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Henry J. Stern

Henry J. Stern

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NJ Corruption Soup: 5 Rabbis, 3 Mayors, 36 Honorables

Posted: 07/25/09 07:36 PM ET

Is everybody crooked?

Should we send for Diogenes?

The appalling extent of corruption revealed in the past few days shows us how far we are from clean government, at least in New Jersey. The papers covered it thoroughly, and we will link to their articles before making some observations and asking questions. We don't have the answers, but we know the problem deserves our full attention. Political and religious corruption indicate moral decay, and that is as much a threat to society as the actual crimes committed by the perpetrators who are, of course, presumed innocent.

We begin with the first three paragraphs of the lead story in Friday's New York Times. The headline: "44 CHARGED BY U.S. IN NEW JERSEY CORRUPTION SWEEP." A four-column photograph, above the fold, shows rabbis and others arrested being herded into a bus leaving F.B.I. headquarters in Newark. The well-written and thoroughly researched story is by David M. Halbfinger. We quote:

"A two-year corruption and international money-laundering investigation stretching from the Jersey Shore to Brooklyn to Israel and Switzerland culminated in charges against 44 people on Thursday, including three New Jersey Mayors, two state assemblymen and five rabbis, the authorities said."

"The case began with bank fraud charges against a member of an insular Syrian Jewish enclave centered in a seaside town. But when that man became a federal informant and posed as a crooked real estate developer offering cash bribes to obtain government approvals, it 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 indeed be an informant; and, again and again, of the passing of cash - once in a box of Apple Jacks cereal stuffed with $97,000."

The article continues on page A21 with details of the several plots, the dismissal of a member of Governor Corzine's cabinet, and comments by political observers. Other Times stories dealing with the scandal take up all of A20 and the rest of A21.

DAILY NEWS GIVES IT FIVE PAGES, INCLUDING PAGE ONE.

The Daily News provided extensive coverage of the "dozens busted in FBI sweep." The headline on the wood appropriately exclaimed, "IS NOTHING SACRED!" The sub headline read "MASSIVE SCANDAL SCARES RABBIS, LAWMAKERS, MAYORS, AND EVEN A HUMAN ORGAN TRAFFICKER". The articles were spread out over pages 4, 5, 6, and 7, all under the headline "RABBIS & MAYORS, KIDNEYS & BRIBES."We begin with an article on page 4 by Adam Lisberg titled "MEET THE FLIMFLAMMING INFORMANT BEHIND BUSTS." Lisberg's lead:

"The son of a prominent New Jersey rabbi, Solomon Dwek brought shame on his tight-knit Syrian Jewish community when he was arrested for bank fraud in 2006."

"That pales next to the shocking mission he undertook - exposing his community's top rabbis as a ring of accused money launderers and bringing down nearly two dozen Jersey pols as corrupt."

"For years, Dwek, 36, had his hands in hundreds of real estate deals and get-rich schemes...it all came tumbling down when he was accused of bouncing a $25 million check."

"He appears to have gone from full-time mini-mogul to a very busy federal snitch after that - even as he filed bankruptcy and was besieged by creditors."

On the same page, Michael Daly, in a column titled "HER 7-YEAR QUEST TO END HIS EVIL WORK PAYS OFF", notes the significance of catching the highly experienced trafficker in human organs, Levy-Izhak Rosenbaum of Brooklyn. We quote:

"The Brooklyn man arrested yesterday for dealing in black-market kidneys was identified as a major figure in a global human organ ring."

The Daily News' Matthew Lysiak and Carrie Melago summarized the allegations in their article "FEDS CHARGE 44 IN PAYOFFS, EVEN ORGAN SELLING!" on page5. The lead:

"A developer-turned-snitch brought down mayors, rabbis, and dozens of others in a stunning probe of money laundering, bribery - and trafficking in black-market kidneys and fake Gucci handbags."

