July 24, 2009 in Nation/World

Rabbis, N.J. politicians held in corruption probe

Keith B. Richburg Washington Post
 
Associated Press photo

FBI agents lead suspects from their headquarters as part of a corruption investigation in Newark, N.J., Thursday.
(Full-size photo)

Larger probe

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 other local New Jersey politicians to jail.

NEW YORK – 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 Thursday.

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 courthouse.

Among those arrested were legislators Harvey Smith, D, and Daniel Van Pelt, R; Hoboken Mayor Peter Cammarano; 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.

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 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 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.

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