The Jersey Sting: Chris Christie and the Most Brazen Case of Jersey-Style Corruption---Ever

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Overview

In the summer of 2009 the blog Gawker stated “Everybody in New Jersey Was Arrested Yesterday.” Now for the first time, The Jersey Sting is the real story behind the biggest corruption bust in New Jersey’s notoriously corrupt history.

Among the forty-four people arrested in July 2009 were three mayors, five Orthodox rabbis, two state legislators, and the flamboyant deputy mayor of Jersey City, Leona Beldini, once a stripper using the stage name “Hope Diamond.” At the center of it...

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The Jersey Sting: A True Story of Crooked Pols, Money-Laundering Rabbis, Black Market Kidneys, and the Informant Who Brought It All Down

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Overview

In the summer of 2009 the blog Gawker stated “Everybody in New Jersey Was Arrested Yesterday.” Now for the first time, The Jersey Sting is the real story behind the biggest corruption bust in New Jersey’s notoriously corrupt history.

Among the forty-four people arrested in July 2009 were three mayors, five Orthodox rabbis, two state legislators, and the flamboyant deputy mayor of Jersey City, Leona Beldini, once a stripper using the stage name “Hope Diamond.” At the center of it all was a dubious character named Solomon Dwek, who perpetrated a $50 million Ponzi scheme before copping a plea and wearing a wire as a secret FBI undercover informant, setting up friends, partners, rabbis, and dozens of politicians. Mr. Dwek played his role like an extra in a mob movie. On surveillance tape, he repeatedly referred to his fraudulent “schnookie deals,” which is Yiddish for, well, schnook.

Full of impossible-to-make-up detail and fresh revelations from the continuing trials and investigations, this book—the inside, untold account of a federal sting operation that moves from the streets of Brooklyn to the diners of Jersey City, and all the way to Israel—is a wonderful tour de force of investigative journalism by the reporting team that broke this amazing story.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

At first, it seems like The Jersey Sting has the makings of the next Goodfellas, but then you realize that no three-hour film could do justice to the richness of this story of corruption and double crosses. The anti-hero of this narrative is Solomon Dwek, a sleazy young operator who first bilked his friends, partners, and his local Syrian Jewish community of tens of millions of dollars in pyramid schemes; then, once caught, became a wired informant, eventually roping in no fewer than forty-four culprits. Among those arrested in the biggest corruption bust in Garden State history were three mayors, five Orthodox rabbis, two state legislators, and a former stripper deputy mayor. The kind of stranger-than-fiction story that investigative reporters pray for.

From the Publisher
"Two very good reporters at The Star-Ledger have done this state — and the whole country, for that matter — a great service...Juicy... a masterful job." —The Newark Star-Ledger
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781250001931
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 4/10/2012
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 281,728
  • Product dimensions: 5.56 (w) x 8.08 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Ted Sherman

TED SHERMAN and JOSH MARGOLIN are award-winning reporters for the Newark Star-Ledger, whose work on this case won highest honors from the American Society of Newspaper Editors and were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize.

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Read an Excerpt

1

 

 

Everyone in New Jersey Was Arrested Today …

 

It began in the early-morning hours of Thursday, July 23, 2009.

On a warm day that would turn overcast with scattered rain, climbing to near 80 degrees in the summer humidity, more than 300 FBI and other federal agents were in position across the metropolitan area well before the crack of dawn. Deployed from Brooklyn and Jersey City to the wealthy beachfront enclave of Deal along the Jersey Shore, it was an invasion force about to execute a coordinated assault of military-style precision, a takedown that would shatter New Jersey’s political landscape and reach all the way into the governor’s office, while tearing apart an insular Orthodox religious community that had long shunned outsiders.

For nearly three years, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office had been trolling for corruption in one of the nation’s most corrupt states, and this was D-day. It was all about to come down.

Some news organizations had already been tipped off that “something big” was going to happen. In the second-floor newsroom of The Star-Ledger—New Jersey’s largest newspaper—editors were deploying their own army of staff, mostly operating on educated guesswork and cryptic conversations with sources on just where to send them. They knew there were going to be some high-profile arrests and that it was going to be big, but they had no idea just how crazy it was about to get. Something about political corruption and a Brooklyn rabbi, sources had suggested, in a state already well known for its scandals.

New Jersey, after all, was where its governor had resigned after announcing one day that he was gay, and had put his male lover in a sensitive security post for which the guy was wildly unqualified. It was the state where the mayor of its largest city was currently in federal prison for steering lucrative land deals to a woman with whom he had been having a torrid extramarital affair. Where the powerful head of the state senate’s finance committee was in prison as well, for steering millions in public funding to the medical university that had given him what prosecutors called a no-show job. A state where a leading Republican candidate for U.S. Senate would go to jail after disdaining a federal inquiry into his election financing, declaring to an informant—who unfortunately for him was wearing a wire at the time—that the heavyset U.S. Attorney pursuing him was just “a fat fuck who knew more about cookbooks than law books…” Where more than 200 people had been arrested in recent years on corruption charges large and small, from county executives and freeholders to mayors and legislators and, of course, a couple of backroom political bosses.

Even those who were about to get arrested that morning did not seem to have a clue they would be the next stars of that classic New Jersey ritual: the televised “perp walk.”

Peter Cammarano III, a rising star in New Jersey politics, was only in his twenty-third day as mayor of Hoboken, following a tough, hard-fought runoff election in the once-blue-collar Hudson County city that long ago had served as a soundstage for the famed film classic On the Waterfront but now a growing preserve of young urban professionals ferrying across the river to work in Manhattan. An attorney and former councilman who specialized in election law and worked for one of New Jersey’s most politically connected law firms, Cammarano was seen as the future of the Democratic Party. He had spent the night before celebrating his thirty-second birthday, looking as if he had not a care in the world.

He “tweeted” cheerfully on July 22: I plan on bartending tonight @ the Hoboken’s St. Ann’s festival, look forward to seeing the residents and visitors of Hoboken tonight …

He shook hands and mixed drinks. Then later in the evening, he pulled out his iPhone and posted his last “tweet” before the knock came at the door the next morning: I would like to thank everyone today for the birthday wishes, hope everyone had a great time at the opening night for St. Ann’s feast—10:08 PM Jul 22nd from Echofon …

Democratic state assemblyman L. Harvey Smith, 60, was not even in New Jersey that day. Smith, also on the public payroll as a Hudson County undersheriff—a political patronage appointment that only goes to those with the right connections—was a onetime Jersey City mayor and councilman who had just tried, and failed, at another mayoral bid. On this morning, he was vacationing in Virginia.

Mariano Vega, the Jersey City council president, might have had a tougher time sleeping the night before. The 60-year-old veteran Democrat had been visited by FBI agents at his home in the Van Vorst Park historic district of the city the previous day. The feds wanted to know about a meeting he might have had with a developer just 13 days earlier. Vega looked carefully at the picture of the guy. Someone who had been recorded telling Vega he had an envelope stuffed with $10,000 full of cash, and recorded passing that to a middleman, kind of thing most people would probably remember.

“I don’t recognize him,” Vega told the feds. He was lying and they knew it.

In Brooklyn, along Ocean Parkway just off Kings Highway, some were already on their way to Shachrit, the first morning prayer service at Congregation Shaare Zion, one of the largest Orthodox synagogues in New York and center of the close-knit Syrian Jewish community.

Traffic was still light in Jersey City. Miles to the south in Deal, along tree-lined streets of the quiet suburban town, there was not a hint that anything was amiss. The cable guy could be seen on one block. No FBI vans. No agents in blue windbreakers. No guns or handcuffs.

The FBI likes to target its high-profile arrests early in the day, when people are just getting up and not yet really thinking about much more than breakfast. There’s less of a chance that anyone is going to do something stupid, like reach for a gun or run, or be warned that there’s about to be a knock on the door. In this case, only a handful of the accused, like Vega, had been questioned the night before by the FBI. Most did not realize they had long been targets of a federal investigation. Few had lawyers yet. Soon they would all need one.

