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.
A year after a major public corruption sting in New Jersey, Justice Department investigators have determined that public comments made by New Jersey’s former acting U.S. Attorney did not violate DOJ regulations, the Star-Ledger reported.
The department’s internal ethics probe centered on remarks in a news conference made by Ralph Marra Jr., as well as the former head of the FBI’s Newark Division, Weysan Dun. Democrats claimed the two unfairly politicized the sting to help the political chances of Marra’s ex-boss, Chris Christie, the former N.J. U.S. Attorney who successfully ran for governor last year.
Christie, the Republican challenger, defeated Democrat Jon Corzine last November.
The Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility issued a letter last week, which was obtained by the Star-Ledger, clearing Marra and Dun of any wrongdoing in the wake of the high-profile corruption case.
“Based upon the results of our investigation, we concluded that you did not violate any professional obligation and thus did not commit professional misconduct or exercise poor judgment in this matter,” wrote Mary Patrice Brown, the office’s acting head.
The comments in question were made at a July 2009 news conference announcing the arrests of 44 people — 29 of which were public officials — in a far-reaching federal corruption probe.
In response to questions about state corruption, Marra said: “There are easily reforms that could be made within this state that would make our job easier, or even take some of the load off our job. There are too many people that profit off the system the way it is and so they have no incentive to change it. The few people that want to change it seem to get shouted down. So how long that cycle’s going to continue I just don’t know.”
Department guidelines restrict prosecutors from making “extrajudicial comments” that may have the effect of “heightening public condemnation of the accused.” In addition, critics argued the remarks implicitly endorsed Christie.
Corruption became a central issue in New Jersey, and Christie, the state’s former U.S. Attorney, leveraged his law-and-order background in the aftermath of the sting. His campaign vowed to clean up corruption, and he later associated Corzine with the sting despite the fact that the then-governor was not implicated in the case and had announced proposals for ethics reform.
Former Democratic assemblyman Louis Manzo, who was netted in the sting, also accused the FBI and federal prosecutors of choreographing the operation to propel Christie into office.
Upon winning the race, rumors surfaced that Christie would nominate Marra to be the state’s next Attorney General — an appointed position in New Jersey.
In fact, Christie nominated Marra for his current position as senior vice president for legal and governmental affairs at the state’s Sports and Exposition Authority — with a reported paycheck of $195,000.
Nine other former colleagues have also been bumped into the Christie administration since he became governor, including:
- Marc Larkins to be the executive director of the New Jersey School Development Authority Board
- Robert Hanna to be the director of the Division of Law in the Attorney General’s office.
- Stephen Taylor to be the director of Criminal Justice in the AG’s office.
- Deborah Gramiccioni to be director of the Authorities Unit in the AG’s office.
- Jeffrey S. Chiesa to be Christie’s chief counsel.
- Kevin M. O’Dowd to be deputy chief counsel.
- Charles McKenna to be head of the state’s Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness.
- Michele Brown to be appointments counsel.
- Lee Solomon to be the president of the board of public utilities.
Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for Christie, said the ethics allegations were “ridiculous.” Instead, he pointed to the question of who leaked word of the internal probe to the press last August.
“Ralph Marra was a professional, highly regarded federal prosecutor for more than 20 years,” Drewniak told The Associated Press on Sunday. “More offensive was that the allegations — now shown to be patently false — were leaked by officials in the Justice Department itself. To our minds, that raised much more serious questions about politicization of an important and successful criminal investigation.”
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In May 2009, New Jersey defense attorney Paul Bergrin was arrested in connection with a 14-count racketeering indictment. Bergrin is a former Essex County assistant prosecutor, the DOJ said. He was an assistant U.S. Attorney from 1985-1990.
The charges included arranging the murder of a witness. The case was brought in New Jersey by then-acting U.S. Attorney Ralph Marra, who is now the office’s First Assistant U.S. Attorney.
Federal prosecutors say Bergrin used threats, bribes and murder to discourage witnesses from testifying. In addition, Bergrin passed the name of an informant to associates of a client in a drug case. The informant was fatally shot in Newark, N.J., in 2004.
The decision not to seek the death penalty in the case was made by Attorney General Eric Holder, according to the AP. The New Jersey U.S. Attorney’s office run by Paul Fishman did not comment on the decision.
Lawrence Lustberg, one of Bergrin’s attorneys, told the Asbury Park Press, “Obviously, he’s relieved.”
“He still recognizes that while the death penalty is off the table, his life is on the line. If he is convicted of a number of these allegations, he could spend the rest of his life in prison,” Lustberg added.
In an unrelated case in October 2009, Bergrin was sentenced to time served in connection with running a Manhattan brothel.
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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie nominated his former deputy in the state’s U.S. Attorney’s office to be the next chief attorney for the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, The Star-Ledger reported today.
