3 mayors, lawmakers arrested in corruption case

July 23, 2009 9:26:36 PM PDT
An investigation into the sale of black-market kidneys and fake Gucci handbags evolved into a sweeping probe of political corruption in New Jersey, ensnaring more than 40 people Thursday, including three mayors, two state lawmakers and several rabbis. Money Laundering Complaints

BEN HAIM
SCHMULIK COHEN
LEVI DEUTSCH and BINYOMIN SPIRA
YESHAYAHU EHRENTAL
MORDCHAI FISH, LAVEL SCHWARTZ, and YOLIE GERTNER
MORDCHAI FISH, LAVEL SCHWARTZ, ABRAHAM POLLACK and NAFTOLY WEBER
SAUL KASSIN
EDMOND NAHUM
LEVY IZHAK ROSENBAUM

Public Corruption Complaints

MOSHE ALTMAN
CHARLES AMON
JACK M. SHAW, EDWARD CHEATAM, and LEONA BELDINI
PETER CAMMARANO III and MICHAEL SCHAFFER
JOSEPH CARDWELL
GUY CATRILLO
ITZAK FRIEDLANDER
JOHN GUARINI
SHIMON HABER
MICHAEL J. MANZO, DENIS JASLOW, and JOSEPH CASTAGNA
MAHER A. KHALIL
JAMES P. "JIMMY" KING
LOUIS MANZO and RONALD MANZO
L. HARVEY SMITH and RICHARD GREENE
ANTHONY R. SUAREZ and VINCENT TABBACHINO
DANIEL M. VAN PELT
MARIANO VEGA
LAVERN WEBB-WASHINGTON
ARYE WEISS
JEFFREY WILLIAMSON

Even for a state with a rich history of graft, the scale of wrongdoing alleged was breathtaking. An FBI official called corruption "a cancer that is destroying the core values of this state."

Federal prosecutors said the investigation initially focused on a money laundering network that operated between Brooklyn, N.Y.; Deal, N.J.; and Israel. The network is alleged to have laundered tens of millions of dollars through Jewish charities controlled by rabbis in New York and New Jersey.

Prosecutors then used an informant in that investigation to help them go after corrupt politicians. The informant - a real estate developer charged with bank fraud three years ago - posed as a crooked businessman and paid a string of public officials tens of thousands of dollars in bribes to get approvals for buildings and other projects in New Jersey, authorities said.

Among the 44 people arrested were the mayors of Hoboken, Ridgefield and Secaucus, Jersey City's deputy mayor, and two state assemblymen. A member of the governor's cabinet resigned after agents searched his home, though he was not arrested. All but one of the officeholders are Democrats.

Also, five rabbis from New York and New Jersey - two of whom lead congregations in Deal - were accused of laundering millions of dollars, some of it from the sale of counterfeit goods and bankruptcy fraud, authorities said.

Others arrested included building and fire inspectors, city planning officials and utilities officials, all of them accused of using their positions to further the corruption.

In rounding up the defendants, FBI and IRS agents raided a synagogue Thursday morning in Deal, a wealthy oceanfront city of Mediterranean-style mansions, with a large population of Syrian Jews.

Those arrested include Levy Izhak Rosenbaum of Brooklyn, who was charged with conspiring to arrange the sale of an Israeli citizen's kidney for $160,000 for a transplant for the informant's fictitious uncle. Rosenbaum was quoted as saying he had been arranging the sale of kidneys for 10 years.

The politicians arrested were not accused of any involvement in the money laundering or the trafficking in human organs and counterfeit handbags.

The number of arrests was remarkable even for New Jersey, where more than 130 public officials have pleaded guilty or have been convicted of corruption since 2001.

"New Jersey's corruption problem is one of the worst, if not the worst, in the nation," said Ed Kahrer, who heads the FBI's white-collar and public corruption division. "Corruption is a cancer that is destroying the core values of this state."

Gov. Jon Corzine said: "The scale of corruption we're seeing as this unfolds is simply outrageous and cannot be tolerated."

Hours after FBI agents seized documents from his home and office, New Jersey Community Affairs Commissioner Joseph Doria resigned. Federal officials would not say whether he would be charged. Doria did not return calls for comment.

Authorities did not identify the informant, described in court papers as a person "charged in a federal criminal complaint with bank fraud in or about May 2006." But the date matches up with an investigation that led to charges against Solomon Dwek, the son of a Deal rabbi.

The younger Dwek was charged at the time in connection with a bounced $25 million check he deposited in a bank's drive-through window. He has denied the charges. Dwek's lawyer did not immediately return a call for comment Thursday, but attorneys for some of the rabbis who were arrested pointed a finger at him.

"Solomon Dwek - isn't that the government's cooperator?" said Robert Stahl, an attorney for 87-year-old Rabbi Saul Kassin of Brooklyn. Stahl said it was a shame the rabbi had been "caught up in this misunderstanding" and that he "remained confident."

Michael Bachner, representing Brooklyn Rabbi Mordchai Fish, said "our belief is that Mr. Dwek used his closeness and the sterling reputation of his family to manipulate individuals who trusted that he would never be involved in illegal conduct."

Most of the defendants facing corruption charges were released on bail. The money laundering defendants faced bail between $300,000 and $3 million, and most were ordered to submit to electronic monitoring.

Among those ensnared by the informant was Hoboken Mayor Peter Cammarano III, prosecutors said. The 32-year-old Cammarano, who won a runoff election last month, was accused of accepting money from the developer at a Hoboken diner.

"There's the people who were with us, and that's you guys," the complaint quotes Cammarano saying. "There's the people who climbed on board in the runoff. They can get in line. ... And then there are the people who were against us the whole way. ... They get ground into powder."

Cammarano attorney Joseph Hayden said his client is "innocent of these charges. He intends to fight them with all his strength until he proves his innocence."

Cammarano was accused of accepting $25,000 in cash bribes. Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell was charged with taking $10,000. Ridgefield Mayor Anthony Suarez was charged with agreeing to accept an illegal $10,000.

Jersey City Deputy Mayor Leona Beldini was charged with conspiracy to commit extortion by taking $20,000 in illegal campaign contributions. State Assemblymen Daniel Van Pelt and L. Harvey Smith were also accused of taking payoffs.

Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah Healy said the charges were "a little shocking."

"I have full faith in Leona," Healy said. "She's a good friend of mine - was and will be."

Mike Winnick was praying inside the Deal Synagogue when it was raided. He said four FBI agents escorted a rabbi into his office and blocked the doorway. "Everyone was looking at each other, like, `What's going on here?"' Winnick said.

Busloads carrying those arrested were brought to the FBI's Newark office. One agent slowly walked an elderly rabbi into the building as another covered his face with a felt hat.

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Angela Delli Santi and Beth DeFalco in Trenton, Wayne Parry in Deal, Samantha Henry and Victor Epstein in Newark and Larry Neumeister in New York contributed to this story.

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