Corruption Charges Sting New Jersey

New Jersey residents have seen corruption before, but Thursday's arrests in the state and nearby Brooklyn, N.Y., were stunning, including mayors, state assemblymen, rabbis and many other public officials. Jon McAlpin of The Record in Bergen County, N.J., offers some thoughts on the aftermath in a conversation with Guy Raz.

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We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

If Mel Brooks were ever to make a film about political corruption, it might include three mayors, five rabbis, a human organ smuggler and a chunk of the New Jersey Democratic machine. But this is no black comedy. It's a real scandal that involves money laundering, bribes and shady contracts for development projects.

On Thursday, 300 FBI and IRS agents swept through parts of North Jersey and Brooklyn and arrested 44 people who were targeted as part of the biggest corruption investigation in that state's recent history. And now it's threatening the re-election prospects of Governor Jon Corzine.

John McAlpin is the State House bureau chief for The Bergen Record, and he joins me on the line.

Mr. McAlpin, this is a complicated case. It went by pretty quickly this week in the rush of news. Can you sort it out for us, first?

Mr. JOHN McALPIN (State House bureau chief, The Bergen Record): Sure. It's best to think of this as an investigation with two halves at a common hinge. On the one side, the U.S. attorney's investigating a international money laundering scheme that had its roots in New Jersey, Brooklyn, as well as a tie to Israel and through that, there became a confidential witness that the FBI has identified.

Sources have told us that confidential witness was a man named Solomon Dwek. Dwek then, at some point, led the FBI to an also ongoing investigation to public corruption. Dwek posed as a crooked developer and he was able to give the FBI an entre into, you know, Hudson County, Bergen County and parts of North Jersey's political machine, and that's how the two cases are linked. One man has brought these two worlds together.

RAZ: So this guy, Solomon Dwek he's the link. He's laundering money through rabbis; he's then turning around and using this clean cash to pay off mayors, state assemblymen, all these officials to get them to approve his real estate plans, right, his development plans.

Mr. McALPIN: Right. We don't know if he was using the cash itself to pay off the public officials, but he definitely was part of both worlds. He made links with what we call the bagmen essentially, the henchmen, the fixers in New Jersey's political world, and these men then introduced him to public officials who, according to the FBI's complaints, gladly gave him entre into building and zoning and bragged about approving his projects quicker than others for cash.

RAZ: Where does the guy trafficking and human organs come in?

Mr. McALPIN: He comes in in the money laundering half of this investigation. He was, you know, essentially bragging about his ability to collect donors of kidneys for $10,000 and then sell those kidneys for $160,000.

RAZ: Mr. McAlpin, I'm particularly interested in one of the people indicted. He's the mayor of Hoboken. His name is Peter Cammarano. This guy is 32 years old. He was just inaugurated on July 1st. I mean, presumably, he was thought of as a rising star among New Jersey Democrats.

Mr. McALPIN: Oh yeah. He came on like gangbusters to be cliched or prophetic. But he's - he's seen as - if Jon Corzine and the two U.S. senators are at the apex of New Jersey's political triangle, Pete Cammarano and people like him are - they are the base.

RAZ: How serious a problem is this for Governor Corzine? He's running for reelection. He's already very unpopular. He's not accused of anything, we should make that clear but many of his allies are who were indicted. Could this scandal cost him reelection?

Mr. McALPIN: It could in the sense that he is, as you said, unpopular. The state is very troubled economically. Their property taxes have not gone down, so this is more of a drag on him in that great, you know, malaise that people have for him. One thing though in the political side of thing, many of these people were the actual people who do the get-out-the-vote specialties and...

RAZ: Many of these people indicted.

Mr. McALPIN: Indicted. Yes. The political consultants. Yeah, we jokingly call some of these people the bagmen, the henchmen. But they are the people in Hudson County and Bergen County that Governor Corzine is going to need. He needs to win these counties by very large polarities to ensure victory statewide, so that's where he could lose a lot here.

RAZ: I mean, I know New Jersey is sort of caricatured as this place where political corruption is the norm, but I mean it's almost as if it's training ground for FBI officials who want to, you know, give young agents experience in how to nab crooked politicians.

Mr. McALPIN: Yeah. The complaints that were made public on Thursday really laid some of these bare details out, and they showed people what goes on. You think that you fill the building project in your town. You go before the zoning board or the planning board. You think you got a fair shot at getting your hearing or getting your variance or something, yet the public officials, the mayors and their - the people in charge of these boards were bragging on tape, we're told, to take care of their friends who would pay them or get them, you know, project or campaign donations. So what does that tell the public? You know, the average person wants their government to represent them when they're representing the people that pay them.

RAZ: John McAlpin is the State House bureau chief for The Bergen Record. He's overseeing that paper's coverage of the corruption scandal uncovered in New Jersey.

Mr. McAlpin, thanks for your time.

Mr. MCALPIN: Thank you.

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