The arrests had been planned for at least a month, zeroed in on a date long etched onto the calendar. The FBI had brought in additional agents to augment the myriad arresting, search, and interrogation teams fanned out across New York and New Jersey. IRS agents were there as well. Acting U.S. Attorney Ralph Marra likened the gathering storm to the 1944 Normandy invasion; there would be a lot of troops in the field, and once he gave the go-ahead, he could only hope that nothing would go wrong. “The ships are out there; they’re on their way. You’re not calling them back,” he explained.

That morning, the 56-year-old Marra rushed through his cornflakes and blueberries and headed north up the Garden State Parkway to the office in downtown Newark. There wasn’t much for him to do that had not already been done.

A mile away, Weysan Dun, 54, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Newark Division, was already at his post, where he had been camped out since about 4:30 A.M. He surveyed the command center on the twelfth floor of the high-security FBI building, the tactical headquarters for the operation that was about to be launched. The large, long, windowless room was packed with people, some sitting at black and silver computer terminals, others talking by phone with agents in the field.

Dark SUVs and plain sedans were being parked in still-dark neighborhoods as the homes of suspects were quietly surrounded in the predawn. Nobody was expecting anyone to run, but you never knew. If the most dangerous thing in law enforcement is a nighttime highway stop, a close second is bursting in for a surprise arrest or to serve a warrant. Like always, everything was supposed to be played completely by the book. But no one knows what will happen in the field.

Dun, in a starched white shirt and tightly knotted maroon tie, had left his dark suit jacket back in his expansive office down the hall. The command center was filled with a buzz of 20 different conversations going on all at once. A large American flag hung from the wall in back of him. To his left, a big white status board held a grid with the names of 44 targets carefully written in dry erase markers. In the back, by the microwave and a sports trophy case, someone had set up breakfast trays of bagels, muffins, juices, and hot coffee. And donuts.

More than a month earlier, Dun had declared an “Office Special,” in an all-hands-on-deck e-mail bulletin to everyone in the division, alerting agents and support personnel to block out this day and keep their calendars clear. Those not directly on the case had no idea what was coming down. Some would not be told of their assignments until just before the arrests would be made. Unscheduled vacations? Canceled. Now they were gathered in what almost looked like the firing room for a moon shot, with dozens of people seated at carefully aligned rows of tables—each with a different responsibility for a piece of the operation. Legal. Intelligence. Media.

Under the recessed fluorescent lights overhead, there was a nervous energy after months of preparation. Organized chaos, Dun thought to himself.

The sun was now up. His seat was at a long table stretching across the front of the room and he had been reviewing the final preparations of what was to come.

“Quiet!” someone finally called out. The conversations immediately stopped. It all now was in Dun’s hands to call the final order. Go or no-go?… The former Army intelligence officer with a DJ’s voice took a last look at his wristwatch, second hand ticking out the last moments. It was exactly 6:00 A.M.

The command supervisor looked expectedly at Dun. “Requesting permission to execute,” he said. That was the protocol.

Dun nodded without hesitation. “Execute,” he replied in his calm Midwest voice.

The order immediately went out by radio to the waiting teams of agents spread throughout New York and New Jersey. “All units. This is the command post. You have the authority to execute your warrants.”

It remained silent in the room, except for the soft rush of the ventilation blowers in the background. Dun could only imagine the sudden scramble of agents, the echo of footsteps on the run acting immediately upon his command, like the offensive line of a football team poised tightly on the line of scrimmage and then exploding forward on the snap. The operator handling field communications raised her microphone again and she repeated the order three times: “Execute … Execute … Execute…”

In Deal and in Jersey City, in Hoboken and Brooklyn, the federal agents—both FBI and IRS, joined in some cases by local cops—immediately went into action, knocking on 44 doors in synchronized unison.

On East 8th Street between Avenues U and V in Brooklyn, Paulina Ajkobyan had gotten up early to take out the garbage. It was still quiet, at the time in the morning when the loudest sounds outside might be the occasional barking of a dog, the grinding of a garbage truck, or the slamming of a car door. When a conversation on the street can carry far down the block.

She paused at the top of her small porch in the neighborhood of modest brick homes. Unable to go back to sleep, she rested for a few moments before going back inside. As she sat, she saw a light brown car pull up the tree-lined street. A man and a woman got out. She could see both were wearing dark blue vests with the letters FBI emblazoned in yellow on the front.

“I think, ‘Oh, this [is a] problem,’” she later told a reporter in broken English.

Two more agents quickly arrived and all four headed up the street, entering a two-story duplex with a broken scooter in the yard, chipped red paint on the stoop, and peeling white paint on the wrought iron over the windows. They knocked and then headed up a crooked linoleum-covered staircase. A short while, maybe 15 minutes later, they came back down the street, this time leading someone Paulina did not recognize, a “big fat man” she called him, already in handcuffs. They put him in one of the government cars and drove him away.

A group of Jersey mayors were among the first to be brought in. There was Cammarano. Looking dazed and bleary-eyed, the married father with a two-year-old girl was the young face of an old city and, despite the cuffs, was dressed the part in blue button-down and khakis as he was taken from a car into this hulking FBI headquarters alongside the heavily industrial Passaic River, just off McCarter Highway in Newark. Soon joining him was Secaucus mayor Dennis Elwell. Then a growing stream of other public officials, building inspectors, and political operatives. Afterward would come the rabbis, Hasidic real estate developers, and Israeli expatriates from Brooklyn.

News of the arrests quickly began to leak widely. On WNBC-TV, the local New York NBC television station, a bulletin flashed: Breaking News: Dozens of corruption-related arrests are taking place across New Jersey this morning. Several Mayors are in custody …

The news radio stations picked it up. At The Star-Ledger, the story quickly went up on the paper’s Web site, as photographers began transmitting the first photos back from the FBI building. No one was saying how many more there would be or when it would stop. The initial numbers were about twenty. Then thirty. And the arrests kept coming.

Reports, later proved wrong, suggested a massive political bid-rigging scheme. An FBI spokesman cryptically said only that the investigation involved a “high-volume international money-laundering conspiracy.” No one was explaining how that all fit together. None of it made sense. What could a group of rabbis from Brooklyn have to do with hard-core pols of Hudson County, New Jersey?

It got stranger still. Sources told reporters that one of the suspects was also allegedly involved in an illegal human organ–selling ring—a suggestion that some brushed aside as sounding too ludicrous to possibly be true. “Someone’s got to be smoking crack,” one reporter declared.

Twenty search-warrant teams stormed homes and offices in New Jersey and New York, recovering large sums of cash and other evidence. Twenty-eight bank accounts were seized on the confidential orders of a federal judge. The state’s governor—unpopular and sitting atop a Democratic Party increasingly infected by corruption—was not spared, even as he was stuck slogging through a vicious reelection campaign. The office and home of a high-ranking member of his own cabinet were searched.

New Jersey governor Jon Corzine had a front-row seat from the high-priced confines of his luxury penthouse condo on the southeast corner of Maxwell Place in Hoboken. The first-term Democratic governor, onetime U.S. Senator, and former CEO of Goldman Sachs could only stare at the flat-screen television as he paced while one Democrat after another in real time was walked into FBI headquarters, each step echoing into Corzine’s campaign. Just two floors down from the governor in the very same condo building, Michael Schaffer, a commissioner on the North Hudson Utilities Authority, was being arrested.

Corzine seemed already defeated as he conferred on the phone and remained frozen before the television. Handcuffed Democrats—people he had shaken hands with, supported in campaigns, and given money to help win elections—were being marched into custody, heads bowed down as if looking for a hole deep enough in which to hide.

“Is there anyone there we don’t know?” the governor slowly demanded.

One of those on the conference call wondered aloud, “Maybe the rabbis?” It wasn’t meant to be a joke.

The numbers of those arrested, meanwhile, kept changing, as reporters and TV news crews scrambled to keep up with a story that still did not quite make any sense. It quickly began to flash around the world. At one point, cars were backed up four deep with suspects outside the brown brick FBI building. Photographers watched one agent slowly escort an elderly rabbi, hands clutching a siddur, or prayer book, inside.