Ex-First Assistant U.S. Attorney Ralph Marra — who became acting U.S. Attorney in December 2008 when Christie resigned to run for governor — would be paid $195,000 for the job. The post does not require state Senate confirmation and only needs approval from the authority board, according to the newspaper.
Under Marra, the U.S. Attorney’s Office was criticized by former Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine’s campaign last year for dragging its feet on Freedom of Information Act requests about Christie’s tenure. The Justice Department also launched an ethics probe of Marra for remarks he made at a news conference about a major public corruption sweep that Democrats said were intended to boost Christie politically.
“People who have real problems won’t be in the administration,” Christie told The Star-Ledger shortly after he defeated Corzine in the November 2009 election. “People who have problems that are contrived for attempted political advantage won’t be hurt by that.”
Christie has now tapped 10 former colleagues in the U.S. Attorney’s office for state posts.
Marra told the newspaper that he is “really excited” about the nomination to the independent authority, which oversees major state sporting and conventions centers.
“The Sports Authority is facing a lot of challenges and I’m eager to jump in there and help out,” Marra told The Star-Ledger.
If New Jersey Gov.-elect Chris Christie (R) in fact had been considering appointing his controversial ally from the U.S. Attorney’s office in New Jersey, Ralph Marra, to be state attorney general, as previous reports indicated, he’s decided against it.
Christie will name Essex County, N.J., prosecutor Paula Dow (D) to the post today, The Associated Press reports. The New Jersey attorney general is an appointed position, not elected, but requires confirmation by the state Senate, which is controlled by Democrats.
Marra recently returned to his First Assistant U.S. Attorney position after serving as acting U.S. Attorney, a post he assumed in December when Christie resigned to run for governor. Yesterday, Obama administration appointee Paul Fishman was sworn in as the state’s new U.S. Attorney.
During the campaign, Marra’s office was criticized by Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine’s campaign for foot-dragging on Freedom of Information Act requests about Christie’s tenure. In addition, the Justice Department launched an ethics probe of Marra for remarks he made at a news conference about a major public corruption sweep Chrthat Democrats said were intended to boost Christie politically.
Dow previously worked with Christie in the U.S. Attorney’s office, serving as counsel to the U.S. Attorney and working in the special prosecutions division and the criminal division. She was in the office from 1994 to 2003. Before joining the New Jersey U.S. Attorney’s office, Dow worked in the Southern District of New York’s office from 1987 to 1994 and for Exxon for seven years.
Christie has already tapped two of his former subordinates from the U.S. Attorney’s office for his administration – Jeffrey S. Chiesa, who will be Christie’s chief counsel, and Kevin M. O’Dowd, who will be deputy chief counsel.
PolitickerNJ reports the former New Jersey U.S. Attorney will also appoint three other prosecutors to top posts. They are:
– Phillip Kwon, a deputy chief of the criminal division in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, as first assistant attorney general
– Marc Ferzan, a deputy chief of the criminal division in the U.S. Attorney’s office, as executive assistant attorney general
– Carolyn Murray, first assistant prosecutor in Essex County, N.J., as counsel to the attorney general.
UPDATE: Christie during a noontime press conference made the nominations official, The Star-Ledger of New Jersey reports. In addition, the newspaper reports that Lt. Gov.-elect Kim Guadagno will also serve as secretary of state in the Christie administration. The lieutenant governor, which is a new position in New Jersey, may serve in duel roles in the administration except for attorney general. Guadagno was the deputy chief of the corruption unit for the U.S. Attorney’s Office from 1990 to 1998.
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The New Jersey U.S. Attorney was sworn in today before 400 people including Attorney General Eric Holder and state dignitaries, the NBC New York Web site reported.
Some of the notable New Jerseyans, who were in attendance according to the news Web site, include:
-Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, who administered the oath.
-Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.)
-Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.)
-Gov. Jon Corzine.
-Gov.-elect Chris Christie, who was the George W. Bush U.S. Attorney for New Jersey.
-Former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who served as New Jersey U.S. Attorney under President George H.W. Bush.
-New Jersey FBI Director Weysan Dun.
Holder said Fishman will be one of his top advisers, according to NBC New York. In October, the Attorney General tapped Fishman to be on the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee of U.S. Attorneys, a body that serves as the voice of the U.S. Attorneys at Justice Department headquarters in Washington.
“I will rely on a man I trust,” Holder said at the ceremony, according to the news Web site.
Fishman officially took the helm of the U.S. Attorney’s office in October, shortly after he won Senate confirmation. He replaced acting U.S. Attorney Ralph Marra, who is under investigation by the DOJ Office of Professional Responsibility.
