NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Louis Manzo was preparing to do a radio interview from his family’s shore home on the morning of July 23, 2009, when the FBI called. Hours later, he was being led in handcuffs before TV cameras with dozens of other suspects in New Jersey’s largest political corruption and money laundering sting.
One problem: He was charged with crimes he couldn’t have committed, a federal judge would later rule in two separate opinions.
Manzo, a former state lawmaker, is now a free man after a bruising legal battle to clear his name, an effort that cost him his home, his job and $150,000 in legal fees — expenses he recently filed a motion to have the government reimburse him for.
Manzo’s odyssey has spotlighted the flaws in a 2 1/2-year sting operation that cost millions of dollars to mount and prosecute but never became the type of slam-dunk usually attained in federal investigations.
It has also brought allegations that Chris Christie, who initiated the probe as U.S. attorney, steered it away from Republican officials who later helped him win election as governor. The vast majority of those arrested in the sting were Democrats.
Even for those who have been exonerated, the human cost has been steep.
Joseph Doria, a longtime northern New Jersey politician who headed the state Department of Community Affairs in 2009 under former Gov. Jon Corzine, was never charged with any crimes. But the fallout from images of FBI agents carrying boxes out of his office was enough to force his resignation.
“When you charge someone, particularly a public figure, you essentially ruin their life,” said Rutgers School of Law Dean John Farmer, a former New Jersey attorney general whose former law firm represented Doria. “It’s almost as if it’s the charge that matters, not what eventually happens. I think there wasn’t enough sensitivity to that reality when these cases were brought. It’s why the government should be very circumspect about charging public officials.”
Doria, who didn’t return a message seeking comment, had acknowledged meeting with the man at the center of the investigation, government cooperator Solomon Dwek. A disgraced real estate speculator and admitted Ponzi schemer, Dwek agreed to wear a wire for the government in a plea deal after his arrest in a $50 million bank fraud.
Dwek recorded hundreds of hours of meetings and conversations with public and elected officials between 2007 and 2009, presenting himself as a developer looking to get favorable treatment in exchange for cash. He also met with prominent members of his own Orthodox Jewish community, more than a dozen of whom were later charged with laundering money through charities.
Prosecutors knew Dwek’s criminal past would be a tough sell with jurors, but other obstacles originated in their own office.
Those were exposed when a judge ruled in 2010 that the U.S. attorney’s office had erred when it charged several candidates for public office under a law that applies to already-elected officials. Several defendants had charges dismissed as a result. In his opinion, U.S. District Judge Jose L. Linares accused the government of using “legal alchemy” to charge defendants when the facts didn’t align.
Prosecutors brought additional charges against some defendants, including Manzo, who was charged with interstate travel in aid of crimes because he had met with Dwek in New York’s Staten Island. Those charges were thrown out last month.
“We based the prosecution on evidence Manzo agreed to take money from Solomon Dwek for a criminal purpose,” U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman said. “We agree with the court’s characterization of the defendant’s alleged conduct as `reprehensible,’ and `deeply objectionable,’ but accept the Court’s finding that his actions do not violate existing federal law.”
David Shapiro, a former prosecutor and FBI agent who runs corporate investigations for Aon Corp., said the number of guilty pleas indicates that wrongdoing did occur. He said the charging errors shouldn’t be interpreted as government malfeasance.
“On the one hand, you have wrongful conduct, and on the other you have bad charging documents on the part of the prosecutors,” he said. “Maybe they did overreach on certain individuals. It’s not as easy as it sounds to be precise. It’s more like you have a malleable clay called evidence where you might not really be sure where it fits.”
Since the 2009 arrests, of 40 defendants whose cases have been resolved, about three-quarters have pleaded guilty, including 12 of 15 people connected to the money laundering sting. Six have had charges dropped or been acquitted, and two more could have charges thrown out.
Ridgefield Mayor Anthony Suarez and former Assemblyman L. Harvey Smith were acquitted by juries; among four defendants who were convicted, one, former Assemblyman Daniel Van Pelt, was found guilty on all counts, while three were acquitted of more serious extortion charges.
Those results fall short of national averages: In 2009, for instance, about one in 200 defendants facing federal charges were acquitted in court, according to Justice Department statistics. The New Jersey acquittals were the first in federal corruption trials in the state in a decade.
Four other corruption defendants had charges dismissed as a result of the 2010 ruling, and four defendants have cases pending. One defendant died soon after being arrested, and another is a fugitive.
Christie was New Jersey’s top federal prosecutor and initiated the sting in 2006 but left the U.S. attorney’s office to run for governor several months before the arrests.
In court filings, Manzo and Lori Serrano, an unsuccessful candidate for Jersey City council who had an extortion conspiracy charge thrown out, claim Christie targeted politicians in heavily Democratic Hudson County to enhance his chances for election in 2009.
In her brief seeking dismissal of a mail fraud charge filed after the dismissal of the extortion charge, Serrano called the investigation “reprehensible, arbitrary and capricious” and a violation of the equal protection clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth amendments.
Through a spokesman, Christie didn’t comment on the allegations. In the past he has adamantly denied any political motivation for the sting.
A. Jeff Ifrah, a former special assistant U.S. attorney in New Jersey, was involved in cases stemming from a similar government sting that used an informant to arrest 22 businessmen in 2010 accused of bribing foreign officials. After failing to earn convictions in two trials, the Justice Department dropped charges against 16 defendants last month.
Of the New Jersey sting, Ifrah said the court defeats can have a negative ripple effect for the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“It can have a pretty debilitating impact,” he said. “This investigation was so broad, and caught up so many people, and all of that is now put into question and the integrity of the office is put into question.”
Fishman, who took over as U.S. attorney a few months after the corruption arrests, declined to comment on the trial results. The consensus among attorneys who have followed the cases is that his office has done as well as it could under the circumstances, particularly in having to rely on testimony from Dwek, who was described by Linares, the federal judge, as a “consummate defrauder and an extremely cunning liar.”
Meanwhile, Manzo said he is working on a book about the investigation and trying to piece his life back together. He said he is beyond seeking revenge.
“Can I start a new life now that this is behind me?” he asked. “I don’t know. I’m Christian enough that what I’m doing now, I’m doing because I don’t want to see this happen to somebody else. People’s due process was violated. I’m not saying they’re guilty or not. But they never should have been targeted.”
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