It was four years ago today that the U.S Attorney’s office arrested more than 40 people as part of Operation Bid Rig III. The arrests sent shockwaves through the state’s political community, the effects of which are still being felt even today.
Of those arrested, the vast majority either pleaded guilty or were convicted in court. Others saw their charges dropped, but only after a long exhaustive battle. A select few beat the rap and walked away with their freedom, if not their reputations, intact.
It was a low point for New Jersey, making the state the butt of jokes across the nation. It made the careers of some – former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie was the man behind the operation before he left the office to run for governor. The subsequent arrests and hype that ensued helped propel Christie to the governor’s office.
It was the largest arrest of its kind and while several high profile politicians were jailed, it has not served as the deterrent to corruption many hoped it would.
Despite admonitions from Christie during his heyday as U.S. Attorney that anyone offering an envelope full of cash likely worked for him and should be avoided, high profile corruption arrests still take place.
In the past year, two high profile mayors – John Bencivengo of Hamilton and Tony Mack of Trenton – were embroiled in corruption cases. Bencivengo is currently serving a prison sentence on bribery and other charges after he accepted cash from an insurance broker in exchange for promising to help her keep her contract with the local school board.
One year ago last week, Mack’s home was raided by the FBI and the mayor of the capital city was arrested and indicted on eight counts including bribery, extortion, and mail and wire fraud. Mack has pleaded not guilty and remains in office.
As for Solomon Dwek, the man who started it all and became the informant that rocked the state, he too is in jail. In October he was sentenced to six years in prison for bank fraud and a day later got a concurrent four years for the bank scheme that initially put him on Christie’s radar. He is currently serving out his sentence at the Federal Correctional Institute in Cumberland, located in Western Maryland. His release date is listed as Sept. 14, 2016.
Here is a list of some of the high profile defendants from Operation Bid Rig III and what became of them after July 23, 2009.
Peter Cammarano, former mayor of Hoboken
After winning a mayoral campaign for the ages, Cammarano was a rising star in Hudson County politics But the golden boy had a secret. He’d won that election in part with an infusion of cash from FBI informant Solomon Dwek and in the process tied himself to the largest corruption bust in state history. Cammarano served just 22 days in office before his arrest. He put up a fight, but in the end, he stepped down from the post he’d fought so hard to win. The former mayor pleaded guilty in federal court to taking $25,000 in bribes and was sentenced to two years in prison and forfeiture of the $25,000. In September 2011 he was released from Lewisburg Federal Prison Camp in Pennsylvania to a halfway house in New York. Last year, Cammarano was released from the halfway house and came home to the Mile Square City.
Dennis Elwell, former mayor of Secaucus
Convicted of taking $10,000 in bribes from Dwek in exchange for winking a proposed hotel application through the process, Vietnam vet Elwell has maintained his innocence from the start. He was in fact acquitted on charges of conspiracy and attempted extortion, but resigned in July 2009, five days after his arrest.
He was sentenced to 30 months in prison on the bribery charge, a $1,000 fine and forfeiture of $10,000. In June 2012, he reported to prison in Butner, N.C., to begin serving his sentence. In March, his conviction was upheld on appeal. He is expected to be released in August 2014.
Anthony Suarez, Mayor of Ridgefield
The Ridgefield mayor was charged with conspiracy, extortion and accepting a $10,000 bribe Suarez first survived a recall effort and was later acquitted of all charges, forming the first chink in the U.S. Attorney’s armor and the first defeat of a case involving Dwek as the star witness. Suarez, an attorney, is still in office.
Leona Beldini, former Jersey City Deputy Mayor
A former deputy mayor of Jersey City and grandmother who city councilman Steve Fulop accused of being Mayor Jerry Healy’s bagwoman during his mayoral campaign earlier this year, Beldini was charged with taking $20,000 in illegal campaign contributions. The former dancer nicknamed Hope Diamond was sentenced to three years in prison and a $30,000 fine. Beldini reported to prison in Texas in April 2012.
Dennis Van Pelt, former Assemblyman from Ocean County
The former lawmaker was convicted of accepting $10,000 in an envelope from Solomon Dwek in exchange for the promise of securing development approvals from the state Department of Environmental Protection. He was sentenced to 41 months in prison and a $10,000 fine and is currently serving his sentence in Massachusetts. Earlier this year he lost an appeal in which he claimed that his attorney did not call witnesses that would have shown Dwek did not need his assistance.
“Additional evidence in this regard would have done nothing to diminish the strength of the evidence showing (Van Pelt) offered to help Dwek obtain permits from the DEP in exchange for money,” the judge wrote.
Van Pelt is scheduled to be released at the end of this year.
L. Harvey Smith, former Hudson County Assemblyman
Trying to kick-start his doomed mayoral campaign with some cash, Smith turned to Dwek, who found him a willing target for a $15,000 bribe, according to court documents. After allegedly promising to grease the skids with the DEP and local government for development on Garfield Avenue, Smith lost the election. Then he faced the double indignity of the feds throwing him in handcuffs. Smith was later acquitted on counts of conspiracy, attempted extortion, bribery and money laundering.
Mariano Vega, former Jersey City Councilman
In September 2010, Vega pleaded guilty to taking $30,000 in illegal contributions in exchange for development approvals. He was sentence to 30 months in prison, $20,000 forfeiture and a $1,000 fine. Vega is due to be released next month.
Lou Manzo, former candidate for mayor of Jersey City, former assemblyman
The former assemblyman and Jersey City Mayoral candidate spent the better part of three years battling charges and ultimately saw the case against him dropped. Manzo lost everything after his arrest, spending $150,000 on his defense. He sold his house and took out loans before the case was dropped. In March, a judge refused Manzo’s request to be repaid legal fees. According to a report in the Star Ledger, Manzo is currently writing a book about his case. He was living with relatives while his Belmar home is repaired of damage sustained during Super Storm Sandy.
Joseph Cardwell, Hudson County political operative and former Jersey City Municipal Utilities Authority commissioner
A near legendary local GOTV animal and advisor to former Mayor Glenn Cunningham, Cardwell was accused of taking $20,000 in order to facilitate a $10,000 bribe to a city official. In March 2011, Cardwell pleaded guilty to accepting $30,000 in bribes. He was sentenced to six months in prison and six months of home confinement. He was released from prison in August of last year.