Three New Jersey mayors, a state lawmaker who sponsored an anti-corruption bill, several New York rabbis and a man known as the "kidney salesman" were among more than 40 people arrested Thursday in a public corruption probe that one FBI official called "unprecedented."
The New Jersey politicians met in restaurants, diners, parking lots, boiler rooms and bathrooms to take hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes, while rabbis across the Hudson River in New York acted as "crime bosses" by laundering millions of dollars through an international network, officials said in announcing the arrests Thursday.
"Corruption was a way of life," Ralph J. Marra, acting U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, said of the arrested politicians.
"They existed in an ethics free zone," he said at a briefing in Newark, N.J.
The targets included Daniel Van Pelt, a 44-year-old freshman Republican state assemblyman who last fall introduced a bill to strip convicted officials of their pensions. At the time, he said the bill would "offset the significant financial losses in terms of the prosecution of these criminals".
Months later, Mr. Van Pelt met in an Atlantic City restaurant with an undercover FBI informant and took $10,000 to help push through a development in his hometown, according to the FBI.
Among others arrested, newly elected Hoboken Mayor Peter Cammarano III, a Democrat, was caught on a wiretap telling an undercover informant that he could be indicted yet he'd still get 85 to 90 percent of the vote, authorities said. And former Jersey City Council President L. Harvey Smith, also a Democrat, was heard telling an informant who gave him a bribe "I feel I'll have to pat you down," Mr. Marra said.
Even for New Jersey, a state long synonymous with public corruption, the arrests were "truly unprecedented," said Weysan Dun, FBI special agent in charge.
Mr. Dun said more than 300 federal agents fanned out at 54 locations to make the early-morning arrests and evidence seizures.
He said the list of accused "sounds like it should be a roster of community leaders," while Mr. Marra added that the interests of ordinary, law-abiding citizens "don't have a chance in this culture of corruption."
Several rabbis also were charged in the investigation. They included Levy-Izhak Rosenbaum, of Brooklyn, who would "entice vulnerable people to give their kidneys for a $10,000 fee," then resell the organs for as much as $160,000, Mr. Marra said.
Mr. Van Pelt's arrest prompted calls for his resignation within his own party Thursday.
Assemblyman Alex DeCroce, leader of the Republicans in the assembly, said Mr. Van Pelt "cannot represent his district effectively with this cloud hanging over his head."