"Hundreds of federal agents on both sides of the Hudson River - in Brooklyn and Jersey - raided the homes of 44 suspects targeted in the two-year probe, collaring high-ranking politicians and trusted religious leaders."

"A dozen at a time, the defendants were walked in with wrist and ankle shackles for arraignment in federal court in Newark. Bail was set as high as $3 million."

"Aside from the wide-ranging political ramifications of the arrests in Jersey - shocking even in the ethics-challenged Garden State - the take downs of five rabbis left Jewish communities in Deal, N.J. and Brooklyn reeling."

"Most of the Jewish leaders busted were accused of laundering the snitch's dirty money through their charities, which they also used to mask ill-gotten gains from the sale of fake Gucci and Prada bags."

In an article on page 6, "HUDSON COUNTY LONG A NEST OF JERSEY DEVILS," David Saltonstall discusses the problem of Hudson County as a longtime breeding ground for "rotten, corrupt politicians" such as the infamous Frank Hague, mayor of Jersey City, and Billy Musto, mayor of Union City. This page also boasts a collage of some of the perpetrators, their pictures, nominal occupations, and the charges they face.

The Daily News' complete coverage concludes on page 7 with an article by Matthew Lysiak and Adam Lisberg headed "SHOCKING BRIBE PROBE HAULS IN DOZENS IN N.J." This story provides more gritty detail about the personal lives of the public figures now accused as criminals before and after the bust. We excerpt these paragraphs:

"The parade of perps shuffling into a Newark courthouse on yesterday like a white-collar chain gang was an astonishing array of public officials, taken down in a huge corruption bust..."

"The corruption probe, which grew out of a money laundering investigation of area rabbis, even reached into Democratic Gov. John Corzine's cabinet... 'The scale of corruption we're seeing as this unfolds is simply outrageous and cannot be tolerated.' Corzine said."

"Prosecutors denied that there was any political motivation behind the massive bust that netted largely Democrats, but is it sure to put Corzine on the defensive."

"The probe began as a fluke when prosecutors working with an indicted developer to catch money-laundering rabbis found a web of corrupt local officials who were willing to help his building projects - for a price, prosecutors charge."

"While some arrested were ... small-time officials, the 26 officials charged included Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell, Ridgefield Mayor Anthony Suarez and newly elected Hoboken Mayor Peter Cammarano, a 32-yr-old rising political star accused of taking $25,000 in bribes..."

"The Hoboken pol bragged that 'I could be, uh, indicted, and I'm still gonna win 85 to 95%' in a runoff election, according to court papers."

"Jersey City Deputy Mayor Leona Beldini [the only woman among the accused] was charged with conspiracy to commit extortion by taking $20,000 in illegal campaign contributions."

"State Assemblymen Daniel Van Pelt and Harvey Smith were also accused of taking payoffs to help the undercover developer get permits and approvals from state officials for building projects"

THE POST COVERS THE STORY IN CONSIDERABLE DETAIL.

The headline running across the top of pages 4 and 5 read "KOSHER NOSTRA & DIRTY JERSEY;" The story on page 5 was written by Jeane MacIntosh, Chuck Bennett and Jon Costantino. The vivid lead:

"Everything was on sale - from politicians to kidneys."

Maggie Haberman's story on page 4 dealt with the political impact of the scandal. The headline: "ANOTHER WOUND FOR WEAKENED CORZINE". The lead:

"The sweeping corruption case that ensnared politicians across a swath of New Jersey may claim one more Democratic pol by default - Gov. Jon Corzine, who is already on the ropes in his re-election bid."

The headline at the top of pages 6-7: "RABBIS IN MONEY WRINGER". The subhead: "Laundered Millions in Synagogue and Charity Scam: Feds." The article on pages 6 and 7 was written by Jeane MacIntosh and Chuck Bennett. Their lead:

"The insular Syrian Jewish community was rocked yesterday when its 87-year-old US leader was swept up in a massive money-laundering probe.

"He was among five Brooklyn and New Jersey rabbis charged in a scheme that the feds claim churned 'tens of millions' through nonprofit charities and synagogues they ran."