One by one they walked into the front door, accompanied by agents, and led to a door on the right and then down a pale yellow corridor. A temporary processing center had been set up on the first floor in a charcoal-gray-carpeted room often used for FBI press briefings and classrooms. The JABS, or Joint Automated Booking System unit—normally in a detention area off the garage—had been moved there and an agent took the hands of each, rolling fingertips over a scanner that would digitally transmit the prints to the Bureau’s central computer. The camera flashed for mug shots. Full face. Side view. No one smiled. Then each was moved to a waiting area off to the side for an interview with pretrial services. It was there where they could call for a lawyer, if they had one.

They no longer had titles. They were not mayors or councilmen or rabbis or building inspectors. They were now prisoners.

Mindful that most would not have eaten that morning and some were elderly, Dun had ordered that snacks be set up for them as they waited. Hershey bars. Water. Bagels from a kosher bakery. Hours later, they all began coming out again, still handcuffed, on their way to the federal courthouse. So many that U.S. Marshals were forced to transport them in a big blue military bus borrowed from McGuire Air Force Base in South Jersey.

It would be called one of the most memorable perp walks in New Jersey history. Men and women. Young and old. Some well-known, others a mystery. Some were in open-neck polo shirts, others in jeans or sweat suits. One ranking Jersey City official was showing off her cleavage. Others were in shorts. The Orthodox men shuffled uncomfortably in black pants and white shirts, wearing black coats and steel handcuffs, their ritual shirt fringes blowing in the warm summer wind.

By lunchtime, there was a rogues’ gallery like no other. And, of course, a Who’s Who of the state’s best and most expensive criminal lawyers—in their $2,000 suits—began their parade in and out of the courthouse where their new clients were making first appearances before a federal magistrate. Three mayors. Five rabbis, including Saul Kassin, the frail 87-year-old spiritual leader of Sharee Zion in Brooklyn, looking anxious and fearful. Vega, the first Hispanic to sit as president of the Jersey City council. A deputy mayor. Failed mayoral and council candidates. Real estate developers. Two New Jersey state legislators. One insurance executive who had already been convicted for his role in an insider-trading scam that reached from the governor’s office in Trenton to the elite world of the leading law firm Skadden Arps. Political operatives and Hasidic Jews from the bucolic community of Monsey, in Rockland County, New York.

A longtime political consultant, who had already quietly agreed to roll over on his pals, was there as well, though he would mysteriously die days later—after word began circulating that his allegiances had shifted.

The Web site Gawker.com quickly summed it all up: “Everyone in New Jersey was arrested today!”

The charges ranged from corruption and bribery to money laundering and conspiracy, in a complex sting operation that spanned from Hoboken to Israel. In a state that prides itself on its history of scandal and colorful mobsters, no one had ever seen—or imagined—anything like this. The tall pile of criminal complaints described in graphic detail the bribes that had gone down in diners, living rooms, and parking lots, taken by the assemblymen, by the mayors, by housing inspectors and authority commissioners. Many of the players had been locked in a series of tightly contested Hudson County elections, apparently more than willing to take money being offered without any questions.

Rabbinical scholars acting more like crime bosses than religious leaders were being accused of laundering millions through synagogues, charities, and yeshivas. Some had money-counting machines in their offices. It was like GoodFellas—at shul. Indeed, the brazenness of the intertwined schemes played out in stark terms and in languages that included English, Yiddish, Hebrew, Aramaic, and yeshivish slang—captured by hundreds of hours of hidden surveillance tapes recorded by the FBI and noted in the criminal complaints.

Cammarano, for example, sat down at a Hoboken diner that past May and talked about a $5,000 payment with a mysterious informant whom authorities would not immediately identify. The informant had a cover story portraying himself as a big-spending developer willing to pay cash to grease the way for building approvals.

The informant told others he had cash to burn. “There’s people like Democrat, Republican, but I’m in the Green Party; I don’t like any conflicts, you understand?” He was playing Joe Pesci. Tough-guy mob movie language from someone who was the only one in the room that knew they were all starring in a production secretly recorded for an FBI greatest hits reel.

One candidate for city council, desperate for campaign funds in a tight runoff election, nervously laughed. “Green is like gold, right?”

“That’s right, I don’t have gold in my house, but green I have. So, you know, if it’s okay with you, you know, maybe I’ll do five thousand and another five after the election,” the informant promised.

It was clear the scheme had a wide reach. Some would later step forward and acknowledge that they had been targeted as well. They were identified only as “Official 1” or “Official 2” in the criminal complaints but were not immediately charged.

One story making the rounds told of an apparent target who allegedly figured it out. A Hudson County mayor who supposedly was set up with the informant in a restaurant and told to name his price. The mayor, according to the story, took a napkin and scribbled something down, before he got up to leave without a word. The informant looked at the paper, crumbled it up, and followed him out. Federal agents rapidly moved in to recover the evidence. The napkin said: Go fuck yourself.

Did it happen? No one knew for sure, but it was repeated over and over, by word of mouth, among political insiders and lawyers, eventually taking on the ring of truth as much as anything else in the strange case, while other elected officials came forward and admitted they, too, were lured with offers that they turned down. That story was not among the most outrageous of reports.

As it turned out, the illegal human organ–selling operation—the rumor that sounded unbelievably preposterous—was indeed a part of the sting. The FBI had nailed a Brooklyn real estate broker for running a black market organ donor scheme, proposing the sale of a human kidney through his Israeli connections. And he had done it before. Many times, he claimed.

The transcripts taken from the criminal complaints against the rabbis sounded like a script from an episode of The Sopranos. At one point, one rabbi was told by the FBI’s informant that the proceeds of a $50,000 check came from “that guy who was holding, uh, my, uh, money for me on that Florida insurance, uh, scam that I did.”

“Okay,” says the rabbi. “Give me a couple days.”

Another rabbi was caught explaining that they would use code words to schedule meetings to arrange cash transfers. Dollars were gemoras. As in “how many gemoras would it take?” The gemora is actually a part of the Talmud, the section that contains the rabbinical commentaries and debates from two thousand years ago. It is said to have been handed down to Moses at Mount Sinai. The irony was boundless.

Money was exchanged in paper bags, in boxes of breakfast cereal, and in plastic garbage sacks.

*   *   *

The afternoon press conference in the U.S. Attorney’s office on the seventh floor of the Peter W. Rodino Federal Building in Newark, directly across from the federal courthouse where all the defendants would eventually arrive, was packed with media from all over the country. Just a quick PATH train ride from New York, the event brought out crews from all the major broadcast and cable news networks. Newspaper and radio reporters from around the region. Even international press. TV cameras jammed in the front. Reporters squeezed tightly along the sides. In the back, prosecutors and others from the office, there to hear their boss.

The press releases being handed out listed the nearly four dozen people who had been arrested. But it wasn’t the press advisory that had brought all the media there. It was the photo of the rabbis in cuffs, one in a long dark coat and black hat, being led onto the blue Air Force bus behind a string of suspects.

The rabbis were being charged with operating a sophisticated money-laundering network by funneling millions of dollars through charitable institutions and schools with which they were associated—an international tax dodge involving transactions routed through Switzerland, Hong Kong, Australia, and Israel.

With the politicians, it was simple payoffs. The classic Jersey-style political crime. Some of the bribes to elected officials were paid through political contributions, the complaint said, often through “straw” donors who wrote checks in their names or businesses to create the façade of complying with campaign finance regulations. Other bribes were simply cash stuffed into envelopes.

The rabbis had really nothing to do with the politicians, and vice versa. Neither side knew each other. Prosecutors said the case was actually a two-track investigation connected only by the same informant, a man who moved easily among the worlds of the Orthodox Jews, development deals, and Jersey politics.

