Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell was arrested Thursday morning in what observers are calling one of the biggest political corruptions scandals to ever hit New Jersey.
What reportedly began a decade ago as a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) investigation into pay-to-play deals and international money laundering culminated in an early morning sting operation Thursday that netted 44 politicians, local government officials, and religious leaders. Investigators executed warrants at 54 different locations in Hudson, Union, and Bergen, Monmouth, and Ocean counties.
On Thursday the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Newark described the last two years of the inquiry as “a two-track federal investigation of public corruption and a high-volume, international money laundering conspiracy.”
Many of the most prominent officials arrested – including Elwell and Hoboken Mayor Peter Cammarano – are up for election this fall or ran for office earlier this year.
Elwell and the hotel
At his arraignment Thursday afternoon, Elwell was charged with “conspiracy to commit extortion under color of official right.”
According to federal prosecutors, Elwell allegedly took a $10,000 cash bribe from a witness who was cooperating with investigators. In exchange for the payment, Elwell allegedly agreed to help the witness get a hotel built in Secaucus, prosecutors said.
Elwell was allegedly introduced to the cooperating witness by Ron Manzo, brother of former state Assemblyman Lou Manzo.
For his involvement, Ron Manzo allegedly received a $5,000 payment from the witness.
If convicted, Elwell faces a maximum of 20 years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000.
Assemblyman Daniel Van Pelt; former Jersey City Councilman and Assemblyman L. Harvey Smith; Jersey City Council President Mariano Vega; the Manzo brothers; Jersey City Deputy Mayor Leona Beldini; and Hoboken Mayor Peter Cammarano – who just took office on July 1 – were among those also arrested Thursday morning.
Joseph Doria, commissioner of the state Department of Community Affairs and chairman of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission, resigned after his house was raided for information Thursday morning.
Several prominent rabbis in the state were also picked up in connection with the investigation.
In all, politicians throughout the state are alleged to have taken $650,000 in bribes.
“We’re still gathering data on this so I really can’t comment at this time other than to say our government is still functioning,” said Secaucus Town Administrator David Drumeler. “I want to assure all the residents of the town that day-to-day operations are continuing as normal.”
The arrest couldn’t have come at a worse time for Elwell.
Drumeler added that he did not know who the cooperating witness in the investigation might be.
Elwell does not have any history of legal trouble while in office.
Bad timing for Elwell
According to eyewitness accounts, Mayor Elwell was arrested at his home at 1124 Farm Road shortly after 7 a.m. Thursday. FBI agents also took what appeared to be boxes of evidence from his house, according to witnesses.
The arrest couldn’t have come at a worse time for Elwell, who was already facing a competitive bid for re-election in November against popular Independent Town Councilman Michael Gonnelli.
In addition, a brewing scandal in the Tax Office that dates back to at least 2005 has dragged on longer than the Elwell Administration initially thought it would. Tax Collector Alan Bartolozzi was charged earlier this week with one count of theft in the third degree and he remains the focus of an investigation by the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office.
Just last month, Elwell and his slate of Town Council candidates fended off a Democratic primary election challenge from a rival slate of Democrats headed by failed mayoral hopeful Peter Weiner. While Elwell and his council candidates – Dawn McAdam, Frank Tombetta, and John Reilly – did not win by a landslide over the Weiner ticket, they won a decisive enough victory and had momentum heading into the fall race against Gonnelli and his slate.
Elwell’s arrest could be a game-changer for Gonnelli, for whom pay-to-play has been a signature issue since he joined the Town Council in 2007.
Comments from the public
Several observers said Thursday that it was too soon to comment on Elwell’s arrest.
A longtime Elwell ally said on Thursday, “If the allegations against him are true, he’s finished.”
When reached for comment, Gonnelli said, “My thoughts go out to his family. Obviously you don’t want to see something like this happen to anyone.”
Deputy Mayor John Reilly, an Elwell ally, said it was too soon for him to comment.
Despite the charges, Elwell remains mayor of Secaucus and is not legally obligated to step down from his position while the bribery charge is pending.
Should he choose to voluntarily step down, Drumeler believes the mayor’s seat on the Town Council will remain vacant until the November election. In Secaucus, the mayor is one of seven members of the Town Council.
Deputy Mayor Reilly would likely serve as acting mayor until the fall election.
If Elwell leaves, the council would be deadlocked 3-3, as Elwell’s Democrats would lose their majority on the governing body.
If Elwell decides to quit the mayoral race as a result of the bribery charge, the town’s Democratic Committee would have the job of selecting someone to replace him as the party’s candidate in the November election.
Staff writers Ricardo Kaulessar and Tricia Tirella contributed to this story. E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.