FBI agents fanned out across northern New Jersey today and made arrests in a corruption investigation that includes two mayors. Officials say politics and religion were used to cloak crimes and enrich the suspects.
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In New Jersey, dozens of elected officials and community leaders were arrested this morning in a sweeping corruption investigation. Among those rounded up, the mayors of Hoboken and Secaucus, two state legislators and several rabbis accused of taking bribes and laundering money.
NPR's Robert Smith reports.
ROBERT SMITH: In New Jersey, political corruption is as unremarkable as a pileup on the turnpike. One hundred and thirty public officials have been convicted there just this decade, but today's arrests are jaw dropping, even for the Garden State. FBI agent Weysan Dun says it's not just the number of people charged, 44, but their job titles.
Mr. WEYSAN DUN (Special Agent, FBI): Mayors, deputy mayors, New Jersey state assemblymen, city councilmen, city council candidates and a variety of other public officials ranging from commissioners to regulatory inspectors and, of course, a number of rabbis from the Jewish community.
SMITH: Starting at 6:00 this morning, 300 agents hit the street rounding up that who's who of New Jersey politics. It took buses to bring them all to federal court this afternoon. And the whole investigation started with one man, a real estate developer charged with bank fraud three years ago. U.S. attorney Ralph Marra says that man, referred to as the CW, or cooperating witness, offered to go undercover into the world of bribes and money laundering.
Mr. RALPH MARRA (U.S. Attorney): And basically he's marketing himself as interested in certain business developments.
SMITH: He started with the rabbis. Among them, Eliahu Ben Haim, who ran a congregation in Deal, New Jersey. He also allegedly laundered money, sending dirty loot to Israel, returning clean cash to criminals, minus a 10 percent cut. Mark McCarren from the U.S. attorney's office says the rabbi laundered $3 million of cash for the undercover informant.
Mr. MARK MCCARREN (U.S. Attorney's Office): And described the fact that in prior years he had been washing up to $6, 7, 8 million a year.
SMITH: In one instance, the cash was returned stuffed into a box of Apple Jacks. Another source of the cash: A man who was dealing in illegally harvested kidneys. That part of the case with 15 people charged would alone be big news. But it turns out that some New Jersey politicians could smell all that money floating around. And pretty soon, the cooperating witness, the CW, was being approached by political middlemen. Ralph Marra, the U.S. attorney for New Jersey, he says the CW would set up meetings with local politicians about expediting certain real estate deals.
Mr. MARRA: I don't donate, I invest, the CW would say in meetings, in parking lots, at restaurants, luncheonettes, diners, offices, basement boiler rooms and bathrooms. And the politicians willingly put themselves up for sale.
SMITH: Some of them, secretly recorded, were brazen. Peter Cammarano, the mayor of Hoboken, has only been in office for three weeks. But he was allegedly busy during the campaign.
Mr. MARRA: On June 23rd, when the CW offered $10,000, Mr. Cammarano says, great. And we're going to be friends for a long time.
SMITH: Marra says that Cammarano thought his political career was safe.
Mr. MARRA: He said I could be indicted and still get 85 to 95 percent of the vote.
SMITH: Cammarano's lawyer says there's no truth to the allegations. It would take the rest of the hour to detail all the charges against all 44 people, but suffice it to say that it reaches all the way to the top of the state. One member of Governor Jon Corzine's cabinet, Joseph Doria, resigned this afternoon after federal officials searched his house and office as part of the investigation.
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Acting U.S. Attorney Ralph J. Marra, Jr. speaks at a news conference Thursday to announce the arrest of 44 New Jersey politicians, political operatives and several rabbis on charges including political corruption and money laundering . Acting Special Agent Julio LaRosa of the I.R.S. Criminal Investigations Division (left), Weysan Dun, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI Newark and Edward Kahrer, assistant Special Agent in Charge of the FBI Newark (right) also spoke to reporters.
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images
The mayors of three New Jersey cities, two state legislators and five rabbis were among dozens of people rounded up by federal authorities Thursday morning as part of a decade-long investigation into corruption, bribery and money laundering.
At 6 a.m., more than 300 agents and local law enforcement officials fanned out to 54 different locations in New Jersey and New York to make the arrests and execute search warrants related to the probe.
The list of people charged in the case is pages long and reads like a Who's Who of eastern New Jersey politics. The 44 either arrested or charged Thursday include Democratic mayors Peter Cammarano of Hoboken, Dennis Elwell of Secaucus and Anthony Suarez of Ridgefield; Republican Assemblyman Daniel Van Pelt and Democratic Assemblyman L. Harvey Smith, according to the U.S. attorney's office in New Jersey.
Jersey City's Deputy Mayor Leona Beldini and City Council President Mariano Vega also were part of the sweep. They are accused, among other charges, of accepting tens of thousands of dollars each in bribes.
"For these defendants, corruption was a way of life," said Ralph J. Marra, Jr., the acting U.S. attorney in New Jersey, at a press conference to announce the charges. "They existed in an ethics-free zone." He added that average citizens "don't have a chance" against the culture of influence peddling that the investigation alleges.
The investigation initially began as a money-laundering probe, officials said. The FBI had infiltrated a network out of New Jersey and New York that had been funneling tens of millions of dollars through charitable, nonprofit entities allegedly controlled by a handful of rabbis in New Jersey and New York City. Officials said the money was typically laundered through contacts in Israel and then, apparently, was returned with between 10 percent to 15 percent taken off the top as a commission. The rabbis are from Brooklyn and the New Jersey cities of Deal and Elberon.
"These defendants laundered about $3 million just through our cooperating witness alone," Marra said.
The U.S. attorney's criminal complaint also charges that a Brooklyn man linked to the investigation was trafficking in human organs. He allegedly enticed people to give up a kidney for $10,000 and then sold the organs for transplant for $160,000 apiece. The complaint says that Levy Izhak Rosenbaum has been brokering the illegal sale of kidneys for a decade.
The laundering investigation morphed into a public corruption probe about two years ago, officials said. That's when a witness working with the FBI pretended to be a building developer and reportedly was able to offer New Jersey officials money in exchange for zoning changes and guarantees of smooth building inspections.
In one such incident, the FBI's cooperating witness allegedly met with Cammarano in a diner. The criminal complaint says the fake developer asked Cammarano, who had not yet become mayor, for some sort of assurance that in exchange for $10,000, his building projects wouldn't get caught up in city bureaucracy, and would be expedited by Hoboken's City Council. Cammarano replied, "I promise you," adding, "You're gonna be, you're gonna be treated like a friend," the complaints state.
The developer said he would give a middleman $5,000 in cash for Cammarano and another $5,000 after he became mayor. "OK," Cammarano replied, according to the complaints. "Beautiful."
Joseph Hayden, an attorney who is representing Cammarano, told The Associated Press that his client was "innocent of these charges. He intends to fight them with all his strength until he proves his innocence."
Agents also raided the home of the state's community affairs commissioner, Joseph Doria. While he has not been charged in the case, Gov. Jon Corzine asked him to step down. He did that Thursday afternoon.