The rabbis included Eliahu Ben Haim, of Long Branch, the leader of a synagogue in Deal, whose sphere of influence extended from the Jersey Shore to the Middle East. He had long-standing connections to the right-wing, ultra-Orthodox Shas Party in Israel. The connections were not just political. He had raised large sums of money for charities run by Shas founder Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, once a chief rabbi of Israel, and his son Rabbi David Yosef.

Rabbi Saul Kassin, a soft-spoken man and author of several books on Jewish law, was charged with money laundering as well. So was Rabbi Edmond Nahum, of Deal, both of them well-known in Syrian Sephardic community of about 75,000 strong that stretches from the neighborhoods of southern Brooklyn to the beachfront homes of Deal, where many spend the summers.

*   *   *

Ralph Marra had long served behind the scenes as a prosecutor, and then a top administrator in the office under Chris Christie, the U.S. Attorney who had stepped down eight months earlier to run for governor. Where Christie was larger than life, Marra was a low-key guy with a taste for cooking, hard rock, and surfing. He had spent most of his career in the U.S. Attorney’s office and had prosecuted every sort of case, from crooked street sweepers to wannabe jihadists.

A lifelong Democrat, Marra had long ties to Hudson County, a place steeped in corruption dating back a century or more. Frank Hague, one of the state’s first political bosses and the storied mayor who ruled Jersey City at the same time Tammany Hall controlled politics in New York City, somehow parlayed a city salary that never exceeded $8,500 a year into an estate estimated at more than $10 million at the time of his death. Marra freely speaks of a grandmother telling stories of shakedowns at a family-owned bar in Hoboken.

“I vividly remember her showing me—I must’ve been nine years old—one of her best friends had another saloon. She’d take me in the back and show me where they used to stuff the ballot boxes,” he said.

Marra liked to tell how he used to bring his kids into the voting booth when they were young, instructing them to vote the Democratic line, “skipping the crooks.” They would ask, “How will we know?” And he would say, “By the time you’re old enough to vote, you’ll know.”

Marra had faced the press before, but nothing like this, usually leaving the spotlight to others. This time, the lights were on him as he walked to the podium, accompanied by Dun and members of his prosecution team. Marra knew how to give a sound bite.

“For these defendants, corruption was a way of life,” Marra began. “They existed in an ethics-free zone.” Marra said the politicians willingly put themselves up for sale and “clergymen cloaked their extensive criminal activity behind a façade of rectitude.”

Privately, he admitted that despite the serious nature of the allegations, they had to laugh over the sheer chutzpah of it all. “It’s sort of hilarious at the same time,” he allowed.

Now in his carefully tailored suit jacket, Dun had joined Marra and looked somber in front of the press. Cheerful and often self-deprecating in private, the FBI special agent was all business. He was not smiling. He knew there were going to be questions about the rabbis, as well as charges that the case—first green-lighted by Christie, a Republican—seemed to have targeted mostly Democrats.

“The fact that we arrested a number of rabbis this morning does not make this a religiously motivated case. Nor does the fact that we arrested political figures make this a politically motivated case,” Dun said. “This case is not about politics. It is certainly not about religion. It is about crime and corruption.”

There was immediate political fallout. As Marra and Dun answered questions, Joseph Doria, the popular commissioner of the state Department of Community Affairs, was in the process of stepping down. Not two years earlier, Corzine had begged Doria to join his cabinet. But Corzine and his advisers felt Doria could not be saved after a team of FBI agents searched his office and another descended on his home. “I have not done anything wrong here. I answered their questions. That’s all,” Doria said during a brief moment with a reporter. But even that was too much for Corzine to take. Doria, who was never charged, was gone by the end of the day.

Two assemblymen were both asked by leadership officials to resign their legislative committee posts. Residents in Hoboken, Secaucus, and Ridgefield all demanded their mayors step down. Protestors started taking to the streets.

Locked in a battle for his career in a campaign against Christie, the governor, pale, angry, and grim faced, said he was sickened to learn of the arrests. Standing next to the state’s attorney general, Anne Milgram, Corzine looked ready to kill. “Any corruption is unacceptable anytime, anywhere, by anybody,” he declared, calling the scope of the corruption simply outrageous. “There’s no other word that fits than ‘outrageous.’”

*   *   *

Even as the effects of the arrest rolled over New Jersey like successive tidal waves, what was not clear was how it all came down. The press releases only said that investigators had the assistance of a “cooperating witness.” The U.S. Attorney’s office refused to disclose who that was. The criminal complaints only identified him as “the CW,” who had been charged with bank fraud in 2006.

In fact, it was all tied together by that one man, one individual who became the focus of what would become a 29-month sting operation, with twists, turns, and characters that might have been taken directly from the pages of an Elmore Leonard novel. Wearing a hidden wire and being followed closely by FBI special agents, the CW would tell associates and longtime business partners that he was working a new scam. “Schnookie deals,” he called them, aimed at outwitting the IRS and his creditors in the wake of his arrest for trying to pass $50 million in worthless checks.

“I have a handbag business. I make knockoff, you know, bags, you know—like Zegna, Canali. They make fancy pocketbooks.… See I make ’em for like twenty dollars. I sell ’em for a hundred dollars,” he said as he lured people into his government-sponsored trap: a cover story to explain his desperate efforts to launder cash from what would turn out to be non-existent businesses using FBI money. What would not come out until months later was that among those he went after were his brother’s father-in-law; an investor in an unrelated Ponzi scheme; religious rivals of this father; and political officials whose roles in office were as foreign to him as the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.

The scripts changed for the politicians. The CW took on an assumed name and became a fast-talking, seemingly reckless Orthodox Jewish real estate developer with a loose wallet, loose lips, and a plan to put up big high-rises on what seemed to be impossibly tiny tracts of land. If anyone bothered to look closely, they would have realized quickly the informant was full of it. But no one checked. To the politicians, the CW was just another businessman willing to pay off anyone to get the jobs fast-tracked.

It did not take long to connect the dots. There was only one person who fit the description. One person who had been charged with bank fraud in 2006, who was well-known in the Sephardic Jewish community in Deal.

Solomon Dwek.

The son of a well-respected Monmouth County rabbi, Dwek was a big, chubby young man—some called him cherubic—with a receding hairline his yarmulke could not cover and thin, wire-rimmed glasses that barely seemed to fit his face. Married with five kids, he had served as the vice president and chief executive of the Deal Yeshiva and was a major contributor to political candidates. He had given thousands of dollars to the election campaign of Pres. George W. Bush. He had shaken hands with Dick Cheney.

As head of a real estate company called Dwek Properties LLC, he claimed more than 200 properties in Central New Jersey and investments as far south as Florida, including two luxury condominiums in Miami Beach at the private community of Aqua at Allison Island. Through a string of partnerships, he owned medical buildings, houses, and condos and was involved in several major development projects. He had money in a floating casino down in Florida. He was by all indications a very wealthy man who gave generously to charity, including his father’s religious school. There was an arts center that he had funded, named after him and his wife, Pearl.

But the multimillion-dollar real estate empire had all come tumbling down one day in April of 2006, when Dwek went to the drive-thru window at the PNC Bank in Eatontown and for some inexplicable reason deposited a phony $25 million check drawn from an empty, closed account and then transferred all the funds out before the Pittsburgh-based bank discovered the massive fraud. The next day, he tried to do it again, with a second bogus $25 million check. PNC would eventually file suit. A month later, on May 11, Dwek was arrested at his home by FBI agents and detectives from the county prosecutor’s office, charged with bank fraud, a crime that carried a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison and a $1 million fine.

It made all the papers. To many who thought they knew him, it made no sense. Why would a guy with so much just throw it all away like that? How did he think he was going to get away with kiting one $25 million check, let alone two?

Not long after, he filed a massive bankruptcy petition, involving dozens of creditors, lawsuits and countersuits, and continuing allegations of fraud. While all that was happening, he made a fateful agreement in hopes of cutting the amount of time he would spend in federal prison. He would secretly cooperate with prosecutors, launching a nearly three-year investigation that only now was coming to light.

