Barring another postponement from a U.S. District Court Judge, former Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell’s trial on corruption charges is scheduled to begin this spring, with defense and prosecution attorneys scheduled to meet to discuss the case later this month and jury selection set to begin in April.
Elwell stands accused of allegedly taking a $10,000 cash bribe from Solomon Dwek, a cooperating government witness who posed as a developer who claimed he wanted to build a hotel in Secaucus. The hotel project was invented by the government, along with other phony development projects throughout Hudson County, as part of a statewide sting operation to catch public officials who may have been tempted to take cash bribes in the months leading up to the 2009 election season.
According to government prosecutors, the former mayor and his alleged co-conspirator, Ronald Manzo, allegedly planned to extort $20,000 from Dwek in exchange for expediting permits needed for the hotel. Both have pleaded not guilty.
“Those arrests made Hudson look worse than Cook County.” – Dennis McAlevy
Elwell was among 44 public officials and religious leaders in New Jersey and New York arrested on July 23, 2009 in the massive sting. Since then, two other officials have been arrested in connection with the sting, and at least 19 former public officials have either pleaded guilty or have been convicted at trial.
Most recently, Joseph Cardwell, a former member of the Jersey City Municipal Utilities Authority, pleaded guilty last week for taking a $30,000 bribe from Dwek in exchange for introductions to public officials who could help him with a building project in that city. He faces up to 10 years behind bars and $250,000 in fines when he is sentenced in June.
However, some high profile officials arrested in the 2009 sting have been acquitted – notably former Ridgefield Mayor Anthony Suarez and former state Assemblyman L. Harvey Smith – leaving some in the legal community to wonder whether the upcoming Elwell/Manzo trial could end the same way. (Interestingly, although Suarez was acquitted, his co-defendant, former Guttenberg Councilman Vincent Tabbachino, was convicted of extortion and bribery at the men’s joint trial last fall.)
The government’s case
According to the November 2009 indictment against them, “Elwell, Manzo, and [former Jersey City official Edward Cheatam] met on May 28, 2009 at a restaurant in Secaucus. During the meeting, Elwell was informed by [Dwek] that he was ‘trying to make a relationship’ with Elwell and that ‘anything I do, I’ll do through’ Manzo. Elwell responded, ‘Right, right.’ Elwell was then informed by [Dwek] that he would give Manzo $10,000 for Elwell’s benefit and that he would ‘do another $10,000 after the primary.’ Elwell [allegedly] responded, ‘Okay.’ Elwell was informed that in exchange for these payments, the understanding was that Elwell would ‘support [Dwek’s] stuff and expedite [his] application.’ Elwell [allegedly] nodded his head affirmatively in response.”
Government prosecutors claim to have this and other exchanges recorded on video and audio tapes. However, Elwell and Manzo, who are expected to be tried together, have steadfastly maintained their innocence.
“Dennis pleaded not guilty to the charges, is presumed innocent, and will vigorously defend the unproven allegations made against him,” said defense attorneys Thomas Cammarata and Jeff Garrigan in a statement last fall.
If convicted, Elwell faces a maximum of 20 years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000.
Despite the government’s allegations, the timing of Elwell’s trial, coming nearly two years after the sting operation became public, could help him win his case, according to two criminal defense attorneys interviewed last week.
“The slam dunk cases, where there was clearly nothing to fight about, where the tapes are clear, those are the cases where a defendant is more likely to plead [guilty],” said John Farmer, dean of Rutgers School of Law. “And the ones where the evidence is weaker are the ones that are more likely to go to trial. Those are the cases where the government will be pressed harder to make their case. But I think there has been a shift in the climate [regarding these cases].”
He attributes the shift to two factors.
Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court narrowed the interpretation of what’s known as the “honest services” statute. The statute makes it a crime to deprive someone of “honest services,” and has been used by prosecutors for years to ensnare corrupt politicians. But the Supreme Court ruled that the statute was too vague and was used too broadly by prosecutors.
The statute had been part of the government’s case against the Dwek defendants. Farmer said that once juries understand how the statute must now be applied in light of the court’s ruling, they may be less likely to convict.
“That statute may have been applied too broadly even in some of these cases,” said Farmer. “These things have a way of seeping into the public consciousness. And juries are more willing to look closely at the kinds of cases the government is bringing and look more critically at the kinds of informants the government has been using.”
The second factor that could help Elwell, he said, was the fact that much of the government’s case relied on Dwek, whom he called “a pretty unsavory character.”
“The combination of the changing atmosphere and the fact that it’s the weaker cases that are more likely to go to trial,” he said, “are what has led us two where we are today.”
Noted Union City defense attorney Dennis McAlevy agreed. McAlevy defended former Hoboken Mayor Anthony Russo, who was found guilty of soliciting bribes in 2005.
“I certainly think the field has opened up a little bit for the defense,” said McAlevy. “In one of these most recent trials they didn’t even call Dwek to the stand. So, he’s problematic.”
McAlevy also pointed out that as more time passes since the case first broke, the shock value has worn off and receded in the memories of potential jury members.
“Those arrests made Hudson look worse than Cook County. And of course all the defendants were made to do the perp walk. But do people remember that now? Maybe not as much as they did two years ago.”
Jury selection is currently scheduled to begin on April 26.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.