FBI arrests over 40 in N.J. corruption probe

Three New Jersey mayors, a state lawmaker who sponsored an anti-corruption bill, five rabbis and a Brooklyn, N.Y., man dubbed the “kidney salesman” were among more than 40 people arrested Thursday in a public corruption probe that one FBI official called “unprecedented.”

The politicians met in diners, parking lots, boiler rooms and bathrooms to take payoffs, while the rabbis acted as “crime bosses” by laundering millions of dollars through an international network of charities, officials said in announcing the arrests Thursday.

“Corruption was a way of life,” Ralph J. Marra Jr., acting U.S. attorney for New Jersey, said at a briefing in Newark. “They existed in an ethics-free zone.”

The primary link in the two-pronged investigation targeting both politicians and rabbis was a lone cooperating witness, according to court records. The undercover informant, at first, infiltrated a money-laundering network involving Brooklyn, New Jersey and Israel and controlled by the rabbis, authorities said.

But the investigation soon delved into public corruption after one of the money-laundering targets, a Hudson County real estate developer, introduced the undercover federal witness to a Jersey City building inspector.

Posing as a developer trying to win public contracts and zoning approvals, the witness gave the city inspector tens of thousand of dollars in bribes - and it didn’t take long for other New Jersey politicians to line up offering their support for cash, too, authorities said.

“It seemed that everyone wanted a piece of the action,” Mr. Marra said. “The corruption was widespread and pervasive.”

The 44 arrests announced Thursday served as yet another reminder of the state’s long history of corruption. Since 2001, more than 130 public officials have reportedly pleaded guilty or been convicted in corruption cases.

The targets Thursday included Daniel Van Pelt, a 44-year-old freshman Republican state assemblyman who last fall introduced a bill to strip convicted public officials of their pensions. At the time, he said in an announcement, 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 with a proposed development in his hometown, according to the FBI. Phone messages left at Mr. Van Pelt’s office Thursday were not returned.

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.”

Hoboken Mayor Peter Cammarano III, 32, a Democrat, was arrested on charges of taking $25,000 in bribes. He was heard on a secret FBI recording saying that he could be indicted and still get 85 percent to 90 percent of the senior citizen, Italian and Hispanic vote, authorities said.

Jim Doyle, a frequent attendee at Hoboken government meetings, said Mr. Cammarano didn’t seem to know he was facing any legal troubles at a contentious City Council hearing that lasted until around 11 p.m. on Wednesday, just hours before his arrest. It was only second meeting for the newly elected mayor since taking office.

“If he knew, he’d be the best actor in the world,” Mr. Doyle said.

Mr. Cammarano told the cooperating witness in one of the secretly recorded meetings that after his runoff election, “we’re breaking down the world into three categories at that point.”

“There’s the people who were with us, and that’s you guys,” he said, according to the criminal complaint. “There’s the people who climbed on board in the runoff. They can get in line. … And then there are the people who were against us the whole way. They get ground. … They get ground into powder.”

Joseph Hayden, an attorney for Mr. Cammarano, did not return phone messages but he told the Associated Press on Thursday that Mr. Cammarano “is innocent of these charges. He intends to fight them with all his strength until he proves his innocence.”

Agents also raided the office of a member of Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine’s Cabinet. Joseph Doria, a former state senator whose home also was raided, was not charged in the investigation, but he resigned his post as commissioner of the state’s Department of Community Affairs within hours of the raids.

“The scale of corruption we’re seeing as this unfolds is simply outrageous and cannot be tolerated,” Mr. Corzine said in a statement.

Several Jersey City officials were also swept up in the arrests, including Deputy Mayor Leona Beldini, 74; Mariano Vega, Jr., 59, the City Council’s president; and former Jersey City Incinerator Authority Chairman James P. King, who is 67.

Among those charged with money laundering were Edmund Nahum, 56, rabbi at a synagogue in Deal, N.J., and Saul Kassin, 87, chief rabbi at a synagogue in Brooklyn. Another defendant, Levy Izhak Rosenbaum, 58, of Brooklyn was accused of being a “kidney salesman” trafficking in human organs, authorities said, getting people to sell them to him for $10,000 and then selling them himself for $160,000.

“It doesn’t make sense, not a drop of sense,” said Rabbi Meir Fund, leader of the Flatbush Minyan in New York and who is not involved in the case. He said he was acquainted with several of the indicted rabbis.

“I found the number of Jewish rabbis [arrested] was very surprising,” he said, adding “I’m not surprised by the politicians.”

Betsy Pisik contributed to this report from New York.

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