On the day of the massive arrests, Dwek vanished. At his low, sprawling ranch on a quiet side street in Deal, the door was answered that morning by a domestic worker, who had little to say. Inside was a woman carrying an empty suitcase.

Dwek, it seemed, was gone.

 

Copyright © 2011 by Ted Sherman and Josh Margolin

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Table of Contents

Prologue 1

1 Everyone in New Jersey Was Arrested Today… 7

2 The Rabbi's Son 22

3 The Schnookie Deal 41

4 You Have No Idea What You're Messing With… 65

5 "Do I Really Want to Get in Bed with This Guy?" 80

6 Point of No Return 92

7 Mike from Monsey 103

8 Religious Retreat 123

9 Kidneys and Fish 136

10 The Fixer 156

11 The Man from Chicago 176

12 The Stripper, the Mayor, and the Manzo Boys 188

13 March Madness 207

14 Hudson County Hardball 229

15 Put Him on Ice… 248

16 Takedown 280

17 Rogues and Cronies of Thieves 303

18 "I Am Guilty, Your Honor…" 311

New Epilogue for the Paperback Edition 335

Chapter Notes 349

Cast of Characters and the Roles They Played 360

Bibliography 365

Acknowledgments 367

Index 375

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First Chapter

The Jersey Sting

A True Story of Crooked Pols, Money-Laundering Rabbis, Black Market Kidneys, and the Informant Who Brought It All Down
By Ted Sherman

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2011 Ted Sherman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780312654177

