What’s changed since corruption busts a year ago?
18 have pleaded guilty, Feb. trial date set for Elwell
by E. Assata Wright
Reporter staff writer
Jul 25, 2010 | 2413 views | 0 0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Peter Cammarano
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A trial date was set for former Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell and one of his political associates last week, just days before the one-year anniversary of the massive New Jersey corruption scandal that rocked the Garden State last July and led to the arrests of 46 public officials and religious leaders.

In addition, another former mayor snared in the sting, Peter Cammarano of Hoboken, is scheduled to be sentenced on Aug. 3.

The federal investigation was known as Operation Bid Rig. In the sting, the FBI used an admitted bank thief turned government witness to take down dozens of politicians.

In all, at least 18 of the 46 people arrested have pleaded guilty.

After being arrested in 2006 on bank fraud charges totaling about $50 million, a Monmouth County real estate developer named Solomon Dwek cut a deal with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and became a government informant. In 2009, acting on behalf of the FBI and the United States Attorney for the District of New Jersey, Dwek posed as a developer interested in Hudson County real estate and offered cash donations to public officials who were running for office. In offering the cash, he said he wanted future help with approvals for his development projects.

Dwek’s overtures led to the early morning arrests of 44 public officials and religious leaders on July 23, 2009. Two additional people were later charged in connection with the investigation, bringing the total to 46.

Rising stars

Most of those arrested were rising stars in or foot soldiers for the Hudson County Democratic Party. Among those arrested in Hudson County were:

Peter Cammarano – The former Hoboken mayor had been in office only three weeks when he was arrested in the July 2009 sting. After his arrest, Cammarano initially refused to resign and did so only after pressure from Gov. Jon Corzine and other Democratic leaders, and from residents who staged protests in front of his house. Cammarano pleaded guilty in April to one count of “conspiracy to obstruct commerce by extortion under the color of right,” a felony. He could be facing 20 years in prison. An attorney for the former mayor did not return a call seeking comment last week.

Dennis Elwell – Secaucus Mayor Elwell and political ally Ron Manzo will stand trial for corruption charges beginning Feb. 1, 2011. The charges against them stem from allegations the men took money from Dwek, who posed as a real estate developer looking for favorable treatment for land deals in Secaucus. Elwell and Manzo, who were indicted last November, have each pleaded not guilty to the charges and continue to maintain their innocence. When reached last week, Elwell referred calls to his attorneys Tom Cammarata and Jeff Garrigan and was unaware that a trial date had been set for next year. His attorneys declined to comment further. There was some speculation last year that Manzo would testify that Elwell never knew about the campaign donations, thus getting the latter off the hook.

Louis Manzo – A former state assemblyman, Manzo is accused of allegedly accepting $27,500 in cash payments for his failed 2009 Jersey City mayoral campaign. He is the only person to have publicly complained that the government’s actions were entrapment, and said at a press conference that the same prosecutors who had worked under Gov. Chris Christie when Christie was U.S. Attorney had gone on to finish the sting operation, resulting in publicity that helped Republican Christie beat Corzine in November.

Leona Beldini – Former Jersey City Deputy Mayor Leona Beldini, 75, was convicted in February on two counts of bribery for accepting $20,000 from Dwek. A federal jury concluded that Beldini agreed to help expedite a development deal for Dwek in exchange for campaign cash for Jerramiah Healy’s 2009 reelection bid. The jury acquitted Beldini of four other counts. She was sentenced to three years behind bars and ordered to pay a $30,000 fine. She is appealing her conviction. Interestingly, Healy himself has not been indicted or accused of wrongdoing, even though some of those arrested were soliciting donations for his campaign.

Jack Shaw – A longtime Democratic Party consultant, Shaw was found dead at home five days after his arrest. Police believe he committed suicide. He was accused of allegedly taking $10,000 in cash from Dwek. In the past, Shaw had worked for Corzine’s U.S. Senate campaign and was an aide to former Hudson County Executive Robert Janiszewski.

L. Harvey Smith – Former state Assemblyman Smith was charged with conspiring with ex-Hudson County employee Edward Cheatam, Dwek, and others “to obstruct, delay and affect interstate commerce by extortion under color of official right.” Smith allegedly accepted a $15,000 illegal payment from Dwek. He was indicted in February. Smith has maintained his innocence.

Mariano Vega – The former Jersey City Council president was charged with conspiracy to commit extortion under color of right and allegedly received $30,000 from Dwek. He was indicted on these charges last July and stepped down as council president in October, although he still serves as Jersey City’s at-large councilman. He has been suspended from his position as director of the Hudson County Department of Parks, Engineering, and Planning. Vega maintains his innocence.

Guy Catrillo – A former Jersey City planning aide, Catrillo pleaded guilty to attempted extortion charges in September 2009 and admitted that he took $15,000 in bribes. One of the few officials to reflect publicly on his arrests, he said he plans to use his time in jail to work on his creative projects. He is now serving an 18-month prison sentence and has been ordered to pay a $4,000 fine.

In all, at least 18 of the 46 people arrested have pleaded guilty.

Last fall Solomon Dwek also pleaded guilty to bank fraud charges and misconduct by a corporate official.

Elwell and Manzo

Elwell and Ron Manzo – Lou Manzo’s brother – are among the few Hudson County officials arrested last year who are poised to go to trial.

The two were indicted last November on charges that they allegedly accepted a total of $15,000 in “corrupt payments.”

The indictment against them states that Elwell accepted $10,000 to help the informant with “real estate development matters in Secaucus,” while Manzo allegedly got $5,000 “for his assistance in setting up the corrupt arrangement with Elwell.”

The indictment further charges that Elwell and Manzo conspired with former Jersey City official Edward Cheatam to accept the payments. Cheatam has already pleaded guilty in connection with the investigation.

Manzo was also indicted for allegedly helping his brother Lou receive illegal campaign contributions from Dwek.

Last year, there was broad speculation that Ron Manzo would tell investigators that even though he received cash from Dwek, he never turned the money over to Elwell, and that the charges against the former mayor would be dropped.

Now that the case may be headed for trial, it remains to be seen what line of defense the lawyers for the two men might use. But Elwell’s attorneys closely followed the trial of Leona Beldini earlier this year, at which Dwek testified for the prosecution. Beldini was convicted.

There is now speculation according to two sources that Elwell’s lawyers may try to try to attack the informant’s credibility and motives for cooperating with investigators.

Elwell’s attorney’s refused to comment on the case last week. Ron Manzo’s attorney did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Political fallout

A few politicians close to the sting were left standing after the arrests.

Despite the number of Jersey City officials who were swept up in Operation Bid Rig, Mayor Healy was never charged with any wrongdoing.

A similar cloud of suspicion also hung over former Bayonne Mayor Joseph Doria, who was commissioner of the state Department of Community Affairs (DCA) at the time of the arrests. Federal investigators raided Doria’s home and office, but Doria was never arrested or charged with a crime. However, he resigned as DCA commissioner on the day of the arrests last year.

Doria refused to be interviewed last week.

It has been reported that he might run for the 31stDistrict State Assembly seat recently vacated by Anthony Chiappone.

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