NEWARK, N.J. (AP) - The mayors of three New Jersey cities, two state legislators and several rabbis were among more than 40 people arrested Thursday in a sweeping corruption investigation that began
as a probe into an international money laundering ring that trafficked in goods as diverse as human organs and fake designer handbags.
Among 44 people arrested Thursday were Hoboken Mayor Peter Cammarano III, Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell, Jersey City Deputy Mayor Leona Beldini, state Assemblyman L. Harvey Smith and state
Assemblyman Daniel Van Pelt.
Ridgefield Mayor Anthony Suarez, who is also an attorney, is charged with agreeing to accept an illegal $10,000 cash payment for his legal defense fund.
The number of arrests was noteworthy even for New Jersey, a state that has seen more than 130 public officials plead guilty or be convicted of corruption since 2001.
"New Jersey's corruption problem is one of the worst, if not the worst, in the nation," said Ed Kahrer, who heads the FBI's white collar and public corruption investigation division. "Corruption is a cancer that is destroying the core values of this state."
Gov. Jon Corzine reacted to the probe Thursday morning by saying, "any corruption is unacceptable - anywhere, anytime, by anybody. The scale of corruption we're seeing as this unfolds is simply outrageous and cannot be tolerated."
FBI agents seized documents from Community Affairs Commissioner
Joseph Doria's home and office Thursday, but federal officials would not say whether the former Democratic state senator from Bayonne would face criminal charges.
Doria's office did not return messages for comment Thursday.
In separate money laundering complaints, several rabbis from Brooklyn and New Jersey were charged with offenses ranging from the trafficking of kidneys from Israeli donors to laundering proceeds
from selling fake Gucci and Prada bags.
Van Pelt is accused of accepting $10,000 from a cooperating government witness posing as a developer who sought help in getting
permits for a project in Ocean County.
Smith, the Jersey City Council President, and several other current and former Jersey City public officials also are accused of accepting money to help the fake developer gain permits and approvals.
Beldini, 74, is charged with conspiracy to commit extortion by taking $20,000 in illegal campaign contributions. Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah Healy said Thursday the charges were "a little shocking."
"I have full faith in Leona," Healy said. "She's a good friend of mine - was and will be."
Cammarano, 32, who won a runoff election last month, is charged with accepting $25,000 in cash bribes from an undercover cooperating witness. Elwell is charged with taking $10,000.
Joseph Hayden, an attorney representing Cammarano, said his client "is innocent of these charges. He intends to fight them with all his strength until he proves his innocence."
According to the U.S. Attorney's Office, the investigation initially focused, with the help of the cooperating witness, on the money laundering network that operated between Brooklyn, Deal, N.J. and Israel. The network is alleged to have laundered tens of millions of dollars through charities controlled by rabbis in New York and New Jersey.
Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said he has heard of the story but knows nothing of kidneys being sold by Israelis.
The investigation widened to include official corruption in July 2007 when the cooperating witness approached public officials in Hudson County posing as a developer seeking to build in the Jersey City area.
Hoboken's waterfront has proven to be an especially lucrative piece of real estate across from midtown Manhattan. Developers have put up dozens of buildings in the last 15 years in the mile-square city. It had a prime view on July 4 of fireworks over the Hudson River.
The fears that the city was being overdeveloped has become a hot
topic during elections among candidates.
In secretly recorded conversations outlined in the complaint against Cammarano, the candidate made it clear to prospective campaign donors that he was a friend of developers.
A cooperating witness posing as a developer who was donating $5,000 to the campaign told Cammarano just days before the mayoral
election that he wanted to make sure he had his support with "some properties we're working on." Cammarano is quoted as responding, "I'll be there."
In Deal, Mike Winnick of the Elberon section of Long Branch was praying inside the Deal Synagogue when it was raided by FBI, IRS and Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office agents.
"Everyone was looking at each other, like, `What's going on here?' " he said.
Winnick said four FBI agents escorted a rabbi from the synagogue into his office and blocked the doorway.
Winnick said he left shortly afterward.
Nearby, FBI and IRS agents removed several boxes from the Deal Yeshiva, a school that educates the children of Sephardic Jews.
Busloads carrying those arrested were brought to the FBI's Newark field office Thursday morning. One agent slowly walked an elderly rabbi into the building as another covered his face with a felt hat.
Angela Delli Santi and Beth DeFalco in Trenton, Wayne Parry in
Deal, Samantha Henry and Victor Epstein in Newark and Larry
Neumeister in New York contributed to this story.