1
 
 
Everyone in New Jersey Was Arrested Today …
 
It began in the early-morning hours of Thursday, July 23, 2009.
On a warm day that would turn overcast with scattered rain, climbing to near 80 degrees in the summer humidity, more than 300 FBI and other federal agents were in position across the metropolitan area well before the crack of dawn. Deployed from Brooklyn and Jersey City to the wealthy beachfront enclave of Deal along the Jersey Shore, it was an invasion force about to execute a coordinated assault of military-style precision, a takedown that would shatter New Jersey’s political landscape and reach all the way into the governor’s office, while tearing apart an insular Orthodox religious community that had long shunned outsiders.
For nearly three years, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office had been trolling for corruption in one of the nation’s most corrupt states, and this was D-day. It was all about to come down.
Some news organizations had already been tipped off that “something big” was going to happen. In the second-floor newsroom of The Star-Ledger—New Jersey’s largest newspaper—editors were deploying their own army of staff, mostly operating on educated guesswork and cryptic conversations with sources on just where to send them. They knew there were going to be some high-profile arrests and that it was going to be big, but they had no idea just how crazy it was about to get. Something about political corruption and a Brooklyn rabbi, sources had suggested, in a state already well known for its scandals.
New Jersey, after all, was where its governor had resigned after announcing one day that he was gay, and had put his male lover in a sensitive security post for which the guy was wildly unqualified. It was the state where the mayor of its largest city was currently in federal prison for steering lucrative land deals to a woman with whom he had been having a torrid extramarital affair. Where the powerful head of the state senate’s finance committee was in prison as well, for steering millions in public funding to the medical university that had given him what prosecutors called a no-show job. A state where a leading Republican candidate for U.S. Senate would go to jail after disdaining a federal inquiry into his election financing, declaring to an informant—who unfortunately for him was wearing a wire at the time—that the heavyset U.S. Attorney pursuing him was just “a fat fuck who knew more about cookbooks than law books…” Where more than 200 people had been arrested in recent years on corruption charges large and small, from county executives and freeholders to mayors and legislators and, of course, a couple of backroom political bosses.
Even those who were about to get arrested that morning did not seem to have a clue they would be the next stars of that classic New Jersey ritual: the televised “perp walk.”
Peter Cammarano III, a rising star in New Jersey politics, was only in his twenty-third day as mayor of Hoboken, following a tough, hard-fought runoff election in the once-blue-collar Hudson County city that long ago had served as a soundstage for the famed film classic On the Waterfront but now a growing preserve of young urban professionals ferrying across the river to work in Manhattan. An attorney and former councilman who specialized in election law and worked for one of New Jersey’s most politically connected law firms, Cammarano was seen as the future of the Democratic Party. He had spent the night before celebrating his thirty-second birthday, looking as if he had not a care in the world.
He “tweeted” cheerfully on July 22: I plan on bartending tonight @ the Hoboken’s St. Ann’s festival, look forward to seeing the residents and visitors of Hoboken tonight …
He shook hands and mixed drinks. Then later in the evening, he pulled out his iPhone and posted his last “tweet” before the knock came at the door the next morning: I would like to thank everyone today for the birthday wishes, hope everyone had a great time at the opening night for St. Ann’s feast—10:08 PM Jul 22nd from Echofon …
Democratic state assemblyman L. Harvey Smith, 60, was not even in New Jersey that day. Smith, also on the public payroll as a Hudson County undersheriff—a political patronage appointment that only goes to those with the right connections—was a onetime Jersey City mayor and councilman who had just tried, and failed, at another mayoral bid. On this morning, he was vacationing in Virginia.
Mariano Vega, the Jersey City council president, might have had a tougher time sleeping the night before. The 60-year-old veteran Democrat had been visited by FBI agents at his home in the Van Vorst Park historic district of the city the previous day. The feds wanted to know about a meeting he might have had with a developer just 13 days earlier. Vega looked carefully at the picture of the guy. Someone who had been recorded telling Vega he had an envelope stuffed with $10,000 full of cash, and recorded passing that to a middleman, kind of thing most people would probably remember.
“I don’t recognize him,” Vega told the feds. He was lying and they knew it.
In Brooklyn, along Ocean Parkway just off Kings Highway, some were already on their way to Shachrit, the first morning prayer service at Congregation Shaare Zion, one of the largest Orthodox synagogues in New York and center of the close-knit Syrian Jewish community.
Traffic was still light in Jersey City. Miles to the south in Deal, along tree-lined streets of the quiet suburban town, there was not a hint that anything was amiss. The cable guy could be seen on one block. No FBI vans. No agents in blue windbreakers. No guns or handcuffs.
The FBI likes to target its high-profile arrests early in the day, when people are just getting up and not yet really thinking about much more than breakfast. There’s less of a chance that anyone is going to do something stupid, like reach for a gun or run, or be warned that there’s about to be a knock on the door. In this case, only a handful of the accused, like Vega, had been questioned the night before by the FBI. Most did not realize they had long been targets of a federal investigation. Few had lawyers yet. Soon they would all need one.
The arrests had been planned for at least a month, zeroed in on a date long etched onto the calendar. The FBI had brought in additional agents to augment the myriad arresting, search, and interrogation teams fanned out across New York and New Jersey. IRS agents were there as well. Acting U.S. Attorney Ralph Marra likened the gathering storm to the 1944 Normandy invasion; there would be a lot of troops in the field, and once he gave the go-ahead, he could only hope that nothing would go wrong. “The ships are out there; they’re on their way. You’re not calling them back,” he explained.
That morning, the 56-year-old Marra rushed through his cornflakes and blueberries and headed north up the Garden State Parkway to the office in downtown Newark. There wasn’t much for him to do that had not already been done.
A mile away, Weysan Dun, 54, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Newark Division, was already at his post, where he had been camped out since about 4:30 A.M. He surveyed the command center on the twelfth floor of the high-security FBI building, the tactical headquarters for the operation that was about to be launched. The large, long, windowless room was packed with people, some sitting at black and silver computer terminals, others talking by phone with agents in the field.
Dark SUVs and plain sedans were being parked in still-dark neighborhoods as the homes of suspects were quietly surrounded in the predawn. Nobody was expecting anyone to run, but you never knew. If the most dangerous thing in law enforcement is a nighttime highway stop, a close second is bursting in for a surprise arrest or to serve a warrant. Like always, everything was supposed to be played completely by the book. But no one knows what will happen in the field.
Dun, in a starched white shirt and tightly knotted maroon tie, had left his dark suit jacket back in his expansive office down the hall. The command center was filled with a buzz of 20 different conversations going on all at once. A large American flag hung from the wall in back of him. To his left, a big white status board held a grid with the names of 44 targets carefully written in dry erase markers. In the back, by the microwave and a sports trophy case, someone had set up breakfast trays of bagels, muffins, juices, and hot coffee. And donuts.
More than a month earlier, Dun had declared an “Office Special,” in an all-hands-on-deck e-mail bulletin to everyone in the division, alerting agents and support personnel to block out this day and keep their calendars clear. Those not directly on the case had no idea what was coming down. Some would not be told of their assignments until just before the arrests would be made. Unscheduled vacations? Canceled. Now they were gathered in what almost looked like the firing room for a moon shot, with dozens of people seated at carefully aligned rows of tables—each with a different responsibility for a piece of the operation. Legal. Intelligence. Media.
Under the recessed fluorescent lights overhead, there was a nervous energy after months of preparation. Organized chaos, Dun thought to himself.
The sun was now up. His seat was at a long table stretching across the front of the room and he had been reviewing the final preparations of what was to come.
“Quiet!” someone finally called out. The conversations immediately stopped. It all now was in Dun’s hands to call the final order. Go or no-go?… The former Army intelligence officer with a DJ’s voice took a last look at his wristwatch, second hand ticking out the last moments. It was exactly 6:00 A.M.
The command supervisor looked expectedly at Dun. “Requesting permission to execute,” he said. That was the protocol.
Dun nodded without hesitation. “Execute,” he replied in his calm Midwest voice.
The order immediately went out by radio to the waiting teams of agents spread throughout New York and New Jersey. “All units. This is the command post. You have the authority to execute your warrants.”
It remained silent in the room, except for the soft rush of the ventilation blowers in the background. Dun could only imagine the sudden scramble of agents, the echo of footsteps on the run acting immediately upon his command, like the offensive line of a football team poised tightly on the line of scrimmage and then exploding forward on the snap. The operator handling field communications raised her microphone again and she repeated the order three times: “Execute … Execute … Execute…”
In Deal and in Jersey City, in Hoboken and Brooklyn, the federal agents—both FBI and IRS, joined in some cases by local cops—immediately went into action, knocking on 44 doors in synchronized unison.
On East 8th Street between Avenues U and V in Brooklyn, Paulina Ajkobyan had gotten up early to take out the garbage. It was still quiet, at the time in the morning when the loudest sounds outside might be the occasional barking of a dog, the grinding of a garbage truck, or the slamming of a car door. When a conversation on the street can carry far down the block.
She paused at the top of her small porch in the neighborhood of modest brick homes. Unable to go back to sleep, she rested for a few moments before going back inside. As she sat, she saw a light brown car pull up the tree-lined street. A man and a woman got out. She could see both were wearing dark blue vests with the letters FBI emblazoned in yellow on the front.
“I think, ‘Oh, this [is a] problem,’” she later told a reporter in broken English.
Two more agents quickly arrived and all four headed up the street, entering a two-story duplex with a broken scooter in the yard, chipped red paint on the stoop, and peeling white paint on the wrought iron over the windows. They knocked and then headed up a crooked linoleum-covered staircase. A short while, maybe 15 minutes later, they came back down the street, this time leading someone Paulina did not recognize, a “big fat man” she called him, already in handcuffs. They put him in one of the government cars and drove him away.
A group of Jersey mayors were among the first to be brought in. There was Cammarano. Looking dazed and bleary-eyed, the married father with a two-year-old girl was the young face of an old city and, despite the cuffs, was dressed the part in blue button-down and khakis as he was taken from a car into this hulking FBI headquarters alongside the heavily industrial Passaic River, just off McCarter Highway in Newark. Soon joining him was Secaucus mayor Dennis Elwell. Then a growing stream of other public officials, building inspectors, and political operatives. Afterward would come the rabbis, Hasidic real estate developers, and Israeli expatriates from Brooklyn.
News of the arrests quickly began to leak widely. On WNBC-TV, the local New York NBC television station, a bulletin flashed: Breaking News: Dozens of corruption-related arrests are taking place across New Jersey this morning. Several Mayors are in custody …
The news radio stations picked it up. At The Star-Ledger, the story quickly went up on the paper’s Web site, as photographers began transmitting the first photos back from the FBI building. No one was saying how many more there would be or when it would stop. The initial numbers were about twenty. Then thirty. And the arrests kept coming.
Reports, later proved wrong, suggested a massive political bid-rigging scheme. An FBI spokesman cryptically said only that the investigation involved a “high-volume international money-laundering conspiracy.” No one was explaining how that all fit together. None of it made sense. What could a group of rabbis from Brooklyn have to do with hard-core pols of Hudson County, New Jersey?
It got stranger still. Sources told reporters that one of the suspects was also allegedly involved in an illegal human organ–selling ring—a suggestion that some brushed aside as sounding too ludicrous to possibly be true. “Someone’s got to be smoking crack,” one reporter declared.
Twenty search-warrant teams stormed homes and offices in New Jersey and New York, recovering large sums of cash and other evidence. Twenty-eight bank accounts were seized on the confidential orders of a federal judge. The state’s governor—unpopular and sitting atop a Democratic Party increasingly infected by corruption—was not spared, even as he was stuck slogging through a vicious reelection campaign. The office and home of a high-ranking member of his own cabinet were searched.
New Jersey governor Jon Corzine had a front-row seat from the high-priced confines of his luxury penthouse condo on the southeast corner of Maxwell Place in Hoboken. The first-term Democratic governor, onetime U.S. Senator, and former CEO of Goldman Sachs could only stare at the flat-screen television as he paced while one Democrat after another in real time was walked into FBI headquarters, each step echoing into Corzine’s campaign. Just two floors down from the governor in the very same condo building, Michael Schaffer, a commissioner on the North Hudson Utilities Authority, was being arrested.
Corzine seemed already defeated as he conferred on the phone and remained frozen before the television. Handcuffed Democrats—people he had shaken hands with, supported in campaigns, and given money to help win elections—were being marched into custody, heads bowed down as if looking for a hole deep enough in which to hide.
“Is there anyone there we don’t know?” the governor slowly demanded.
One of those on the conference call wondered aloud, “Maybe the rabbis?” It wasn’t meant to be a joke.
The numbers of those arrested, meanwhile, kept changing, as reporters and TV news crews scrambled to keep up with a story that still did not quite make any sense. It quickly began to flash around the world. At one point, cars were backed up four deep with suspects outside the brown brick FBI building. Photographers watched one agent slowly escort an elderly rabbi, hands clutching a siddur, or prayer book, inside.
One by one they walked into the front door, accompanied by agents, and led to a door on the right and then down a pale yellow corridor. A temporary processing center had been set up on the first floor in a charcoal-gray-carpeted room often used for FBI press briefings and classrooms. The JABS, or Joint Automated Booking System unit—normally in a detention area off the garage—had been moved there and an agent took the hands of each, rolling fingertips over a scanner that would digitally transmit the prints to the Bureau’s central computer. The camera flashed for mug shots. Full face. Side view. No one smiled. Then each was moved to a waiting area off to the side for an interview with pretrial services. It was there where they could call for a lawyer, if they had one.
They no longer had titles. They were not mayors or councilmen or rabbis or building inspectors. They were now prisoners.
Mindful that most would not have eaten that morning and some were elderly, Dun had ordered that snacks be set up for them as they waited. Hershey bars. Water. Bagels from a kosher bakery. Hours later, they all began coming out again, still handcuffed, on their way to the federal courthouse. So many that U.S. Marshals were forced to transport them in a big blue military bus borrowed from McGuire Air Force Base in South Jersey.
It would be called one of the most memorable perp walks in New Jersey history. Men and women. Young and old. Some well-known, others a mystery. Some were in open-neck polo shirts, others in jeans or sweat suits. One ranking Jersey City official was showing off her cleavage. Others were in shorts. The Orthodox men shuffled uncomfortably in black pants and white shirts, wearing black coats and steel handcuffs, their ritual shirt fringes blowing in the warm summer wind.
