to curry Trumpâs favor. They turned to
Associates of Braunâs say heâs bragged about paying millions of dollars to various Trump-connected intermediaries to secure clemency. But Dershowitz told me heâd taken on Braunâs case for free, as he did for many other convicts. âNo lawyer in American history has ever done a higher percentage of pro bono cases in his career than me,â Dershowitz said. âNot John Adams, not Abraham Lincoln, not Thurgood Marshall.â Later in the conversation he acknowledged that he may have received a small fee from a Jewish organization to cover his expenses. He said he couldnât remember who paid him or exactly how much it was.
Braunâs release surprised many in his field, which is euphemistically called the merchant cash-advance business. Itâs an industry of fast-talking salespeople who frequently operate from modest offices in Manhattanâs financial district and the outer reaches of Brooklyn, dangling offers of quick money to desperate small-business owners. Among those working in the lower rungs of the business are stock scammers, mortgage fraudsters, and gangsters. Their interest rates are higher than what Mafia loan sharks once charged, but they get around usury laws by saying theyâre not lending at allâtheyâre buying the money that businesses will make in the future, at a discount. Courts generally accept this reasoning.
Iâd been hearing about Braun since 2014, when I started writing about his industry. Even rivals who defended the ethics of charging 1,000% interest rates described his tactics as unconscionable. These lenders complained that Braun would find and cheat their customers before they could collect on their own loans. But they were afraid of him and would clam up if I asked them to speak on the record. It seemed his drug-trafficking background worked to his advantageâanyone with Google could see that he stood accused of whipping an associate with a belt and that one of his co-defendants had been found dead of a gunshot wound in a torched car in Los Angeles. (Theyâd also see that Braun had been dubbed a âmamaâs boy drug dealerâ by the New York Post, because heâd been living with his parents.)
Some suspected that Braun was an informant and that he must have at least the tacit support of law enforcement. âHeâs fearless,â one cash-advance executive told me in 2018. âEither heâs crazy, or he knows heâs covered.â
When I looked into Braunâs lending operation, I learned that he was one of the most frequent users of an arcane legal instrument called a confession of judgment, which used the New York state court system to grab money from borrowersâ bank accounts. Before getting a loan, his customers would have to sign a statement giving up their right to defend themselves in court. Armed with one of these confessions, Braun could accuse the borrowers of not paying, even without proof, then legally seize their assets before they knew what had happened. Many of his customers told me heâd abused this power by taking more than he was owed.
Braunâs aggressiveness also made him terrifying to those in hock to him. Some said he would threaten to beat them or harm their families. âYou donât know who youâre f—king dealing with. We can get you wherever we want,â he told one borrower, who started carrying a gun, court papers say. âWe know where you live,â he said to another. âWeâll go after your family.â
Back then, with Braun ignoring my calls and emails, I stopped by his 12th-floor office in a shabby tower in downtown Manhattan. He berated me in front of about a dozen employees. âWhat are you, Inspector F—ing Gadget?â he yelled, spittle flying.
Then he told me he needed a cigarette and asked me to follow him to the roof. I suggested street level instead. Once we got downstairs, and heâd been calmed by one Newport after another, Braun turned plaintive. It seemed that his gangster talk was mostly an act, or at least that he could turn it off when it suited him. In a conversation that lasted almost two hours, he denied heâd ever cheated or threatened anyone. He suggested I wanted to hurt his family and said I was harassing him. Then he said I should come work with him.
In December 2018, I published my story about Braun, part of a series I wrote with
âZeke Faux,â he said, slowly.
Braun was facing a potential decades-long sentence, but he didnât look worried. Two drug traffickers had told me by then, in letters sent from prison, that Braun was an informant, and a person whoâd spoken extensively with him had said he expected to be let off with time served because of the information heâd provided. Braunâs lawyer told the court heâd put his past behind him and was now a âsuccessful businesspersonâ and a responsible husband and father.
âYour Honor, I just wanted to let you know and the court know that Iâm really sorry for my wrongdoings in the past, and Iâve changed a whole lot since then, and I have many, many reasons to continue to do good in the future in my current lifestyle,â Braun said.
