Two New Jersey assemblymen, three mayors, and rabbis hailing from Brooklyn to the Shore were among dozens of people arrested yesterday as part of a federal investigation into international money laundering and homegrown political corruption.
Forty-four people were arrested. Also, a member of Gov. Corzine's cabinet, Joseph V. Doria Jr., whose house and office were raided, resigned, although he was not charged.
Prosecutors said the investigation, reaching through layer upon layer of government, revealed a "pervasive" culture of corruption.
"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 investigation division. "Corruption is a cancer that is destroying the core values of this state."
Daniel Van Pelt, a Republican Shore-area assemblyman who doubles as township administrator in Lumberton, was among 29 people arrested on corruption charges.
In Jersey City, those arrested included Democratic Assemblyman L. Harvey Smith, former members of the parking and housing authorities, a onetime school board vice president, a deputy mayor, and the City Council president.
The investigation began with the FBI's looking into an alleged money-laundering operation led by a number of rabbis that reached from the Shore town of Deal to Brooklyn, N.Y., Switzerland, and Israel.
A Brooklyn man, Levy Izhak Rosenbaum, allegedly tried to entice people to give up a kidney for $10,000 so he could sell the organs for $160,000 each, according to acting U.S. Attorney Ralph Marra.
The FBI informant at the center of the laundering investigation was eventually introduced to public officials in Hudson County, where the case took a turn into bribery.
The mayors of Hoboken, Secaucus, and Ridgefield, all in North Jersey, were charged in the operation, which involved more than 300 FBI, IRS, and other agents. The FBI used a bus to take some of the many accused to its Newark office.
Doria's resignation likely marks the end of a long political career in which he has served as speaker of the Assembly, mayor of Bayonne, a state senator, and, at the time of his resignation, commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs. The department oversees state control of Camden and Doria often served as the face of the administration in the city. Corzine sought, and got, his resignation.
The investigation centered on a cooperating witness who was charged with bank fraud in May 2006 and who, working with the FBI, laundered roughly $3 million through operations run by the rabbis in Deal and Brooklyn, according to authorities.
The timing and published reports point toward Solomon Dwek as the cooperating witness. Dwek, a onetime real estate developer and a leader at a yeshiva in Deal, was arrested in May 2006 for allegedly trying to defraud PNC Bank. His family was prominent in Deal's Syrian Jewish community. Several of the alleged launderers at the Shore and in Brooklyn were Syrian Jewish rabbis.
In most cases, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Jersey, the rabbis used charitable organizations to launder money that they believed came from bank fraud and selling counterfeit goods. The witness allegedly told targets he was in bankruptcy and trying to hide his cash. In some instances, he said, the money came from the sale of fake Gucci bags.
"These rings, led by clergymen, cloak their extensive criminal activity behind a facade of rectitude," Marra said.
One of the alleged money launderers was a Hudson County developer who introduced the FBI's man to a Jersey City building inspector. The inspector, John Guarini, allegedly took a $20,000 bribe in 2007 that touched off the corruption probe.
Guarini introduced the cooperating FBI witness to Maher Khalil, deputy director of the Jersey City health department. Khalil, in turn, introduced the man to a web of politicians in meetings at diners and restaurants where cash was exchanged for the promise of influence, according to authorities. The witness told officials he was seeking help with getting his developments approved.
Van Pelt allegedly took $10,000 to help expedite permitting for a project in Ocean Township, where he was a longtime councilman and, until this year, mayor. As a member of the Assembly Environment Committee, he had oversight of the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Reaction was quick and harsh. In seeking Doria's resignation, Corzine said the commissioner could no longer be effective.
"Any corruption is unacceptable, anywhere, anytime, by anybody. The scale of corruption we're seeing as this unfolds is simply outrageous and cannot be tolerated," Corzine said in a statement.
Christopher J. Christie, the Republican running against Corzine in the fall, was in charge of the U.S. Attorney's Office when the investigation began.
"This is obviously just another really tragic day for the people of New Jersey," Christie said in a statement.
Corzine and Assembly leaders from both parties urged Van Pelt and Smith to resign.
Prosecutors and political observers said the arrests reinforced New Jersey's image as a home of ingrained corruption.
"It's reinforcing the lore, or the legend," said Ingrid Reed, director of the New Jersey Project at Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics.
Reed said the arrests would overshadow the efforts of those public officials who have tried to clean up state ethics.
"It's kind of an assumption that if you're in office, you can do what you want to do to serve your own self-interest," Reed said.
She said more emphasis was needed on reinforcing ethics rules at the local level. A lack of interest in local campaigns and a political map that makes winning easy for the dominant party enables the spread of corruption, she said.
"The lack of competitive elections, I think, just reinforces the idea that when you're in office, you can do anything you want to do," Reed said.
In one criminal complaint, the mayor of Hoboken, Peter J. Cammarano III, told the FBI informant that he would easily win election even if he were indicted.
Marra said the reach of the investigation underscored "more than ever the pervasive nature of public corruption in this state."
He added, "The complaints show that for these defendants, corruption was a way of life. They existed in an ethics-free zone."
A closer look at some of the New Jersey officials and others arrested yesterday as part of a major corruption and international money-laundering conspiracy probe:
Peter J. Cammarano III, 32, the newly elected mayor of Hoboken and an election lawyer, is accused of accepting $25,000 in cash bribes.
L. Harvey Smith, 60, a Democratic assemblyman and a recent mayoral candidate in Jersey City, is accused of taking $15,000 in bribes to help get approvals from high-level state agency officials for building projects.
Daniel Van Pelt, 44, a Republican assemblyman, Ocean Township mayor, and a Lumberton administrator, is accused of accepting a $10,000 bribe.
Dennis Elwell, 64, mayor of Secaucus, is accused of taking a $10,000 cash bribe.
Anthony Suarez, 42, mayor of Ridgefield and a lawyer, is accused of agreeing to accept a $10,000 cash payment for his legal defense fund.
Louis Manzo, 54, a former Democratic assemblyman and recent Jersey City mayoral candidate, and his brother Robert Manzo are accused of taking $27,500 in cash payments for use in Louis Manzo's campaign.
Leona Beldini, 74, Jersey City deputy mayor, a real estate agent, and campaign treasurer for an unidentified Jersey City official's reelection campaign, is accused of taking $20,000 in campaign contributions. Officials say she divided the money among donors, who would return it to the campaign in increments of $2,600, the maximum legal individual donation.
Mariano Vega, 59, Jersey City Council president, is accused of accepting three $10,000 payments. Officials say he told an intermediary to break down and convert two of them into individual contributions for his reelection campaign and that he received the third after his victory.
To see the criminal complaints, go to http://go.philly.com/njsweep
SOURCE: Associated Press