By lunchtime, there was a rogues’ gallery like no other. And, of course, a Who’s Who of the state’s best and most expensive criminal lawyers—in their $2,000 suits—began their parade in and out of the courthouse where their new clients were making first appearances before a federal magistrate. Three mayors. Five rabbis, including Saul Kassin, the frail 87-year-old spiritual leader of Sharee Zion in Brooklyn, looking anxious and fearful. Vega, the first Hispanic to sit as president of the Jersey City council. A deputy mayor. Failed mayoral and council candidates. Real estate developers. Two New Jersey state legislators. One insurance executive who had already been convicted for his role in an insider-trading scam that reached from the governor’s office in Trenton to the elite world of the leading law firm Skadden Arps. Political operatives and Hasidic Jews from the bucolic community of Monsey, in Rockland County, New York.
A longtime political consultant, who had already quietly agreed to roll over on his pals, was there as well, though he would mysteriously die days later—after word began circulating that his allegiances had shifted.
The Web site Gawker.com quickly summed it all up: “Everyone in New Jersey was arrested today!”
The charges ranged from corruption and bribery to money laundering and conspiracy, in a complex sting operation that spanned from Hoboken to Israel. In a state that prides itself on its history of scandal and colorful mobsters, no one had ever seen—or imagined—anything like this. The tall pile of criminal complaints described in graphic detail the bribes that had gone down in diners, living rooms, and parking lots, taken by the assemblymen, by the mayors, by housing inspectors and authority commissioners. Many of the players had been locked in a series of tightly contested Hudson County elections, apparently more than willing to take money being offered without any questions.
Rabbinical scholars acting more like crime bosses than religious leaders were being accused of laundering millions through synagogues, charities, and yeshivas. Some had money-counting machines in their offices. It was like GoodFellas—at shul. Indeed, the brazenness of the intertwined schemes played out in stark terms and in languages that included English, Yiddish, Hebrew, Aramaic, and yeshivish slang—captured by hundreds of hours of hidden surveillance tapes recorded by the FBI and noted in the criminal complaints.
Cammarano, for example, sat down at a Hoboken diner that past May and talked about a $5,000 payment with a mysterious informant whom authorities would not immediately identify. The informant had a cover story portraying himself as a big-spending developer willing to pay cash to grease the way for building approvals.
The informant told others he had cash to burn. “There’s people like Democrat, Republican, but I’m in the Green Party; I don’t like any conflicts, you understand?” He was playing Joe Pesci. Tough-guy mob movie language from someone who was the only one in the room that knew they were all starring in a production secretly recorded for an FBI greatest hits reel.
One candidate for city council, desperate for campaign funds in a tight runoff election, nervously laughed. “Green is like gold, right?”
“That’s right, I don’t have gold in my house, but green I have. So, you know, if it’s okay with you, you know, maybe I’ll do five thousand and another five after the election,” the informant promised.
It was clear the scheme had a wide reach. Some would later step forward and acknowledge that they had been targeted as well. They were identified only as “Official 1” or “Official 2” in the criminal complaints but were not immediately charged.
One story making the rounds told of an apparent target who allegedly figured it out. A Hudson County mayor who supposedly was set up with the informant in a restaurant and told to name his price. The mayor, according to the story, took a napkin and scribbled something down, before he got up to leave without a word. The informant looked at the paper, crumbled it up, and followed him out. Federal agents rapidly moved in to recover the evidence. The napkin said: Go fuck yourself.
Did it happen? No one knew for sure, but it was repeated over and over, by word of mouth, among political insiders and lawyers, eventually taking on the ring of truth as much as anything else in the strange case, while other elected officials came forward and admitted they, too, were lured with offers that they turned down. That story was not among the most outrageous of reports.
As it turned out, the illegal human organ–selling operation—the rumor that sounded unbelievably preposterous—was indeed a part of the sting. The FBI had nailed a Brooklyn real estate broker for running a black market organ donor scheme, proposing the sale of a human kidney through his Israeli connections. And he had done it before. Many times, he claimed.
The transcripts taken from the criminal complaints against the rabbis sounded like a script from an episode of The Sopranos. At one point, one rabbi was told by the FBI’s informant that the proceeds of a $50,000 check came from “that guy who was holding, uh, my, uh, money for me on that Florida insurance, uh, scam that I did.”
“Okay,” says the rabbi. “Give me a couple days.”
Another rabbi was caught explaining that they would use code words to schedule meetings to arrange cash transfers. Dollars were gemoras. As in “how many gemoras would it take?” The gemora is actually a part of the Talmud, the section that contains the rabbinical commentaries and debates from two thousand years ago. It is said to have been handed down to Moses at Mount Sinai. The irony was boundless.
Money was exchanged in paper bags, in boxes of breakfast cereal, and in plastic garbage sacks.
*   *   *
The afternoon press conference in the U.S. Attorney’s office on the seventh floor of the Peter W. Rodino Federal Building in Newark, directly across from the federal courthouse where all the defendants would eventually arrive, was packed with media from all over the country. Just a quick PATH train ride from New York, the event brought out crews from all the major broadcast and cable news networks. Newspaper and radio reporters from around the region. Even international press. TV cameras jammed in the front. Reporters squeezed tightly along the sides. In the back, prosecutors and others from the office, there to hear their boss.
The press releases being handed out listed the nearly four dozen people who had been arrested. But it wasn’t the press advisory that had brought all the media there. It was the photo of the rabbis in cuffs, one in a long dark coat and black hat, being led onto the blue Air Force bus behind a string of suspects.
The rabbis were being charged with operating a sophisticated money-laundering network by funneling millions of dollars through charitable institutions and schools with which they were associated—an international tax dodge involving transactions routed through Switzerland, Hong Kong, Australia, and Israel.
With the politicians, it was simple payoffs. The classic Jersey-style political crime. Some of the bribes to elected officials were paid through political contributions, the complaint said, often through “straw” donors who wrote checks in their names or businesses to create the façade of complying with campaign finance regulations. Other bribes were simply cash stuffed into envelopes.
The rabbis had really nothing to do with the politicians, and vice versa. Neither side knew each other. Prosecutors said the case was actually a two-track investigation connected only by the same informant, a man who moved easily among the worlds of the Orthodox Jews, development deals, and Jersey politics.
The rabbis included Eliahu Ben Haim, of Long Branch, the leader of a synagogue in Deal, whose sphere of influence extended from the Jersey Shore to the Middle East. He had long-standing connections to the right-wing, ultra-Orthodox Shas Party in Israel. The connections were not just political. He had raised large sums of money for charities run by Shas founder Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, once a chief rabbi of Israel, and his son Rabbi David Yosef.
Rabbi Saul Kassin, a soft-spoken man and author of several books on Jewish law, was charged with money laundering as well. So was Rabbi Edmond Nahum, of Deal, both of them well-known in Syrian Sephardic community of about 75,000 strong that stretches from the neighborhoods of southern Brooklyn to the beachfront homes of Deal, where many spend the summers.
*   *   *
Ralph Marra had long served behind the scenes as a prosecutor, and then a top administrator in the office under Chris Christie, the U.S. Attorney who had stepped down eight months earlier to run for governor. Where Christie was larger than life, Marra was a low-key guy with a taste for cooking, hard rock, and surfing. He had spent most of his career in the U.S. Attorney’s office and had prosecuted every sort of case, from crooked street sweepers to wannabe jihadists.
A lifelong Democrat, Marra had long ties to Hudson County, a place steeped in corruption dating back a century or more. Frank Hague, one of the state’s first political bosses and the storied mayor who ruled Jersey City at the same time Tammany Hall controlled politics in New York City, somehow parlayed a city salary that never exceeded $8,500 a year into an estate estimated at more than $10 million at the time of his death. Marra freely speaks of a grandmother telling stories of shakedowns at a family-owned bar in Hoboken.
“I vividly remember her showing me—I must’ve been nine years old—one of her best friends had another saloon. She’d take me in the back and show me where they used to stuff the ballot boxes,” he said.
Marra liked to tell how he used to bring his kids into the voting booth when they were young, instructing them to vote the Democratic line, “skipping the crooks.” They would ask, “How will we know?” And he would say, “By the time you’re old enough to vote, you’ll know.”
Marra had faced the press before, but nothing like this, usually leaving the spotlight to others. This time, the lights were on him as he walked to the podium, accompanied by Dun and members of his prosecution team. Marra knew how to give a sound bite.
“For these defendants, corruption was a way of life,” Marra began. “They existed in an ethics-free zone.” Marra said the politicians willingly put themselves up for sale and “clergymen cloaked their extensive criminal activity behind a façade of rectitude.”
Privately, he admitted that despite the serious nature of the allegations, they had to laugh over the sheer chutzpah of it all. “It’s sort of hilarious at the same time,” he allowed.
Now in his carefully tailored suit jacket, Dun had joined Marra and looked somber in front of the press. Cheerful and often self-deprecating in private, the FBI special agent was all business. He was not smiling. He knew there were going to be questions about the rabbis, as well as charges that the case—first green-lighted by Christie, a Republican—seemed to have targeted mostly Democrats.
“The fact that we arrested a number of rabbis this morning does not make this a religiously motivated case. Nor does the fact that we arrested political figures make this a politically motivated case,” Dun said. “This case is not about politics. It is certainly not about religion. It is about crime and corruption.”
There was immediate political fallout. As Marra and Dun answered questions, Joseph Doria, the popular commissioner of the state Department of Community Affairs, was in the process of stepping down. Not two years earlier, Corzine had begged Doria to join his cabinet. But Corzine and his advisers felt Doria could not be saved after a team of FBI agents searched his office and another descended on his home. “I have not done anything wrong here. I answered their questions. That’s all,” Doria said during a brief moment with a reporter. But even that was too much for Corzine to take. Doria, who was never charged, was gone by the end of the day.
Two assemblymen were both asked by leadership officials to resign their legislative committee posts. Residents in Hoboken, Secaucus, and Ridgefield all demanded their mayors step down. Protestors started taking to the streets.
Locked in a battle for his career in a campaign against Christie, the governor, pale, angry, and grim faced, said he was sickened to learn of the arrests. Standing next to the state’s attorney general, Anne Milgram, Corzine looked ready to kill. “Any corruption is unacceptable anytime, anywhere, by anybody,” he declared, calling the scope of the corruption simply outrageous. “There’s no other word that fits than ‘outrageous.’”
*   *   *
Even as the effects of the arrest rolled over New Jersey like successive tidal waves, what was not clear was how it all came down. The press releases only said that investigators had the assistance of a “cooperating witness.” The U.S. Attorney’s office refused to disclose who that was. The criminal complaints only identified him as “the CW,” who had been charged with bank fraud in 2006.
In fact, it was all tied together by that one man, one individual who became the focus of what would become a 29-month sting operation, with twists, turns, and characters that might have been taken directly from the pages of an Elmore Leonard novel. Wearing a hidden wire and being followed closely by FBI special agents, the CW would tell associates and longtime business partners that he was working a new scam. “Schnookie deals,” he called them, aimed at outwitting the IRS and his creditors in the wake of his arrest for trying to pass $50 million in worthless checks.
“I have a handbag business. I make knockoff, you know, bags, you know—like Zegna, Canali. They make fancy pocketbooks.… See I make ’em for like twenty dollars. I sell ’em for a hundred dollars,” he said as he lured people into his government-sponsored trap: a cover story to explain his desperate efforts to launder cash from what would turn out to be non-existent businesses using FBI money. What would not come out until months later was that among those he went after were his brother’s father-in-law; an investor in an unrelated Ponzi scheme; religious rivals of this father; and political officials whose roles in office were as foreign to him as the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.
The scripts changed for the politicians. The CW took on an assumed name and became a fast-talking, seemingly reckless Orthodox Jewish real estate developer with a loose wallet, loose lips, and a plan to put up big high-rises on what seemed to be impossibly tiny tracts of land. If anyone bothered to look closely, they would have realized quickly the informant was full of it. But no one checked. To the politicians, the CW was just another businessman willing to pay off anyone to get the jobs fast-tracked.
It did not take long to connect the dots. There was only one person who fit the description. One person who had been charged with bank fraud in 2006, who was well-known in the Sephardic Jewish community in Deal.
Solomon Dwek.
The son of a well-respected Monmouth County rabbi, Dwek was a big, chubby young man—some called him cherubic—with a receding hairline his yarmulke could not cover and thin, wire-rimmed glasses that barely seemed to fit his face. Married with five kids, he had served as the vice president and chief executive of the Deal Yeshiva and was a major contributor to political candidates. He had given thousands of dollars to the election campaign of Pres. George W. Bush. He had shaken hands with Dick Cheney.
As head of a real estate company called Dwek Properties LLC, he claimed more than 200 properties in Central New Jersey and investments as far south as Florida, including two luxury condominiums in Miami Beach at the private community of Aqua at Allison Island. Through a string of partnerships, he owned medical buildings, houses, and condos and was involved in several major development projects. He had money in a floating casino down in Florida. He was by all indications a very wealthy man who gave generously to charity, including his father’s religious school. There was an arts center that he had funded, named after him and his wife, Pearl.
But the multimillion-dollar real estate empire had all come tumbling down one day in April of 2006, when Dwek went to the drive-thru window at the PNC Bank in Eatontown and for some inexplicable reason deposited a phony $25 million check drawn from an empty, closed account and then transferred all the funds out before the Pittsburgh-based bank discovered the massive fraud. The next day, he tried to do it again, with a second bogus $25 million check. PNC would eventually file suit. A month later, on May 11, Dwek was arrested at his home by FBI agents and detectives from the county prosecutor’s office, charged with bank fraud, a crime that carried a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison and a $1 million fine.
It made all the papers. To many who thought they knew him, it made no sense. Why would a guy with so much just throw it all away like that? How did he think he was going to get away with kiting one $25 million check, let alone two?
Not long after, he filed a massive bankruptcy petition, involving dozens of creditors, lawsuits and countersuits, and continuing allegations of fraud. While all that was happening, he made a fateful agreement in hopes of cutting the amount of time he would spend in federal prison. He would secretly cooperate with prosecutors, launching a nearly three-year investigation that only now was coming to light.
On the day of the massive arrests, Dwek vanished. At his low, sprawling ranch on a quiet side street in Deal, the door was answered that morning by a domestic worker, who had little to say. Inside was a woman carrying an empty suitcase.
Dwek, it seemed, was gone.


