NEW YORK — People who live in New Jersey can be forgiven if they initially yawned Thursday morning at the news of another federal sting that swept up a wide range of public officials, including the young mayor of Hoboken, who's been on the job all of three weeks.
They might have even shrugged at the report that five rabbis were also snared in the dragnet for allegedly washing $3 million through an international money-laundering ring.
But body parts?
This is round three in a series of New Jersey public corruption investigations that has spanned a decade and taken down more than 100 people, half of them government officials involved in money-for-access schemes.
But the trajectory of this latest inquiry seemed to impress even experienced investigators who, in the course of tracking mayors reportedly taking cash in diners and rabbis depositing untraceable money into the accounts of their charities, stumbled upon Levy Izhak Rosenbaum allegedly selling human kidneys.
Rosenbaum, a Brooklyn, N.Y., businessman, is accused of buying kidneys for $10,000 apiece from donors in Israel and then selling them to American transplant recipients for $160,000, according to a federal complaint.
"I am what you call a matchmaker," Rosenbaum told undercover agents, noting that he had been marketing illegal kidneys for 10 years, the complaint said.
Altogether 44 people were arrested Thursday, 29 of them New Jersey public officials including three mayors, two state assemblymen, several city councilmen, local commissioners, regulatory inspectors and least one unsuccessful candidate who wanted to be mayor of Jersey City.
"The list of people we arrested sounds like it should be the roster from a meeting of community leaders," said Weysan Dun, head of the FBI's Newark office. "But sadly they weren't meeting in a boardroom this morning. They were in the FBI booking room."
Federal officials would not identify the government witness at the center of the sting. According to the Newark Star-Ledger, he is a northern New Jersey real estate developer and son of a prominent rabbi in the Syrian community in Deal, N.J., who turned government witness after he had been accused of defrauding a bank of $50 million.
Over three years, this witness met with a series of so-called middlemen who introduced him to government officials who took a total of $650,000 in bribes, and to the rabbis and their associates who washed millions of dollars for him through charities and connections that reached from Deal to Brooklyn and from Israel to Switzerland, Acting U.S. Atty. Ralph J. Marra Jr. said.
Flanked at a news conference by investigators from the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service, Marra said the accused often displayed a brazen attitude.
Less than a month before Peter Cammarano, 32, was elected the youngest mayor ever of Hoboken, he seemed unconcerned about getting caught for allegedly taking strings-attached campaign contributions, Marra said. "I could be indicted and still get 85 to 95% of the vote," authorities said Cammarano bragged on May 18.
Days after his June 12 election, when authorities said the government witness offered Cammarano $30,000, the new mayor allegedly said, "Great -- and we're going to be friends for a long time."
But authorities said other suspects -- apparently aware of the ongoing FBI investigations that began in 1999 and have led to 130 arrests and convictions -- appeared more cautious.
Marra said a state assemblyman asked the government witness to "stop talking about money," adding, "I feel like I should pat you down."
Patrick Murray, a New Jersey pollster for more than three decades, said citizens of the country's most densely populated state were inured to corruption problems.
"People don't like it, but they don't see any way out of it, which is why it rarely plays out as a partisan issue," he said.
But even Murray was surprised by the record number of arrests Thursday, particularly after repeated warnings by successive FBI heads that they were on the hunt for criminal behavior.
"It's amazing that they know they could get caught, they know that people are watching them and yet," Murray said, trailing off. "Well, speaking as a New Jerseyan, I don't know if I'm more embarrassed by the corruption or stupidity."