But the judge,
âI believe there was a fairly thorough investigation of that done,â Heeren said. âWeâve met with Mr. Braun as well and spoken to him directly about the conduct, and heâs obviously denied it.â
The judge was unconvinced. She sentenced Braun to 10 years. Braunâs friends and family members looked shocked. Matsumoto told Braun he could take a few months to get his affairs in order before reporting to prison. As everyone walked out of the courtroom, Braun confronted me again. âThis guyâs a c—sucker!â he yelled. âF— you! You know what you do!â
The minimum-security prison in Otisville, N.Y., where Braun served his one-year stint, has long been a favored destination for Jewish white-collar criminals unlucky enough to wind up behind bars. An Orthodox rabbi holds services in a chapel lined with Hebrew texts. Lawrence Dressler, a lawyer who served time for mortgage fraud and now blogs about goings-on at Otisville under his prison nickname, Larry Noodles, recalled celebrating holidays with meals that included challah, freshly made hummus, and gefilte fish. Among Braunâs fellow inmates were former Trump lawyer
On Jan. 20, 2021, the day of Joe Bidenâs inauguration, Braun walked out of Otisville. He told a friend that he planned to stop for a mani-pedi on his way back to Brooklyn. His family sent out last-minute invitations for a âFreedom Bash.â That night, at an event space in Borough Park, Avi Perets, a popular Israeli singer, performed as merchant cash-advance salesmen buttonholed Braun and asked him for advice.
Within a few months, the tips about him started coming to me, in direct messages, texts, and late-night calls. âLet me know if you need any info on Jon Braun,â one wrote. âYouâre not even at the tip of the iceberg,â another texted. I started calling around to anyone in Braunâs circles, and eventually eight of his current and former business partners and friends shared details of Braunâs new operation in Borough Park. Most asked for anonymity, because theyâre afraid of him.
They told me that on the second floor of that brick building on Brooklynâs 13th Avenue about two dozen men work the phones. Some sweet-talk potential borrowers; others browbeat those whoâve fallen behind. Most use aliases when speaking with clients, and some donât even know each otherâs real names. Braun sits in a windowless room off the main bullpenâsometimes puffing on a vape pen, sometimes Newportsâand reviews borrowersâ bank statements.
He doesnât talk to customers on the phone much anymore, according to the current and former business partners, and heâs careful not to sign his name to any documents. Two of his cousins serve as his top lieutenants. But itâs Braun, the sources said, who decides who gets a loan, how much theyâre charged, and how to collect the debts.
The customers are truckers, contractors, cleaners, and butchers, in big cities and small towns from Texas to New York. In interviews, the borrowers said theyâd known they were taking on costly debt. But some said salespeople tricked them by promising theyâd get a second, cheaper loan once they paid back the first one or ripped them off by holding back as much as a third of the loan proceeds for hidden fees. The better loans never materialized. It sounded a lot like Braunâs old lending business.
âThese guys prey on people like meâpeople whoâve put so much money in their business that itâs affected their credit,â said Brian Massey, a mechanic in Memphis. He said he was promised a $20,000 loan on good terms and ended up with $7,000 at an annualized interest rate of 3,424%. In January, overwhelmed by the payments on that debt and other cash advances, he closed his shop and took a job as a security guard, he said.
Others also recounted having to lay off employees, borrow money from others, or close their doors. One, an executive recruiter, took his own life in May, leaving a note citing financial distress, according to an investigatorâs report, though the recruiterâs friends told me his main concern had been a larger debt he owed to a Mafia-connected loan shark in Florida.
Braun rarely uses confessions of judgment to collect his debts now that the tactic is heavily restricted in New York. But heâs found a similar maneuver in a neighboring state. In more than 100 cases in a Connecticut court, companies associated with Braunâincluding Matrix Advance, Bridge Funding Cap, and Gofund Advanceâhave used a legal procedure called prejudgment attachment. It relies on a clause deep in the fine print of the documents that borrowers must sign to get a loan, which allows a lawyer to go into their bank accounts and make their deposits inaccessible. With Braun essentially holding their money hostage, the borrower will usually agree to a settlement on his terms.
Thatâs what happened to Marvin Jackson, a trucker in Round Rock, Texas, whoâd named his company Amazing Grace Carrier Inc., after his grandmotherâs favorite song in church. He agreed to borrow $15,000 from Fundura Capital in June and pay back $799 a day. After fees, Jackson received only $11,000, and three weeks later, after heâd missed payments, Fundura used prejudgment attachment to have his bank account locked. It sued him for $25,495âmore than twice what heâd received. Jackson quickly agreed to a settlement. âIâm a small business trying to get off the ground. They were trying to bury me,â he said.