The story of Solomon Dwek was told by Jeremy Olshan on page 6 under the headline "STOOLIE'S $50M 'SCAM' RECORD A PERFECT COVER." The lead:

"Nothing about Solomon Dwek was kosher. He appeared to be a respectable businessman - until he deposited bogus checks for more then $50 million.With those kind of criminal credentials, he easily passed himself off as a money-launderer - but he turned out to be a stoolie for the FBI."

The Post was the only paper with an editorial on the subject. It ran on page 34, under the headline "DON'T STOP WITH JERSEY." The editorial began:

"New Jersey regained the title of America's most corrupt state yesterday, thanks to a massive take down of public officials on the take. New York prosecutors must be falling down on the job."

"If they redouble their efforts, the Empire State would sure be back on top in a blink - given the extent of the corruption driving Albany's political culture."

"Among the political losers was Gov. John Corzine's commissioner of community affairs, Joseph Doria, who was not charged yesterday, but whose office was raided by the IRS and FBI; he resigned hours later."

"Much of the investigative work...was conducted on the watch of [Jon Corzine's] GOP opponent, former US Attorney Chris Christie - who surely won't hesitate to remind voters that he successfully prosecuted 130 corrupt officials without losing a single case."

"Most important, [Acting US Attorney Ralph Marra] noted, 'with so many profiting off a corrupt system is it any wonder that so few are interested in changing it?' It's a question that should be asked on this side of the Hudson as well."

The first question that comes to mind is whether everyone in New Jersey politics is crooked? The answer to that question is 'No'. However, a good number are.

The situation is comparable to the Middle East, where bribery of public officials is commonplace, and regarded as a necessary cost of doing business, except for the United States government, which has made it a crime to pay a bribe, even if the money is extorted from the American corporation. U.S. firms operating in that part of the world have the choice of leaving the market, paying the bribe up front and committing a crime, or making the payments under a subterfuge and trying to find a way to legitimize what, if done openly, would be criminal.

Those are choices which are faced in the world of business, where the threat can vary from Mafia-style extortion threatening violence, to more sophisticated economic methods of 'interfering with an advantageous relationship,' which is an old tort.

The use of informants to infiltrate criminal organizations is a technique of which we thoroughly approve. That is what brought down a United States Senator, six Members of the House of Representatives a New Jersey and members of the Philadelphia City Council. They were convicted of bribery and conspiracy in the ABSCAM cases back in 1980 and 1981. At that time, a Federal agent pretended to be an oil sheik offering bribes for favorable consideration of his business interests.

Bribery is usually a crime of consent, and one party generally does not turn on the other, unless he is facing imprisonment for other misdeeds, and is seeking a lighter sentence. The police frequently use integrity tests (e.g. found wallets) to test their own officers. People who hold a public trust must behave themselves, or at least refrain from stealing. While such techniques applied to private citizens may raise questions of appropriateness and allocation of resources, the detection and prosecution of dishonest public officials should be a high priority, with appropriately long prison sentences for those convicted. The shame of losing one's office should not be the full penalty for one who betrays the public trust.

In a situation where bribery has become the norm, individuals who take bribes these crimes may not be deviant behavior. Indeed, such conduct may be closer to the norm for their peer group than the honest police officer or elected official. Other vices which appear in the general public as well as uncivil servants:, brutality, racism, dishonesty and sloth. "Qui custodiet ipsa custodies," the Roman poet Juvenal asked 1900 years ago. The question remains timely.

To people empowered to make economic decisions, the stench of New Jersey corruption has a negative impact on such issues as where to build a plant. If a business in New Jersey is held hostage to criminals in public office, required to make campaign contributions or to seek expensive state approvals for minor actions, fewer economic engines are likely to locate there.

The people are supposed to get their say on Election Day. In the race for governor they will express themselves, as they have every four years. Elections for lower offices are murkier. Voters don't know the candidates as well, the districts are subject to gerrymander, and many areas are a lock for one party or the other, so only the primary matters. Independents are generally excluded from voting in the one election in which the real choice among candidates is being made.

