Members of the public were shocked and intrigued this week in the wake of an FBI sting operation that included the arrests of more than 44 public officials, political consultants, and religious leaders across New Jersey last Thursday morning. In addition, former Bayonne Mayor Joseph Doria – who was not arrested – resigned from his state position of director of the Department of Community Affairs the same day after his house was raided for information by the FBI.
At the end of the day, the three most prominent local pols arrested included Assemblyman L. Harvey Smith; newly elected Hoboken Mayor Peter Cammarano – a 32-year-old lawyer who had only been in office for 22 days – and Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell. In addition, former Assemblyman Louis Manzo was also arrested.
The arrests apparently stemmed from a long-time investigation involving international money laundering among Syrian Jewish enclaves in New Jersey and Brooklyn. One Jewish man from Brooklyn was accused of making a profit by brokering the sale of a human kidney for a transplant.
While the investigation started with rabbis and other religious leaders, 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 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.
Call it Rab-Scam?
According to Acting U.S. Attorney Ralph Marra, the investigation, known as Operation Bid Rig, was launched 10 years ago and had resulted in 44 convictions as of Thursday.
“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.
Using a network of several middlemen, the FBI, U.S. Attorney’s Office, and the federal Internal Revenue Service worked with a single cooperating witness to snare those arrested, they said. In what Marra called a “culture of corruption,” pay-to play deals were cut at restaurants, diners, basements and other meeting spots throughout the state.
Several Bayonne officials declined to comment on the scandal, saying they wanted to see how it played out. The FBI has said that more people may be arrested.
So far, Bayonne has been relatively unscathed, although in neighboring Jersey City, 16 officials and consultants were arrested.
Assemblyman Anthony Chiappone, who served as a Bayonne councilman until last April, said he is concerned about some of the close relationships the city has to Dwek. But he did not elaborate. Some sources said that Dwek is part owner of a business in Bayonne.
Chiappone did comment that one city official who is an attorney is representing a defendant in the case. “I think it is inappropriate that the executive director of the Bayonne Local Redevelopment Authority is representing one of the defendants in the corruption case,” Chiappone said. Chris Patella, who is also a private attorney, is representing Jersey City Council President Mariano Vega, who was among those arrested.
The scandal has been termed “Operation Bid Rig” by the FBI.
Gary LaPelusa, 3rd Ward council member, said people are wondering what the impact of the sting will be on the town.
“I don't really know what impact the arrests will have on Bayonne even though there is talk that there will be more arrests,” he said.
When asked about the search of Doria’s house, he said, “I am surprised and I am still hoping that maybe someone is wrong, because it will be a sad day [if Doria is involved].”
Gov. Jon Corzine and state Attorney General Anne Milgram issued a joint statement the day of the 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.
Corzine took quick action after the scandal was announced. He asked Doria to resign. As director of the DCA, Doria was responsible for dealing with New Jersey’s 566 municipalities and their budgets.
Former U.S. Attorney Chirstopher 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.
Al Sullivan, Ricardo Kaulessar, Tim Carroll, Tricia Tirella, and Caren Matzner contributed to this story. E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com. The arrested pols and the $$
Among those arrested in Thursday’s FBI sting investigation are:
• 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.
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