44 arrested, including 2 state legislators; probe also cites money laundering and trafficking of human body parts
The mayors of three New Jersey towns – Hoboken, Secaucus and Ridgefield, two state legislators and several rabbis were among the 44 people arrested Thursday by U.S. authorities as part of a public corruption investigation.
Hoboken Mayor Peter Cammarano, Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell, Ridgefield Mayor Anthony Suarez, Jersey City Deputy Mayor Leona Beldini, state Assemblyman President L. Harvey Smith and state Assemblyman Daniel Van Pelt were among those arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Ridgefield Mayor Suarez, who is also an attorney, is charged with agreeing to accept an illegal $10,000 cash payment for his legal defense fund.
The probe also involves a "high-volume, international money-laundering conspiracy," according to a statement from the U.S. attorney's office in Newark.State legislator Van Pelt was accused of taking $10,000 in bribes from a government informant to facilitate a real estate development, the Asbury Park Press reported.
The money laundering probe involves a Yeshiva in Deal, in Monmouth County.
The Associated Press reported that in separate money laundering complaints, several individuals from Brooklyn and New Jersey were charged with offenses ranging from the trafficking of kidneys from Israeli donors to laundering proceeds from selling fake Gucci and Prada bags. It was not immediately clear how the money laundering arrests were connected to the corruption arrests.
Mike Winnick of the Elberon section of Long Branch was praying inside the Deal Synagogue when it was raided by FBI, IRS and Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office agents.
"Everyone was looking at each other, like, `What's going on here?' " he told the AP.
Winnick said four FBI agents escorted a rabbi from the synagogue into his office and blocked the doorway.
Winnick said he left shortly afterward.
Nearby, FBI and IRS agents removed several boxes from the Deal Yeshiva, a school that educates the children of Sephardic Jews.
More than two dozen people were brought to the FBI's Newark field office Thursday morning. One agent slowly walked an elderly rabbi into the building as another covered his face with a felt hat.
The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the key to the corruption investigation is an Orthodox Jewish real-estate developer, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Solomon Dwek was arrested on bank-fraud charges in 2006 and was forced to seek bankruptcy protection for himself and his companies, which owned about 300 residential and commercial properties. Mr. Dwek, 36 years old, a religious-school head and philanthropist from Ocean Township, was charged with defrauding PNC Bank out of $25 million. Mr. Dwek remained free on a $10 million bond. A lawyer for Mr. Dwek couldn't be reached for comment.
To ensnare most of the defendants, the Federal Bureau of Investigation used Mr. Dwek to attempt to bribe numerous public officials in New Jersey, including Hoboken and Jersey City, according to a person familiar with the matter.
The "cooperating witness'' is, according to sources, Dwek.
After learning of Assemblyman Van Pelt's arrest, Assembly Minority Leader Alex DeCroce (R-Morris) immediately called for the legislator's resignation.
"He cannot represent his district effectively with this cloud hanging over his head,' DeCroce said. "The people of the 9th District (Atlantic, Burlington, Ocean) are entitled to a representative who is above suspicion and beyond reproach. These allegations are disturbing. No betrayal of the public trust can be tolerated. Republicans have long advocated for stronger ethics reforms that hold all public officials accountable for their actions. These reforms apply to all office holders, regardless of their party affiliation.”
Incumbent Assembly members are facing re-election on Nov. 3 and neither Republicans or Democrats want to be linked to alleged corruption.
It was also learned that federal agents are also searching the Trenton office and Bayonne home of state Community Affairs Commissioner Joseph Doria, 63, a Democrat who has served as a speaker of the Assembly during his 12 terms in the lower house, mayor of Bayonne and as a former state senator. Investigators were seen carrying boxes from Doria's home.
Doria is a key member of Gov. Jon Corzine's administration and the official who deals most directly with local governments. His department hands out millions of dollars in municipal aid and housing funds.
Weysan Dun, special agent in charge of the F.B.I.’s Newark office, said the rabbis arrested — including the grand rabbi of the Syrian Jewish community in the United States, Saul Kassin — were part a vast money-laundering conspiracy with tentacles in Israel and Switzerland, according to a report in the New York Times. Another person, Levy-Izhak Rosenbaum, of Brooklyn, was accused of being a kidney salesman who enticed vulnerable people to give up a kidney for $10,000 and then sold the body parts for $160,000.
Mr. Dun stressed that the case was neither motivated by religion nor by politics.
— ANDY LAGOMARSINO, NEWJERSEYNEWSROOM.COM