All human beings are imperfect, but some are really loathsome. The crowd in New Jersey ranges in degree of evil. We would say the kidney trafficker is the worst. Of course, he would say he extends the life of people who otherwise would have no chance to survive. Let him tell it to the judge.

What can ordinary the people do to fight corrupt public officials? It's difficult. We have 'organized crime' but we don't really have 'organized anti-crime'. We pay police and prosecutors to fight crime, legal aid to defend accused criminals, and judges to referee the contests between attorneys. We are increasingly concerned with defendants' rights and horrified by unjust convictions, which do occur. DNA should be helpful here.

Our society is becoming increasingly non-judgmental, and relativistic in its values. We see things from everyone's point of view, and sometimes lose our own.

We now live in a period comparable in some ways to the latter days of the Roman Empire. Many of us observe what is happening, and yet we are quite unable to affect the result. You can adopt all the ethics codes you can think of, but as long as the government is populated by unethical people, or witless boobs who have no idea what is ethical, you will not have honest and efficient government..

I am troubled by ethical tribunals who are severe with small offenders, but look the other way at major conflicts of interest. It is like the Federal government determining that some businesses are "too big to fail." Actually, that may be true, look at the disaster that followed the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. But it may not be true, because we will never know what would have happened if Lehman Brothers had been saved by Secretary Paulsen, a Goldman Sachs alumnus.

One would like to think that ethical issues are matters of right and wrong, and should not be difficult to resolve. Well. Some are and some aren't. In any case, the Jersey politicians and rabbis do not appear to have engaged in marginally ethical transactions. From the charges, they clearly crossed the line.

The way the FBI - IRS inquiry began :flipping a man who had committed an unrelated crime, seems to be a matter of chance. But maybe that's what law enforcement is: if a cop is at the scene, you get caught. If not, you can get away with the same act. Most likely, you will go out and do it again, so that at some time you will be caught and possibly put away.

It is troubling that people cannot side with law enforcement without being chastised as zealots. And some of them perhaps are. But pro-law enforcement groups are not intellectually respectable in today's society, at least in our neighborhood. That point of view is left to rednecks, crackers, and sheriffs. Heather McDonald has written extensively on the subject, expressing her concerns about whether civic order is being maintained.

New York City's corruption level is relatively moderate to low. But when public money is given to fictional organizations as place holders, and then dispensed as largesse during the entire year, that is simply wrong. And when the Council fails to set rules for or regulate the money it awards to ad hoc community groups, it is asking for trouble. That is what the the Council has received as a result of the greed of a few of its beneficiaries. This is even more applicable to the State of New York, its Legislature, and the member items in its budget.

What it comes down to is this. Some people are honest, some people are complete crooks, some will take money when it is offered, but would not solicit or intimidate. In the Police Department, the two types of takers were known as grass eaters and meat eaters, the grass eaters being more passive, and the meat-eaters the more aggressive. Neither type of conduct is acceptable. Over the years, great progress has been made in this area by strong leadership.

An effective Internal Affairs Bureau (IAB) is key to the effort. But the value of this division depends on the competence, industry, and above all integrity of its officers. There is no magic bullet here, it is a battle that must be fought daily.

When citizens read of indictments and arrests of public officials, some wonder: How many haven't been caught? There is no reason to believe every crook is out of the State Senate, or the Assembly. Someone could go through the halls with a fly-swatter and find suitable targets.

Many practices we disapprove of are protected by the law. The legislature is the place where that the laws are made. They do not wish to tighten the rules that affect them. Crimes must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. People who are widely believed to be dishonorable nevertheless hold public office, until a good U.S. Attorney or local District Attorney gets the goods on them.

That doesn't happen too often, which is why the bust is a day to be celebrated.

"Then this is a day of independence for all the munchkins and their descendants"

 

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