OPR is probing Marra over remarks he made this summer that could have aided Christie’s campaign for governor. The comments were about a July sting, which netted more than 40 defendants. Corzine and Christie both used investigation to show their anti-corruption credentials during the heated race for governor.
Fishman said he would make sure his office is fair and ethical. He added that his office would also fight gang crime and terrorism, according to the NBC news Web site.
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Attorney General Eric Holder is slated to attend the swearing-in ceremony for the New Jersey U.S. Attorney on Monday, the Justice Department announced today.
Paul Fishman officially took the helm of the New Jersey U.S. Attorney’s Office on Oct. 14. The Senate confirmed him on Oct. 7. Later that month, Holder tapped Fishman to be on the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee of U.S. Attorneys, a body that serves as the voice of the U.S. Attorneys at DOJ headquarters in Washington.
Fishman replaced Ralph Marra, who served as acting U.S. Attorney after Republican Chris Christie stepped down to mount a successful run for governor.
The Attorney General has attended five U.S. Attorney investitures thus far. He was at the swearing-in ceremonies for Timothy Heaphy in the Western District of Virginia, Neil MacBride in the Eastern District of Virginia, Preet Bharara in the Southern District of New York, B. Todd Jones in Minnesota and Joyce Vance in the Northern District of Alabama.
Read our previous article here about the warm glow U.S. Attorneys get when the AG shows up at their investitures.
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New Jersey Gov.-elect Chris Christie (R) has tapped two of his former subordinates from the U.S. Attorney’s office for his administration, a New Jersey newspaper reports. Christie on Thursday announced four senior staff members including Jeffrey S. Chiesa, who will be Christie’s chief counsel, and Kevin M. O’Dowd, who will be deputy chief counsel.
Chiesa worked in the New Jersey U.S. Attorney’s office from 2002 until earlier this year, when he left to join Wolff & Samson in New York. While in the office, headed by Christie, Chiesa served in multiple roles including the Executive Assistant U.S. Attorney and chief of the public protection unit. O’Dowd is currently working as a prosecutor in the office, according to The Courier-Post newspaper of South New Jersey.
Also, although Christie has not made an official announcement, another former U.S. Attorney’s Office colleague, Ralph Marra, reportedly is his pick for attorney general. The New Jersey attorney general is an appointed position, not elected. Christie’s controversial ally Marra recently returned to his First Assistant U.S. Attorney position after serving as acting U.S. Attorney, a post he assumed in December 2008 when Christie resigned to run for governor.
Also due to join the Christie administration when he is sworn in next January will be former state Assemblyman Richard H. Bagger as chief of staff and Christie campaign manager Bill Stepien as deputy chief of staff, the newspaper reports.
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Chris Christie plans to name his controversial ally from the U.S. Attorney’s office in New Jersey, Ralph Marra, to be the state’s next Attorney General, The Husdon Reporter reports. Marra recently returned to his First Assistant U.S. Attorney position after serving as acting U.S. Attorney, a post he assumed in December when Christie resigned to run for governor. Christie, a Republican, won last night.
During the campaign, Marra’s office was criticized by Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine’s campaign for a slow response to its Freedom of Information Act requests, which Democrats said was a political move.
In addition, the Justice Department has launched an ethics investigation involving Marra for remarks he made at a news conference about a major public corruption probe. The DOJ Office of Professional Responsibility started an internal affairs probe into the New Jersey U.S. Attorney’s Office’s handling of a corruption investigation that netted 44 individuals – including 29 elected or public officials — in July.
Christie had used the arrests, in a case named Operation Bid Rid, to argue he would be better at preventing public corruption than Corzine. Polling showed the issue resonated with independent voters, who supported Christie in Tuesday’s election.
The New Jersey attorney general is an appointed position, not elected.
The Christie campaign did not immediately return a request for comment.
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A former Assistant U.S. Attorney in New Jersey has been sentenced in connection with running a Manhattan brothel, The Associated Press reported. Although New Jersey defense attorney Paul Bergrin was sentenced to time served in the misdemeanor prostitution case, he will remain in jail as he awaits trial on charges of arranging the murder of a federal witness in a drug case, The AP reported.
In May, Bergrin was arrested in connection with a 14-count racketeering indictment. The charges included arranging the murder of a witness. The case was brought in New Jersey by then-acting U.S. Attorney Ralph Marra, who is now the office’s First Assistant U.S. Attorney. Federal prosecutors say Bergrin used threats, bribes and murder to discourage witnesses from testifying, The AP reported. In addition, Bergrin passed the name of an informant to associates of a client in a drug case, The AP reported. The informant was fatally shot in Newark, N.J., in 2004.
Bergrin has pleaded not guilty. Bergrin, a former Essex County, N.J., county assistant prosecutor, served as an assistant U.S. Attorney between 1985 and 1990.