 
Copyright © 2011 by Ted Sherman and Josh Margolin


Continues...

Excerpted from The Jersey Sting by Ted Sherman Copyright © 2011 by Ted Sherman. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Sort by: Showing 1 – 16 of 17 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 17, 2014

    FUCK YOU ALL

    Yup

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 1, 2014

    Spike

    I know the code to curse ^^ fu<_>ck

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 1, 2014

    Holly

    Holly shrugged. "S'fine, I don't hold grudges."

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 2, 2014

    Alec

    Hey

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 27, 2014

    Cole

    "Yeah..."

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 26, 2014

    Jen

    "?.... wont even ask this time"

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 2, 2014

    Dahlia

    "Oh. Hi."

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 6, 2014

    THE BLACK MASK

    A public bar where everyone can live, socialize, and get drunk.

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  • Posted July 18, 2012

    Would Be Unbelievable Anywhere But New Jersey.

    ----
    Funny, angering, head shaking, eye rolling, entertaining. 300 pages -- I read it in one shot because I could not put it down.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 28, 2012

    Corruption knows no boundaries!

    This was a good book that details the huge Jersey corruption bust in 2009. The author seems to get lost in the weeds at times, with information overload. It will make you even more cynical towards politicians when finished.

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    Posted September 29, 2011

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    Posted August 9, 2011

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    Posted September 16, 2013

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    Posted April 9, 2011

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    Posted June 9, 2011

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    Posted August 20, 2011

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