JULY 23, 2009
Dozens of prominent elected officials have been arrested throughout New Jersey for operating a widespread public corruption and international money laundering scheme that also involves well-known religious leaders.
With more than 100 arrests of public officials accused of corruption in the last few years, New Jersey has long been a hotbed of fraud but this sting is considered big even by the scandal-plagued state’s low standards. Among the arrested in the early morning raids were the mayors of three New Jersey cities, a pair of state legislators and four rabbis.
They include Democrat Assemblyman L. Harvey Smith, Republican Assemblyman Daniel Van Pelt and Democrat mayors Peter Commarano (Hoboken), Dennis Elwell (Secaucus) and Anthony Suarez (Ridgefield). Jersey City’s deputy mayor (Leona Beldini) and City Council president (Mariano Vega) were also picked up.
Rabbis in Syrian Brooklyn, New York and Deal, New Jersey Jewish enclaves were also arrested for helping what federal authorities call a “corrupt network of public officials.” The rabbis laundered millions of dollars in bribes through their charitable organizations, according to prosecutors.
The bribes were paid to politicians throughout the state mainly to ensure zoning law changes related to lucrative real estate deals. The magnitude of the operation was so vast that the arrests involved 300 FBI agents in 54 locations throughout New Jersey and New York.
Corruption has long infested New Jersey politics where conflict of interest, raids on public treasuries and illegal relationships between elected officials and donors are rampant. The state’s last two governors have been embroiled in serious scandals (James McGreevey hired his unqualified gay lover as the state’s Homeland Security expert and Jon Corzine showered his union head girlfriend with gifts in the mist of contract negotiations with the state) and several powerful lawmakers have been convicted for taking bribes.
In an effort to curb the problem, the legislature approved several measures a few years ago raising penalties for public officials, lengthening the statute of limitations for crimes and mandating ethics training for lawmakers. So far it hasn’t done much to deter the corruption, however.
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