Three city mayors and several rabbis held in New Jersey corruption inquiry

The Times | July 23, 2009
By Christine Seib in New York

Three city mayors, two state politicians and five rabbis were among 44 people arrested across New Jersey yesterday when federal agents cracked an alleged Sopranos-style crime ring accused of bribery, money laundering and trafficking body parts and counterfeit handbags.

In a sweep that shocked even residents hardened to the state’s endemic corruption, officers from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) raided synagogues, government offices and a Jewish school early yesterday before busing suspects to the FBI headquarters in Newark.

Outside, cars were backed up four deep as agents processed those arrested, including Peter Cammarano, the Mayor of Hoboken, Anthony Suarez, the Mayor of Ridgefield, and Daniel Van Pelt, a member of New Jersey’s lower house, the assembly.

Ralph Marra, Acting US Attorney for the District of New Jersey, said that the sweep demonstrated “the pervasive nature of public corruption in this state”.

“The politicians willingly put themselves up for sale,” he said, while “clergymen cloak their extensive criminal activity behind a façade of rectitude”. He spoke of “a corrupt network of public officials who were all too willing to take cash in exchange for promised official action. It seemed that everyone wanted a piece of the action.” He added: “The corruption was widespread and pervasive.”

Federal agents used an informant, a member of the close-knit Syrian Jewish community from the seaside town of Deal, to infiltrate political and religious circles. The informant, who had previously been charged with bank fraud, posed as a property developer to conduct a sting, allegedly agreeing bribes with the politicians in return for public building contracts and other favours.

Mr Marra’s office charged Mr Cammarano, who took office at the beginning of the month after working as a councillor since 2003, with taking $25,000 (£15,000) in bribes, including $10,000 as recently as a week ago.

Mr Cammarano, who at 32 is Hoboken’s youngest-ever mayor, allegedly met the FBI informer at a diner where he agreed to help the mole with building projects, telling him: “You’re gonna be treated like a friend.”

In payment, he allegedly received bundles of cash that were stashed in the boot of the informant’s car.

Joseph Hayden, Mr Cammarano’s attorney, said that his client was innocent. “He intends to fight them with all his strength,” Mr Hayden said.

Dennis Elwell, the Mayor of Secaucus, was charged yesterday with accepting $10,000 from the informant, as was Mr Van Pelt, Mr Suarez and Mariano Vega, the president of the city council in Jersey City. Leona Beldini, the 74-year-old deputy mayor of Jersey City, was accused of accepting $20,000 in illegal campaign contributions.

The FBI informant also helped investigators to trap rabbis allegedly involved in using religious charities to launder money as part of a network that ran from New Jersey to Switzerland and Israel.

According to the charges, they included Saul Kassin, the Grand Rabbi of the Syrian Jewish community in the United States, who allegedly helped the informant to launder about $3 million between June 2007 and July 2009 from the sale of fake Gucci and Prada handbags.

As part of the same sting, Levy Izhak Rosenbaum, a Brooklyn resident, was charged with conspiring to broker the sale of a human kidney for a transplant. Mr Rosenbaum allegedly solicited kidneys by promising donors in Israel $10,000, then sold the organs to recipients for $160,000.

Mike Winnick was praying at the synagogue in Deal when it was raided by federal agents yesterday morning. He said that the FBI escorted a rabbi from the synagogue into an office and blocked the door. “Everyone was looking at each other, like, ‘What’s going on here?’,” Mr Winnick said.

Jon Corzine, the Governor of New Jersey, condemned the alleged widespread criminality. “The scale of corruption we’re seeing as this unfolds is simply outrageous and cannot be tolerated,” he said. The arrests come at a sensitive time for the Democratic Governor, who faces a re-election battle in November in which his biggest challenger is Christopher Christie, a Republican former US Attorney for New Jersey, who made his name fighting corruption.

Ed Kahrer, who heads the FBI’s white-collar and public corruption investigation division, said: “New Jersey’s corruption problem is one of the worst, if not the worst, in the nation. Corruption is a cancer that is destroying the core values of this state.”

Residents in New Jersey, which is known as the Soprano State because of its long history of backhanders and kickbacks, showed their support for yesterday’s arrests, with hundreds of comments filling a local news website. “Keep going, feds, send them all to jail,” one correspondent wrote. “Greedy creeps who steal from the taxpayers and honest business people, we’re sick of you.”

New Jersey crooks

•The Lucchese crime family, one of New York’s notorious “Five Families”, ran a particularly brutal operation in New Jersey under the leadership of Michael “Mad Dog” Taccetta. As head of the North Jersey faction, the hugely obese Taccetta was accused of a number of murders and kidnappings. In 1986 he was finally indicted but, after a 21-month-trial — the longest in US history — he and all other defendants were found not guilty. He was later convicted of murder and racketeering. The character of Tony Soprano is said to be modelled on him.

•In 1980 the New Jersey Senator David Friedland was convicted of taking $360,000 in bribes. He agreed to co-operate with authorities in return for clemency but was later convicted of defrauding a pension fund. While awaiting sentencing Friedland faked his death in a scuba diving accident and disappeared. He was caught two years later in the Maldives where he was living an opulent life and owned a string of diving shops

•Dutch Schultz was one of New Jersey’s most notorious gangsters in the 1930s, making a fortune with his speakeasy cafés during the prohibition era and regularly brutalising his rivals. He became increasingly erratic, however, and his fellow mobsters decided he had become a liability and finally ordered his death. He was murdered in the men’s room of the Palace Chop House and Tavern

Source: Times database