It was one of the biggest federal corruption stings in history.
Calls of congratulations quickly came down from the Justice Department to the prosecutors and the FBI division chief. Headlines went around the world.
And then suddenly, a wire story smashed into the euphoria: an ethics probe was underway and it centered on the man who oversaw the big case, the top Justice Department official in New Jersey.
The massive case involved the arrests of more than 40 people arrested on corruption and money-laundering charges on a single day, during a single unprecedented perp walk at the FBI’s massive division headquarters in Newark, NJ. Three mayors, two state legislators, five orthodox rabbis and dozens of others, charged with political corruption and money laundering. One of those arrested had been charged with selling kidneys on the black market.
A few miles away then-Gov. Jon Corzine (D) watched it unfold on live TV with the sinking feeling that his political career was, at that very moment, ending. And a few more miles away, south of Newark, former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie (R) was riding a political high that would only get better because of the arrests, and wind up taking over the governorship a few months later.
At the center of it all was a cooperating witness, Solomon Dwek, who took on the role of a corrupt developer looking to launder millions out of a failed real estate business. Separately, he was—at the feds’ direction—paying off elected officials to speed the green-lighting of projects that never existed.
While the defendants were being booked, then-acting U.S. Attorney Ralph Marra, a career prosecutor, told reporters, “The politicians willingly put themselves up for sale. For these defendants, corruption was a way of life. They existed in an ethics-free zone.”
Weysan Dun, at the time the head of the FBI in Newark, was equally somber in tone: “This case is not about politics. It is certainly not about religion,” he said. “It is about arrogance and it is about a shocking betrayal of the public trust.”
The comments played across the front pages. In Washington, Main Justice was thrilled with what they were seeing on TV and in print. There had been no immediate question raised by the department after the news conference. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Newark had advised headquarters before the takedown occurred and sent a copy of the press release to the Justice Department the night before. The only question they had for Marra was about when they could notify the cadre of national reporters who cover the department in DC.
But then days later, word leaked out that Marra was suddenly the subject of an internal investigation over the comments. That report, filed by the Associated Press Justice Department reporter in Washington, said the ethics probe focused on whether Marra’s statements violated government policy because they aided Christie’s campaign.
Marra tried to invoke department rules that require the source of a complaint to be revealed to the subject, but his superiors wouldn’t give him that information. He also said he answered every question posed to him both in writing and during a subsequent interview and he insisted his comments that day were well within the boundaries. He requested that an investigation be undertaken in Washington to find the source of the leak and that the department issue a statement saying clearly that he was not under investigation. He was rebuffed.
Marra later learned that the complaint was not filed by the counsel of one of the defendants, as is usually the case, but by someone in the Justice Department itself. He suspected it had come from within his own office. DOJ’s Office of Professional Responsibility instructed Marra to address “allegations that the announcement of these charges was inappropriately timed to influence the outcome of the New Jersey gubernatorial election.”
Former Democratic assemblyman Louis Manzo, who was among those charged last summer, has raised the issue in his own case. He accused the FBI and federal prosecutors of orchestrating the sting operation to help catapult Christie into the governor’s office. Corzine’s campaign also went after Marra for the comments, charging that the U.S. Attorney’s Office had been co-opted into an agent of Christie.
Marra told us he never thought through the political implications of the Dwek case, the timing of the takedown, or the perception by some that he was a Christie crony because the former U.S. attorney had promoted him to first assistant.
A year after the big corruption case broke, Marra was formally cleared of any wrongdoing in connection with his public comments. At the same time, it was revealed that Dun’s comments at that first press conference had come under review as well. In a letter to both men, OPR informed them that they had acted properly.
Marra left the U.S. Attorney’s Office last year and is now senior vice president for legal and governmental affairs at the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, courtesy of a patronage appointment from Christie. After OPR cleared him, he said there was nothing wrong with what he said. “We had so many facts in the record and affidavits that we had a lot of evidence to talk about,” he said. “That made it different than the run-of-the-mill case.”
He said he never troubled him that he was investigated. “It troubles me that it was leaked and nothing was ever done about it,” said Marra.
Dun, now special agent in charge of the FBI’s division in Omaha, Neb., had also been surprised an inquiry was initiated, but remarked, “I was confident my comments were consistent with DOJ guidelines.”
Since the arrests, 25 people have pleaded guilty, including one Democratic operative who surprisingly copped to his crimes just two weeks ago. Three have been convicted, including former Jersey City deputy mayor Leona Beldini—a one-time burlesque stripper—and former Republican assemblyman Daniel Van Pelt.
Two defendants have been acquitted – one mayor and one former assemblymen. The not-guilty verdicts were stunning losses for a U.S. Attorney’s Office that had won every corruption case it tried for a decade.
Charges remain unresolved against Lou Manzo and his brother, Ron, who recently had the most serious part of their cases thrown out by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia. The Manzos had been charged with extortion conspiracy under the Hobbs Act, a statute that makes it illegal for public officials to accept cash for their influence—what the law calls “extortion under color of official right.”
While prosecutors argued the Manzos did not need to actually hold office—merely take money and promise favors based on the power they hoped to gain if Lou Manzo had been elected mayor—the judge in the case ruled they could not be charged under the Hobbs Act because neither was an elected official at the time of the alleged crimes.
The charges against one minor defendant were dismissed altogether and some of the feds say Marra should never have approved that part of the case at all.
And one money-laundering defendant remains on the lam to this day, the charges against him still waiting for the day he pops a red flag at some airport or other American point of entry.
For his part, Solomon Dwek had taken his pleas and will eventually be sentenced to prison time. For now, he’s wearing an ankle bracelet and is in the custody of the FBI.
Ted Sherman is the senior investigative reporter with The Star-Ledger of Newark, NJ. Josh Margolin, formerly of The Star-Ledger, covers law enforcement and national security at the New York Post. This article is adapted from reporting for their new book, “The Jersey Sting: A true story of crooked pols, money-laundering rabbis, black market kidneys, and the informant who brought it all down.” It is being released today by St. Martin’s Press.