Sruly Getter, a former electrician whoâs now one of Braunâs top salesmen according to the sources familiar with the business, signed one of the court documents in Jacksonâs case. But when I called him, he denied any connection to Braun. âI have no idea whoâs Jonathan Braun,â Getter said. This was less than convincing, because based on a description from one of the tipsters, I was pretty sure Iâd seen him arriving at the Borough Park building in his own Bentley. Pressed, he admitted only to knowing of Braun. âFrom what Iâve heard, heâs a legend,â he said.
Other salesmenâs stories werenât much more credible. Joseph Kroen, a former car salesman whoâs signed court papers for some of the companies in the network, acknowledged that heâd worked with Braun, but he said Braun was only a consultant who advised him on how to best deal with people. âHe knows what people want, he knows how to read people, he knows how to make people live in peace,â Kroen said. A third salesman said having Braun as a consultant was like getting stock tips from Warren Buffett. âYou would be stupid not to take his advice,â he said.
One of my tipsters gave me Braunâs new phone number, and in November I called. First he hung up on me. When we talked later, he said he knew all about my recent reporting. He said that heâd heard recordings of me asking questions based on what he said was false information and that he knew who my sources were. He even texted over a photo of me sitting in the office of his brother-in-law, who also runs a merchant cash-advance company. Someone had snapped it surreptitiously. âYou went to my drug-addicted, alcoholic brother-in-law, and I donât know what his issue is with me, but he made up a whole bunch of stuff,â Braun said. The brother-in-law denied the substance-abuse claims but said he didnât want to say more, because his mother would be mad.
Braun did acknowledge working for a business that does consulting for cash-advance companies, but he wouldnât say which ones. He said he didnât file prejudgment attachment cases in Connecticut, and he denied cheating anyone, ever. âI definitely do not break the law whatsoever,â Braun said. âI go out of my way to not be involved in any shenanigans at all.â
Despite the devastation Braunâs borrowers allege heâs caused them, the court system rarely holds him back. More often, it helps him collect his debts. The contracts the borrowers sign are filled with so much punitive fine print that they allow him to do pretty much anything he wants. Even in a 2018 case, in which a judge ruled that Braunâs company had defrauded a plumber, the penalty was simply to pay the money back.
The federal prosecutors in Brooklyn who handled Braunâs drug-trafficking case declined to comment on whether theyâve looked into his loans. A criminal investigation by the New York City Police Department before Braunâs prison sentence went nowhere. A detective, Joseph Nicolosi, interviewed others in the cash-advance industry about Braun, even stopping a private jet on the tarmac at a New Jersey airport to talk with his associates, according to some of the people involved. In August 2020, a lawyer, who was representing a different group of Braunâs associates, said at a court hearing in a civil case that a federal prosecutor in Manhattan was planning to file criminal charges based on Nicolosiâs findings. But a year and a half later, no criminal case has materialized, and no one I talked to said theyâd heard from authorities since Braun had gotten out of prison. Nicolosi and the Manhattan prosecutor, Louis Pellegrino, declined to comment.
While Braun was in prison, the Federal Trade Commission sued him over his lending practices. He denied any wrongdoing in the case, which is pending. Heâs missed deadlines to respond to the New York attorney generalâs lawsuit against him, and the state is now seeking a $77 million default judgment. But it might be hard to collect that money from someone who knows all the ins and outs of debt-collection law, especially because the AG canât resort to the kinds of legal tricks Braun uses. Braunâs associates say he keeps no assets in his name, anyway. If heâs assessed a penalty, he can plead poverty and avoid paying it.
That doesnât mean heâs broke. He was photographed recently wearing Gucci slippers and what looked to be a Patek Philippe Aquanaut watch, worth about $120,000. Heâs building a 20,000-square-foot mansion in Lawrence, N.Y., on Long Islandâs south shore. On paper, his wife owns it, but heâs bragged about it to friends. One Otisville inmate remembers Braun spreading out the blueprints on a table in a common room and ostentatiously reviewing the details. Plans filed with the villageâs buildings department show that it will have 10 bedrooms, 14 bathrooms, and two elevators, one of them for cars. A rendering depicts a Bentley parked outside.
In July, Braun traveled to Miami for a relativeâs wedding. Another guest says they heard him bragging about the money he was making from cash advances. During the toasts, Braun smirked as the best man joked about his time in prison. âI see Itzik from Israel, Mr. Krys from Mexico, Camilo is here from Colombia, but most amazingly, Jon Braun is here all the way from Otisville!â the best man said. âThank you, President Donald J. Trump.â âWith
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