In Jersey, Corruption as a Way of Life
by Charles Lemos, Thu Jul 23, 2009 at 06:19:38 PM EDT
Two of my closest friends from college are from Jersey, Secaucus actually, and over the years they have regaled me with richly woven tales of the corruption that permeates life in the Garden State. But nothing tops this one. I mean what one can one say when the ingredients of this sumptuous yet unsavory stew include five Rabbis from the Syrian Jewish community, a town called appropriately Deal, bribes to city officials for waivers on building permits, bank fraud, a $25 million bad check, a vast money-laundering conspiracy that extends to Israel and Switzerland, $97,000 dollars in cash being passed in a box of Apple Jacks cereal and trading in human organs.
The culmination of a two year corruption probe today brought criminal charges against 44 people including two New Jersey Assemblymen, three Mayors (Secaucus, Hoboken and Ridgefield though it should be noted that one of the Assemblymen also serves as Mayor of Ocean Township), and five Syrian Jewish Rabbis including a Grand Rabbi who is 87 years old. Jersey City was especially struck hard. Arrested were the President of Jersey City Council, the Deputy Mayor of Jersey City and the long-time former Mayor L. Harvey Smith. Mr. Smith, a former teacher, ran for office on an anti-corruption platform, telling The New York Times: "I dont take cash. I dont let people give me things." He is charged with taking $15,000 in bribes. There are both Democrats and Republicans among the arrested. Nor was the office of Governor Jon Corzine spared. FBI agents raided the home of Joseph V. Doria Jr., Commissioner of the state's Department of Community Affairs and a former mayor of Bayonne.
The Syrian Jewish component is beyond intriguing. We're talking about the Sephardic Jews of Aleppo and Dasmascus, a community that dates back thousands of years but now largely live in Brooklyn and in a town called Deal. The rabbis are accused of money laundering using charitable nonprofit groups they or their synagogues controlled, and taking 5% to 10% for themselves. Nice work if you can get it, as they say.
More from the New York Times:
The case apparently began with bank fraud charges against a member of an insular Syrian Jewish enclave centered in the seaside town of Deal, N.J. Eventually, stemming from that arrest, a federal informant posed as a crooked real estate developer offering cash bribes to obtain government approvals -- and the case mushroomed into a political scandal that could rival any of the most explosive and sleazy episodes in New Jersey's recent past.
It was replete with tales of the illegal sales of body parts; of furtive negotiations in diners, parking lots, and boiler rooms; of nervous jokes about "patting down" a man who turned out to be an informant; and, again and again, of the passing of cash -- once in a box of Apple Jacks cereal stuffed with $97,000, according to prosecutors. F.B.I. agents anticipated seizing so much money that they planned to go to the offices of a federal credit union in Lower Manhattan to use its counting machines, one law enforcement official said.
"For these defendants, corruption was a way of life," Ralph J. Marra Jr., the acting United States attorney in New Jersey, said at a 12:30 p.m. news conference. "They existed in an ethics-free zone."
Mr. Marra said that average citizens "don't have a chance" against the culture of influence peddling the investigation had unearthed.
Even veteran political observers were amazed at the scope of the arrests. "This is so massive," said Joseph Marbach, a political scientist at Seton Hall, who called it the biggest sting operation he could remember in the state. "It's going to just reinforce the stereotype of New Jersey politics and corruption. While we thought we were cleaning up New Jersey, it just shows how much more needs to be done."
Weysan Dun, the special agent in charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Newark office, said the rabbis arrested -- including the grand rabbi of the Syrian Jewish community in the United States, Saul Kassin of Brooklyn -- were part of a vast money-laundering conspiracy with tentacles in Israel and Switzerland. Another person, Levy-Izhak Rosenbaum of Brooklyn, was accused of enticing vulnerable people to give up a kidney for $10,000 and then selling the organ for $160,000.
I'll say one thing, this is going to make a heck of film. It might have to be a trilogy just to get it all in.
Profiles of those arrested at New Jersey Online