By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 24, 2009
NEW YORK, July 23 -- A two-year federal probe into a money laundering operation taking place between the New York area and Israel ballooned into one of the biggest bribery and corruption sweeps in New Jersey history, netting three northern New Jersey mayors, two members of the New Jersey Legislature, a raft of local officials, five rabbis, and a Brooklyn man accused of trafficking in human kidneys, U.S. prosecutors said today.
FBI agents arrested 44 people in a series of morning raids, creating a dramatic scene of politicians and rabbis in traditional outfits handcuffed and being marched into the federal building in Newark, and then boarded onto a bus for the drive to the federal courthouse. Among those arrested were legislators L. Harvey Smith (D) and Daniel M. Van Pelt (R); Hoboken Mayor Peter J. Cammarano III; Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell; and Ridgefield Mayor Anthony Suarez, as well as the deputy mayor and council president of Jersey City. The arrested rabbis included Saul Kassin, the chief rabbi for the tight-knit Syrian Jewish community in the United States, and the chief rabbis of synagogues in Brooklyn and Deal, N.J.
A Brooklyn man, Levy-Izhak Rosenbaum, known in his circles as "the kidney salesman," was also arrested as part of the sweep and charged with enticing vulnerable people in Israel to sell one of their kidneys for $10,000, and then charging waiting transplant patients in this country up to $160,000. He admitted brokering kidney sales for a decade, federal prosecutors said in the complaint.
"It seems that everyone wanted a piece of the action," said acting U.S. Attorney Ralph J. Marra Jr. "The corruption was widespread and pervasive." He said the politicians in New Jersey "existed in an ethics-free zone."
The huge operation was based on a single confidential informant who was able to help the FBI obtain hundreds of hours of video and audio recordings. The recordings include Hoboken's new mayor, Cammarano, who turned 32 on Wednesday, allegedly bragging in a diner about how he was going to win last month's election even if he were indicted because he had "locked down" the votes of Hispanics, Italians and senior citizens, prosecutors said. A former city councilman, Cammarano is charged with taking $25,000 in bribes.
According to federal prosecutors, Thursday's sweep was an outgrowth of a long-running undercover corruption probe, known as Operation Bid Rig, which has already sent a raft of other local New Jersey politicians to jail. According to a release describing the operation, an FBI informant in 2007 began helping agents uncover a money laundering operation between New Jersey, New York and Israel. According to the complaint, the rabbis used registered charities linked to their synagogues to launder money from illegal goods, such as counterfeit handbags. The person wishing to "wash" illicit proceeds would write a check to the charity, then receive cash -- minus a handling fee of 5 to 10 percent kept by the rabbis.
The money laundering probe mushroomed into an investigation into public corruption and bribery when the same FBI informant was introduced to a Jersey City building inspector, John Guarini, who allegedly took a total of $40,000 in bribes and introduced the informant to another Jersey City official, Maher A. Khalil, deputy director of Jersey City's Department of Health and Human Services.
The informant pretended to be a developer interested in building high-rises, but who needed expedited permits and approvals. The complaint says Khalil made the introductions to people he called "players" in restaurants around New Jersey, and the informant would then pass envelopes stuffed with cash in the parking lots afterward. The amounts were usually in the range of $10,000 to $15,000, going to housing inspectors, planning officials, health department workers and politicians.
Prosecutors said much of the money was being solicited for the closely contested election campaigns for city council and mayor earlier this year in Hoboken and Jersey City.
The same informant also posed as a businessman, with a female FBI agent posing as his secretary, to convince Rosenbaum that they needed to find a kidney for the woman's critically ill uncle. According to prosecutors, Rosenbaum replied that he was a "matchmaker" and had been in the business of selling kidneys for 10 years.