It apparently started with money laundering among the Syrian Jewish communities in Brooklyn and New Jersey, and ended on Thursday with more than a dozen local political officials ensnared for illegal campaign donations.
Local residents reacted last week with surprise and intrigue to the now- FBI sting operation that included the arrests of more than 44 public officials, political consultants, and religious leaders across New Jersey.
At the end of Thursday, the three most prominent local pols arrested included Assemblyman and former Jersey City Council President L. Harvey Smith; newly elected Hoboken Mayor Peter Cammarano, and Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell. Former Assemblyman Louis Manzo, current Jersey City Council President Mariano Vega, and Jersey City Deputy Mayor Leona Beldini were also arrested.
While the investigation started with rabbis and other Jewish leaders – one of whom is accused of making a profit off of a human kidney – it apparently expanded to their political dealings and to public officials who were or are up for re-election this year.
The FBI investigation received a boost in 2006 when Solomon Dwek, 36, a real estate developer and Yeshiva leader in the wealthy Jersey shore town of Deal, was busted for allegedly trying to deposit a bogus $25 million check in a bank in Eatontown. After that, he became a cooperating witness for the FBI.
This year, Dwek apparently went to local politicians who were up for re-election and offered them cash donations in exchange for development favors as part of the FBI sting.
The campaign contributions, usually in $5,000 increments, were offered at diners and parking lots, often forwarded to the candidates through lesser politicians who were helping out the campaigns.
Call it Rab-Scam?
According to Acting U.S. Attorney Ralph Marra, the investigation, known as Operation Bid Rig, was launched 10 years ago.
“The individuals arrested today willingly put themselves up for sale and existed in an ethics-free zone where topics moved to the top of the pile for those willing to pay to play,” Marra said at a Thursday press conference in Newark following the arrests.
The scandal has been termed “Operation Bid Rig” by the FBI.
The Hoboken example
In the case of Hoboken, an FBI complaint said that Cammarano met with former Hoboken Councilman Michael Schaffer at the Malibu Diner several times to talk about development with the FBI’s cooperating witness and an unnamed consultant. A Jersey City official was also present for the talks.
Various press reports have revealed the witness to be Dwek.
According to federal documents, the witness (Dwek) offered cash donations to Schaffer to be given to Cammarano’s campaign in increments of $5,000. The witness told Schaffer and Cammarano that he was interested in developing property in Hoboken and wanted Cammarano to expedite the process.
The prosecutors have paid particular attention to Cammarano’s case, repeating quotes from Cammarano in which he allegedly told the witness that even if he were indicted, he’d still get most of the Hispanic, Italian, and senior citizen votes.
Gov. Jon Corzine and state Attorney General Anne Milgram issued a joint statement on Thursday regarding the sweeping arrests.
“Any corruption is unacceptable – anywhere, anytime, by anybody. The scale of corruption we’re seeing as this scandal unfolds is simply outrageous and cannot be tolerated,” the statement said.
Most of those arrested, including Mayor Elwell, are Democrats and Corzine allies who support the governor’s re-election bid in November. In general, most politicians in Hudson County are Democrats, as the voter base outranks Republicans by 5 to 1.
On Thursday, Corzine asked his director of the Department of Community Affairs, former Bayonne Mayor Joseph Doria, to resign. Doria is a prominent Hudson County Democrat whose house was raided for information Thursday morning but he was not arrested in connection with the scandal. He was also chairman of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.
Former U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie, who is running for governor against Corzine, released the following comment:
“This is obviously just another really tragic day for the people of New Jersey…It is a bad day for the citizens when they are once again disappointed by their public officials. But the fact of the matter is we should all feel gratified about the fact that we have career prosecutors at the U.S. Attorney’s Office and career professionals at the FBI and the IRS who remain vigilant about doing their job, doing it the best and most professional way they can.”
For a list of those charged on Thursday, see sidebar.
The Reporter was one of the first outlets to report this story and is posting continuous updates at www.hudsonreporter.com.
Ricardo Kaulessar, Tim Carroll, Al Sullivan, Tricia Tirella, and Caren Matzner contributed to this story. E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org. The arrested pols, the allegations, and the $$$$
Among those arrested in Thursday’s FBI sting investigation are:
Fourteen money laundering defendants, five of whom are rabbis near the Jersey shore and in Brooklyn. A 15th was charged with “conspiracy to transport human organs.” – CMM
• Assemblyman L. Harvey Smith of Jersey City is alleged to have taken cash payments of $10,000 and $5,000 to approach contacts in the state Department of Transportation and Department of Environmental Protection regarding development projects in Jersey City and Bayonne.
• Mayor Peter Cammarano III of Hoboken is alleged to have taken bribes totaling $25,000 to help expedite zoning changes and development approvals. He allegedly received the money through former Councilman Michael Schaffer, a commissioner on the North Hudson Utilities Authority (which handles sewerage services).
• Mayor Dennis Elwell of Secaucus, who allegedly received a $10,000 cash bribe through Ronald Manzo to help the FBI’s witness build a hotel in Secaucus. “Manzo [allegedly] took $5,000 from the cooperating witness as a reward for bringing Elwell to him,” the FBI complaint says.
• City Council President Mariano Vega Jr. of Jersey City. He allegedly accepted three $10,000 payments, two before his re-election victory and one after.
• Deputy Mayor Leona Beldini of Jersey City. She allegedly accepted $20,000 in campaign donations for a certain Jersey City official. She also allegedly planned to become the broker for the FBI witnesses’ “purported 750-unit condominium project on Garfield Avenue, where units would sell for $500,000 each.”
• Louis Manzo, former assemblyman and recent Jersey City mayoral candidate. He and brother Ronald allegedly accepted $27,500 in three cash payments for his campaign.
• Hudson County political consultants Jack Shaw and Joseph Cardwell, both based in Jersey City. Both were given money to assist with unnamed Jersey City candidates’ campaign funds.
• Unsuccessful Jersey City council candidates Lavern Webb-Washington, Michael Manzo (no relation to Louis Manzo), and James “Jimmy” King (a former Parking Authority head).
• Jersey City officials Guy Catrillo and Joseph Castagna.
• Hudson County officials Dennis Jaslow and Edward Cheatam.
• Lori Serrano, the former chair of the Jersey City Housing Authority, which oversees low-income housing in that town, and an unsuccessful Jersey City council candidate.
• Vincent Tabbachino, owner of a tax preparation business in Guttenberg and a former Guttenberg councilman. He was named co-defendant with Ridgefield Mayor Anthony Suarez.