A two-year corruption and international money-laundering investigation stretching from the Jersey Shore to Brooklyn to Israel and Switzerland culminated in charges against 44 people on Thursday, including three New Jersey mayors, two state assemblymen and five rabbis, the authorities said.
The case began with bank fraud charges against a member of an insular Syrian Jewish enclave centered in a seaside town. But when that man became a federal informant and posed as a crooked real estate developer offering cash bribes to obtain government approvals, it mushroomed into a political scandal that could rival any of the most explosive and sleazy episodes in New Jersey’s recent past.
It was replete with tales of the illegal sales of body parts; of furtive negotiations in diners, parking lots and boiler rooms; of nervous jokes about “patting down” a man who turned out to indeed be an informant; and, again and again, of the passing of cash once in a box of Apple Jacks cereal stuffed with $97,000.
“For these defendants, corruption was a way of life,” Ralph J. Marra Jr., the acting United States attorney in New Jersey, said at a news conference. “They existed in an ethics-free zone.”
Mr. Marra said that average citizens “don’t have a chance” against the culture of influence peddling the investigation had unearthed.
Even veteran political observers were taken aback by the scope of the investigation. The mayors of Hoboken, Secaucus and Ridgefield were among those arrested.
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“This is so massive,” said Joseph Marbach, a political scientist at Seton Hall University. “It’s going to just reinforce the stereotype of New Jersey politics and corruption.”
The arrests had immediate reverberations in the governor’s race, and a member of Gov. Jon S. Corzine’s administration was forced to resign after federal agents raided his home.
The authorities laid out two separate schemes, one involving money laundering that led to rabbis and members of the Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn and in the Jersey Shore town of Deal, where many of them have summer homes. The other dealt with political corruption and bribery and involved public officials mostly in Jersey City and Hoboken, where the pace of development has been particularly intense in recent years.