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Meet the cooperator behind N.J.’s biggest corruption bust ever

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot
Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

Call it “Rabscam”: A key witness in a federal corruption probe against several North Jersey mayors and a group of Sephardic rabbis is a multi-million-dollar Jersey Shore developer gone bust, CLIFFVIEW PILOT has learned this morning, through extensive reviews of tapes and transcripts.

“At least I bet on the right horse this time,” Solomon Dwek said, during one of several secretly recorded conversations he produced in the FBI sting. That horse would be the U.S. government.

A review of government complaints released this morning doesn’t identify him by name but points to Dwek as one of two men who were working for the FBI when they met several times at the Malibu Diner with Hoboken Mayor Peter Cammarano and Michael Schffer, a North Hudson Utilities Authority commissioner. Each time, the “cooperating witness” gave Schaffer envelopes stuffed with cash from his car trunk, the FBI says.

He also helped the government crack a high-volume international money laundering conspiracy among rabbis from the Syrian Jewish enclaves of Deal and Brooklyn.

“He openly discussed with targets that he was in bankruptcy and was attempting to conceal cash and assets, and told them he wanted to launder criminal proceeds in increments ranging from tens of thousands of dollars to $150,000 or more at a time, often at the rate of several transactions per week,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said. Several rabbis bit, authorities said.

Over the past two years, they said, Dwek handed envelopes stuffed with cash to:

— Cammarano, for $25,000 in all
— Assemblyman L. Harvey Smith (D-Hudson), $15,000
— Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell, $10,000
— Ridgefield Mayor Anthony Suarez, $10,000
— Assemblyman Daniel Van Pelt (R-Ocean), $10,000

Authorities said he also made $20,000 in illegal campaign contributions to Jersey City Deputy Mayor Leona Beldini.

Dwek clearly was a natural for the FBI’s public corruption sting.

Government agents arrested him on fraud charges three years ago, after he deposited a bad check for $25.2 million at a drive-through bank window at the Shore and PNC bank accused him of swindling $50 million. As complaints mounted from people who said Dwek had conned them out of millions, his options for avoiding prison shrank.

It’s unclear when the government “rolled” him, but Dwek worked with the FBI long enough to help produce what’s being billed as the largest public corruption sweep in New Jersey history.

Those arrested this morning include politicians from both sides of the aisle — among them, the 31-year-old Cammarano, who three weeks ago became Hoboken’s youngest mayor; Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell, and Ridgefield Mayor Anthony Suarez. In addition, state Department of Community Affairs chief Joseph Doria, a major power in North Jersey political circles, has announced his resignation after federal agents raided his Bayonne home and Trenton office.

At one point in the investigation, Cammarano is recorded as telling the cooperator that he’d been “breaking down the world into three categories…. There’s the people who were with us, and that’s you guys. There’s the people who climbed on board in the runoff. They can get in line. . .

“And then there are the people who were against us the whole way. They get ground . . . They get ground into powder.”

As he took the cash, the government alleges, Schaffer told Dwek: “I trained [Cammarano] well.”

READ: For upstart mayor, it all began at the Malibu Diner

As of this posting, no one officially has drawn the between Dwek and this morning’s arrests.

The government paperwork points directly at him, however.

Start with an exhaustive, comprehensive report in the Asbury Park Press , which details how Dwek was arrested in 2006 for defrauding PNC Bank with the bogus check. It turned out he’d been involved in hundreds of questionable land deals, moving around money and not fulfilling commitments, the government said. Victims in civil court, meanwhile, accused Dwek of forging signatures to obtain millions of dollars from lenders.

A state judge is overseeing the sale of Dwek’s empire, in excess of 350 properties in seven states, to pay the $338 million that creditors say they’re owed, the Press said. Dwek’s attorney called it a business dispute and not a crime — an interesting comment, considering that Dwek’s criminal case is still pending.

Federal authorities said Dwek went to a drive-through window at PNC’s Eatontown branch and convinced the manager to accept a $25.2 million check written on a closed account, promising the money was being wired to cover it. The next morning, Dwek wired $22.8 million to pay off four loans, although no money had been received to cover the check, authorities say.

Later that day, Dwek deposited another $25 million check written on the same closed account at another PNC branch, which soon voided the check, federal prosecutors said.

From there, the victims began to mount, as did the losses — into the hundreds of millions. Even his uncle filed a claim against Dwek, whose parents founded the Deal Yeshiva, a Jersey Shore religious school that teaches Sephardic Jewish children.

Soon after, the government got hold of him.

Before long, Dwek was cozying up to rabbis from his own community, as well as North Jersey officials who’d never even heard of him.

According to the government’s complaint, Dewek and another FBI operative met with Cammarano and Schaffer several times at Hoboken’s Malibu Diner on 14th Street.

During a series of secretly recorded meetings, Cammarano assured Dwek of approvals for projects once he became mayor, the government said. All but one meeting ended with the cooperator giving Schaffer an envelope filled with $5,000 in cash (provided by the FBI) from the trunk of his car.

“Nothing can change that now,” Cammarano was secretly recorded saying in late May, documents show. “I could be, uh, indicted, and I’m still gonna win 85 to 95 percent of those populations.”

Cammarano made similar promises during another meeting at the Malibu after the election, when Schaffer collected the biggest envelope of all — $10,000 in cash, the FBI complaint alleges.

The group had planned to meet again this week. But the FBI had enough evidence to round up everyone.

Former U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie set the bar high when he took office several years ago. By the time he left to pursue the governship of New Jersey, more than 100 public servants had either taken pleas or were convicted at trial — including former Newark Mayor Sharpe James. Now, several other probes begun under Christie’s tenure are bearing fruit.

In several instances, the investigations began in one place and took authorities somewhere else. This, however, may very well be the largest, in terms of scope and influence.

Dovetailing with it was the other probe — also aided by Dwek — of $3 million worth of money laundering.

“These rings, led by clergymen, cloaked their extensive criminal activity,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Ralph Marra Jr. “The rings were international in scope, connected to Deal, N.J., Brooklyn, Israel and Switzerland. The victims are the average citizens and the honest businesspeople of this state.”

The mayors, as well as several other public servants and area rabbis, had appearances in U.S. District Court in Newark this afternoon.

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