* Three New Jersey mayors arrested in corruption case
* Several rabbis, local politicians also among 44 arrested
* Case found bribery, money laundering, human kidney sales
(Adds court appearances, bail)
By Edith Honan
NEWARK, July 23 (Reuters) - Dozens of New Jersey politicians, officials and prominent rabbis were arrested on Thursday in a sweeping federal probe that uncovered political corruption, human organ sales and money laundering from New York to Israel, officials said.
The 10-year investigation, dubbed “Operation Bid Rig,” exposed influence-peddling and bribe-taking among a network of public officials and a separate multimillion dollar money-laundering ring that funneled funds through charities operated by local rabbis, said the U.S. Attorney’s office in Newark, New Jersey.
The cast of the 44 arrested featured Hoboken, New Jersey, Mayor Peter Cammarano, who took office three weeks ago in the industrial city visible across the Hudson River from New York.
Others accused were mayors of nearby Secaucus and Ridgefield, state Assemblymen, a deputy mayor, city council members, housing, planning and zoning officials, building inspectors and political candidates.
“New Jersey’s corruption problem is one of the worst, if not the worst, in the nation,” said Ed Kahrer, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s white collar crime and public corruption program in New Jersey, who has worked on the investigation since it began in July 1999.
“It has become ingrained in New Jersey’s political culture,” he said, calling corruption “a cancer.”
Central to the investigation was an informant who was charged with bank fraud in 2006 and posed undercover as a real estate developer and owner of a tile business who paid off officials to win project approval and public contracts in northern New Jersey, according to documents in the case.
The public officials stand accused of taking bribes for pledging their help getting permits and projects prioritized and approved or steering contracts to the witness.
“CULTURE OF CORRUPTION”
In scenes that could have been lifted from the hit TV series “The Sopranos,” about New Jersey organized crime, they met in diners, parking lots, even bathrooms, officials said.
“The politicians willingly put themselves up for sale,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Ralph Marra. “The victims are the average citizens and the honest business people in this state. They don’t have a chance in this culture of corruption.”
The public corruption uncovered by the informant led him to the separate money-laundering network by rabbis who operated between Brooklyn, Deal, New Jersey, and Israel, authorities said. They laundered some $3 million for the undercover witness between June 2007 and July 2009, authorities said.
“These complaints paint a disgraceful picture of religious leaders heading money laundering crews acting as crime bosses,” Marra said. “They used purported charities, entities supposed set up to do good works as vehicles for laundering millions of dollars in illicit funds.”
HUMAN KIDNEY SALES
Rabbis accused of money-laundering were Saul Kassin, chief rabbi of a large Syrian Jewish synagogue in Brooklyn; Eliahu Ben Haim, principal rabbi of a synagogue in Deal; Edmund Nahum, principal rabbi of another synagogue in Deal; and Mordchai Fish, a rabbi at a synagogue in Brooklyn.
The probe also uncovered Levy Izhak Rosenbaum of Brooklyn, who is accused of conspiring to broker the sale of a human kidney for a transplant. According to the complaint, Rosenbaum said he had been brokering sale of kidneys for 10 years.
“His business was to entice vulnerable people to give up a kidney for $10,000 which he would turn around and sell for $160,000,” said Marra.
Several of the public officials were accused of taking bribes of just $10,000, authorities said. Cammarano, at 31 the youngest ever mayor of Hoboken, was charged with taking $25,000 in bribes, including $10,000 last Thursday.
Most of those accused were arrested in a sweep across New Jersey by more than 300 federal agents early on Thursday and were slated to appear in court in Newark throughout the day.
The first 12 of the defendants, including Cammarano, appeared shackled before U.S. Magistrate Judge Madeline Cox Arleo. Cammarano rocked back and forth in his chair but betrayed no emotion.
They were granted bail ranging from $100,000 to $500,000. (Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols and Ellen Wulfhorst; Writing by Ellen Wulfhorst; Editing by Doina Chiacu)