A federal jury reached a decision July 6 in the bribery and extortion trial of former Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell. The jury found Elwell guilty of accepting a corrupt payment and not guilty of the other two counts against him, conspiracy to commit extortion and attempted extortion.
Elwell’s attorney told the media on Wednesday he will appeal, and that it doesn’t make sense for the jury to convict him on one charge and acquit him on the other two.
Sentencing will be Nov. 15, 2011.
Elwell, 66, was arrested on July 23, 2009 along with dozens of other political and religious leaders who were caught by the FBI in a sting operation. In the sting, an FBI informant, Solomon Dwek, met with various politicians running for office and offered cash contributions in exchange for future help with supposed real estate development projects. Dwek, a real estate developer from Monmouth County, had signed a cooperating witness agreement with the government after being found guilty of $50 million in bank fraud charges in 2006. He still has not been sentenced.
“Today’s verdict speaks loudly for the people of New Jersey that the citizens demand, expect and deserve honesty from their elected officials,” said FBI Special Agent Michael Ward in a press release issued by the U.S. Attorney’s office on Wednesday.
“The jury clearly found him guilty of having accepted a bribe, and were obviously unsatisfied with his multiple explanations as for why he had accepted $10,000 in cash from Solomon Dwek,” said U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman.
During his trial, Elwell testified that he took $10,000 cash from his friend, political associate Ronald Manzo, who passed the money to Elwell after getting it from Dwek. Manzo pleaded guilty in May to taking money from Dwek, and testified in the trial against Elwell.
Manzo had arranged a May 23, 2009 meeting between Dwek and Elwell at La Reggia restaurant. Dwek had told both men that he wanted to build a hotel in Secaucus.
“It’s a black eye for the whole town.” – Tom Troyer
Reactions to the verdict were mixed last week.
It’s very sad indeed…. It is upsetting. It’s a black eye for the whole town,” said Tom Troyer, a Secaucus Board of Education member. “I’m not surprised by this. He is a changed man. He is not the man I voted for. When people get elected it must go to their head.”
Dan Amico, a political activist and nephew of former Mayor Paul Amico, said, “It doesn’t give me any joy to hear [the verdict]. Government is not supposed to be about kickbacks and bribery and jail sentences. It is supposed to be about doing people’s business. I hope people realize this is not the norm but the exception to the rule.”
Mayor Michael Gonnelli was a staunch political opponent of Elwell’s and defeated him in the mayoral election two years ago. He said he is anxious to move forward from the trial, but felt the outcome was just.
“It is a sad day for the town,” he said. “I wish something like this never happened. I do feel sorry for [Elwell] and his family. I felt like the verdict reached was a fair one. I want the town to move forward from here.”
Mayor Gonnelli expressed concern that the trial “leads people to believe that all politicians are crooks when that is not the truth. I hope it doesn’t discourage people.”
He added that he has worked alongside the council to increase political participation.
Dan Amico said that the town has changed since 2009, that people in Secaucus have a better appreciation for those who work hard and do the right thing.
The jury trial in federal court in Newark took ten days.
Manzo was the first witness against Elwell. He had had a 12-year friendship with Elwell, had given him campaign contributions, and provided the township with employee insurance via his insurance company.
Manzo indicated in his testimony he knew the cash was illegal and that he was concerned about it. He said he realized this at the La Reggia bar and asked Elwell what he wanted to do with it.
Elwell testified that he told Manzo he could not accept the cash but agreed to hold onto it for him after Manzo said he was worried that Dwek wouldn’t partner with him if Elwell didn’t hold it.
An arresting FBI agent testified that on the day of his arrest, Elwell voiced regret, saying, “I should have never taken the money.” Elwell admitted he said it.
During closing arguments, the jury heard Elwell described as an experienced politician – full of excuses – making promises throughout his meetings with Dwek and then hiding the cash in his home safe because he allegedly knew it was a bribe. The prosecution, led by attorney Eric Kanefsky, pointed to the fact that Elwell held on to the cash for 56 days before being arrested.
Elwell testified that he figured some of the money could go to his campaign and some could go to his civic association.
Secaucus’ current town administrator, David Drumeler, told Elwell that he couldn’t take cash. But Elwell was persuaded by Manzo to keep holding on to it.
In closing arguments, the defense told the jury that Elwell was a victim, set up by Dwek and Manzo who both sought to benefit from the scheme. Manzo, they said, was hoping to help his brother, former Assemblyman Lou Manzo, who also had been arrested in the sting.
The defense returned to a point that was made throughout the case, one that Elwell repeated time and time again in his testimony: that he couldn’t help Dwek because he had little authority over the land he wanted to build a hotel on.
The defense also reminded the jury that Elwell never spent the $10,000 cash, which was handed in as evidence.
What do you think of the outcome? Fair, or not? Comment or take a poll at our website, HudsonReporter.com!
Adriana Rambay Fernández may be reached at email@example.com.