Informant and secretly recorded tapes take center stage as NJ federal corruption trial begins

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Prosecutor: Tapes show NJ deputy mayor on the take

NEWARK, N.J. — Secretly recorded meetings show the deputy mayor of New Jersey’s second-largest city eagerly welcoming the entreaties of a federal informant posing as a corrupt developer, a prosecutor charged Wednesday during opening statements in the first trial to arise from the state’s largest federal corruption sting.

Leona Beldini “used her public office to ask, ‘What’s in it for me?’” Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Calcagni told a jury. He described how the tapes recorded by the informant last year are at the core of the government’s six-count indictment against the 74-year-old grandmother.

“You’ll hear the defendant and her coconspirators talking about bribes,” he said. “From her mouth to your ears. You will hear them, you will see them, you will be there with them. It’s her own unguarded statements that will prove her guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Beldini, at the time the deputy mayor of Jersey City, was one of 44 people arrested last July at the culmination of a three-year-long federal probe that first focused on money laundering in the Jewish enclaves of Brooklyn and Deal, N.J. It eventually included alleged bribes to nearly two dozen public officials.

Solomon Dwek, a failed real estate developer who pleaded guilty to a $23 million bank fraud and has been accused of running a massive real estate Ponzi scheme, was the government informant at the center of the investigation and will be the trial’s central figure.

After his arrest in 2006, Dwek agreed to cooperate with the government and posed as David Esenbach, a developer looking to bribe public officials in exchange for help getting zoning and other approvals.

Beldini is charged with extortion and bribery; prosecutors say she accepted about $20,000 from Esenbach/Dwek in exchange for using her influence for a fictitious building project, then converted the money into illegal campaign donations for Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah Healy’s successful 2009 re-election campaign.

Part of her reward was to receive commissions as a real estate agent for the new building, prosecutors have said.

Healy has not been charged, but he was mentioned prominently in the opening statement of Beldini’s attorney, Brian Neary, who spoke of the close and long-standing relationship between his client and the mayor.

Conversely, Neary characterized Dwek as a career criminal who had to keep trolling for new victims to justify his cooperation agreement with the government.

“Like any Ponzi scheme, you need to keep going,” Neary told the jury. “But he would be trading with his freedom. His new Ponzi scheme was to keep himself out of jail.”

Neary laid the groundwork for a defense that will seek to show that others, including political consultant Jack Shaw and former Jersey City housing commissioner Edward Cheatam, were more closely associated with Dwek and made numerous introductions to Jersey City officials.

Cheatam — “you will learn how appropriate his name is,” Neary quipped — and Shaw received a total of more than $100,000 from Dwek for their efforts while Beldini took no money for herself, Neary said.

Cheatam pleaded guilty last fall and faces seven to nine years in prison. Shaw was found dead in his apartment five days after his arrest in July from an overdose of Valium, according to the autopsy report.

Dwek is expected to testify on Thursday and will likely face a sustained grilling from Neary on his past transgressions. But Calcagni cautioned jurors to focus on Beldini’s words.

“Take the measure of this man, but don’t lose sight of the audio and videotapes that are going to be played,” he said. “The tapes will prove this case. The recorded conversations on those tapes are as real as the corrupt intent (Beldini) had when she accepted these corrupt bribe payments.”

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