The Kosher Nostra is trapped at last !
MONEY laundering, organ smuggling, racketeering and $97,000 hidden in a cornflakes box – all allegations levelled this week when the FBI announced one of its biggest-ever organised crime busts in New Jersey.
But this bust came with a difference: the ring-leaders are orthodox rabbis.
The five Sephardic rabbis, all from orthodox Syrian Jewish communities in New Jersey and Brooklyn, are accused of selling kidneys and laundering tens of millions of dollars through fake charities.
"These complaints paint a disgraceful picture of religious leaders leading money-laundering crews, acting as crime bosses," said federal prosecutor Ralph Marra.
"These rings were international in scope, they trafficked in the cleaning of dirty money all across the world."
Mr Marra singled out Brooklyn Rabbi Levy Izhak Rosenbaum as operator of a kidney smuggling operation: "Mr Rosenbaum, who we refer to as our kidney salesman – his business was to entice vulnerable people to give up a kidney for $10,000 that he would sell for $160,000."
The arrests sent shockwaves across the orthodox Jewish community where the rabbis had a reputation for working hard for children and the elderly.
"Shock and disbelief," said Dov Hikind, a Brooklyn assemblyman. "People do not believe it."
More than 300 FBI agents fanned out across the state this week to make simultaneous arrests, in one case storming into a synagogue to arrest a rabbi in the middle of a service.
The arrests came after the rabbi network was infiltrated by Solomon Dwek, a real estate developer and Sephardic Jew arrested in May 2006 on fraud charges.
Facing a 30-year-sentence for attempting to bounce a cheque for $25 million (£15m), Mr Dwek turned informer, penetrating the rabbi network and recording hundreds of hours of tapes revealing the extent of an operation that seems lifted from the pages of The Godfather.
"Solomon Dwek – isn't that the government's co-operator?" said Robert Stahl, an attorney for Rabbi Saul Kassin, 87, of Brooklyn, one of those arrested. Mr Stahl said it was a shame the rabbi had been "caught up in this misunderstanding" and that he "remained confident".
Michael Bachner, representing Brooklyn Rabbi Mordchai Fish, said: "Our belief is that Mr. Dwek used his closeness and the sterling reputation of his family to manipulate individuals who trusted that he would never be involved in illegal conduct."
Mr Marra said: "Parking lots, restaurants, luncheonettes, diners, offices, basement boiler rooms and bathrooms. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were paid in these places.
"For these defendants, corruption was a way of life, they existed in an ethics-free zone."
The laundering case boomeranged when Mr Zwek found state officials attending the money drops, leading to three mayors and two public officials being among the 44 suspects – so many that they were taken to court not by squad cars but by bus.
Others arrested included building and fire inspectors, city planning officials and utilities officials, all accused of using their positions to further the corruption by accepting bribes to pass consent on building projects.
Prosecutors say Rabbi Rosenbaum was caught in a sting after an FBI officer posed as someone wanting a kidney for her uncle. "I've been doing this a long time," Rosenbaum is alleged to say on tapes, adding that for $160,000 he could find a donor in Israel and smuggle the kidney to the United States. "I am what you call a match-maker," he allegedly said. "I've never had a failure."
This is the second shock to New York's Jewish community, still reeling from the arrest in January of financier Bernie Madoff who used his connections among Jewish philanthropists and investors to fleece them in a $50 billion scam.
Prosecutors say the money was laundered from Switzerland, through Israel to New York in the guise of charity payments. Officials have yet to reveal where the money originated.
Some of the allegations, meanwhile, seem lifted from The Sopranos, the TV series following the lives of a fictional New Jersey crime family. In one conversation presented by prosecutors, Zwek was given a box of Apple Jack cereal stuffed with $97,000.
In another, the mayor of Hoboken, Peter Cammarano, allegedly says that corruption is so accepted in New Jersey that it would not harm his election chances if he was discovered. "Right now the Italians, the Hispanics, the seniors are locked down," he says. "I could be, uh, indicted, and I'm still going to win 85 to 95 per cent of those people."
Not everyone agrees. Four years ago, Jon Corzine was elected New Jersey governor on the promise to be the sheriff sent to clean up Dodge, and his prosecutors have arrested more than 300 people in a chain of corruption investigations.
"The scale of the corruption we're seeing as this unfolds is simply beyond any pale," he said. "I still believe that government can play a positive role in people's lives, but our institutions must have people of integrity."
Serpent that lurks in the heart of the Garden State
THE arrest of 44 suspects – including a clutch of state officials – for corruption seems to many Americans to cement New Jersey's reputation as one of the worst states for corruption and cronyism.
Over the past eight years, 130 state officials have been jailed for corruption, including three former mayors and a former state senator.
It has led some from other states to joke that the state's nickname, the Garden State, should be replaced with the Corruption State.
The corruption dates from the 1930s, when New Jersey towns across the Hudson River from New York City became home to the Mafia, as depicted in the contemporary television drama series The Sopranos.
"New Jersey's corruption problem is one of the worst, if not the worst, in the nation," said Ed Kahrer, who heads the FBI's white-collar and public corruption division. "Corruption is a cancer that is destroying the core values of this state."
But many state residents say they are being unfairly tarnished by the corruption investigations in a few isolated cities.
"They have the wrong idea about New Jersey," Ed McLaughlin – owner of the Blue Sunsets property business in the coastal town of Spring Lake – told The Scotsman.
"The character of New Jersey is of a state with good-hearted, hard-working people. We get painted with a brush because of the action in one of our largest cities."