A federal grand jury has indicted former Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell on two counts of extortion and one count of accepting corrupt payments.
The indictment, handed down Tuesday by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Newark, stems from Elwell’s arrest on July 23. He was among 44 political and religious leaders caught in an FBI sting operation.
Federal prosecutors allege that Elwell took a $10,000 cash bribe from a witness who was cooperating with federal investigators. In exchange for the payment, the ex-mayor allegedly agreed to help the witness get a hotel built in Secaucus.
According to the indictment, Elwell and political associate Ronald Manzo allegedly conspired with former Jersey City Housing Authority Commissioner Edward Cheatam “and others to extort cash payments from [government witness Solomon Dwek] with the promise that Elwell would help [Dwek] obtain development approvals in Secaucus.”
Manzo, who was also arrested in the July sting, was indicted on the same charges. In September, Cheatam pleaded guilty to accepting $70,000 in corrupt payments from Dwek.
Elwell’s indictment puts to rest earlier speculation that charges against him would be dropped.
The extortion charges each carry a maximum penalty of 20 years behind bars, according to the indictment. The third offense carries a maximum prison sentence of 10 years.
If convicted on all three counts, Elwell could also face a maximum of $750,000 in fines.
$10,000 received? ‘Yes. No problem’
Moments after the indictment was made public, Elwell declined to comment on the grand jury’s decision. He referred calls to his attorneys, Tom Cammarata and Jeff Garrigan.
Garrigan didn’t return calls seeking comment. Cammarata’s receptionist said, “He doesn’t want to talk to you.”
In August, however, the attorneys released a statement after Elwell resigned the mayoralty in which they said, “Dennis pleaded not guilty to the charges, is presumed innocent, and will vigorously defend the unproven allegations made against him.”
A grand jury indictment is not a judgment of guilt or innocence; it is merely a decision that there is enough evidence to bring a case to trial.
The indictment alleges that Elwell, Manzo, Cheatam, and Dwek met on May 28 at a restaurant in Secaucus. During the meeting, Dwek told Elwell that he was “trying to make a relationship” with him. Posing as a developer who wanted to build a hotel in Secaucus, Dwek said he hoped Elwell would support the project and use his political leverage to get zoning and building permits approved.
In exchange for the mayor’s support, Dwek allegedly promised to give Manzo $10,000 to be passed along to Elwell. Dwek, according to the indictment, said he would “do another $10,000” after the primary election on June 2.
Dwek and Manzo then stepped out to the parking lot where Dwek allegedly gave Manzo $10,000 for Elwell. Manzo returned to the restaurant after allegedly receiving the cash.
Five days later, Dwek, Manzo, and Cheatam met again, the indictment says. During this meeting Manzo allegedly wrote on a napkin, “Yes. No problem,” when Dwek asked if Elwell had received the money and was happy.
Less than a week before the three politicos were arrested, they met again with Dwek on July 17. At this meeting, Dwek allegedly promised to give Elwell another $10,000 after the Nov. 3 general election, to which Elwell allegedly replied, “Okay.”
At the July 17 meeting Elwell allegedly confirmed that he had received the previous $10,000 payment from Manzo.
Last month, Dwek pleaded guilty to bank fraud, money laundering, and official misconduct in an unrelated case.
No trial date set
The former mayor’s indictment puts to rest earlier speculation that charges against him would be dropped. After Elwell was arrested, there was some speculation that Manzo would plead guilty to bribery charges and would tell investigators that Elwell never received cash from Dwek.
The two will now go on trial, unless their attorneys negotiate a plea deal with lead prosecutor Assistant U.S. Attorney Rachel Honig.
According to Michael Drewniak, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney Office in Newark, no trial date has been set yet.
“A trial date will be set by the court when the two are arraigned,” he said “No arraignment is scheduled. We are waiting for that date, which will likely be within 10 days of [the] indictment.”
When a trial date is scheduled, Elwell and Manzo are expected to be tried together, Drewniak said.
If the case goes to trial, Dwek and Cheatam could testify against the pair.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.