NEW YORK - Several rabbis were among the 44 people arrested in New York and New Jersey yesterday in a sweeping corruption investigation that began as a probe into an international money laundering ring that trafficked in goods as diverse as human organs and fake designer handbags.
The corruption and money laundering cases are tied together by a single witness who cooperated with police for about three years.
In the former, 29 public officials were arrested, including three mayors, a deputy mayor and two state legislators, on suspicion of taking bribes to advance property development projects. In the latter, 15 people, including five rabbis from New Jersey and the New York City borough of Brooklyn, were arrested and charged with running an international money laundering ring that operated between Brooklyn; Deal, New Jersey; Israel; and Switzerland.
The network is alleged to have laundered tens of millions of dollars through charities controlled by rabbis in New York and New Jersey, including about $3 million handed to them by the witness over the past two years alone. Its alleged offenses range from trafficking kidneys from Israeli donors to laundering proceeds from selling fake Gucci and Prada bags.
Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said he has heard the story but knows nothing of kidneys being sold by Israelis.
The charges paint "a disgraceful picture of religious leaders heading money laundering," said Ralph Marra, acting U.S. attorney in Newark, New Jersey. "Religious leaders acted like crime bosses."
The investigation has been running for 10 years. The cases are based largely on one unnamed person who was involved in both the money laundering and bribing government officials, but the evidence is backed up by recordings and documents obtained by the witness, police said.
The arrested rabbis include Eliahu Ben Haim and Edmond Nahum, who head synagogues in Deal, and Saul Kassin and Mordchai Fish, who head synagogues in Brooklyn.
Also arrested was Levy-Izhak Rosenbaum, who is suspected of being the middleman in a deal to sell kidneys for transplant at $160,000 each. Rosenbaum has reportedly confessed to this charge.
Mike Winnick was praying inside the Deal Synagogue, Nahum's congregation, when it was raided by agents from the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service and the Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office.
"Everyone was looking at each other, like, 'What's going on here?'" he said.
Nearby, FBI and IRS agents removed several boxes from the Deal Yeshiva, which educates the children of Sephardic Jews. Deal has a large and wealthy community of Syrian Jews.
When those arrested were brought to the FBI's Newark office, an agent slowly walked one elderly rabbi into the building as another covered his face with a felt hat.