In corruption busts, feds need lots of bait to catch big fish

In corruption busts, feds need lots of bait to catch big fish

Posted by afriedma July 26, 2009 Star Ledger

When it comes to big corruption busts -- like Thursday's arrest of 44 politicians, public employees and religious leaders -- the laws of nature are reversed.

The little fish will eat the big fish.

Or, at least, they'll try.

If it helps them get off the hook.

"I am sure some of these defendants will be clamoring to testify against others,'' says Alan Zegas of Chatham, one of the state's most prominent criminal defense attorneys who -- so far -- is not involved in the massive sting operation announced by the U.S. Attorney's Office.

"It's been true since time began -- or at least since John J. Kenny turned on John V. Kenny in the 1970s," says Larry Horn, a former assistant U.S. attorney who now is chief defense attorney for the financial section of the big Newark law firm, Sills Cummis.

Horn is referring to the good old days of political corruption trials when the feds would take down entire county and municipal governments, starting at the bottom with the little fish and flipping them -- or getting them to agree to testify against the bigger bottom feeders.

The Kenny case involved -- much like this one -- Hudson County and Jersey City. Back then Freeholder John J. Kenny was indicted along with former Mayor John V. Kenny (no relation). John J. cut a deal and testified against John V.

But this case contains a lot of little fish -- and some who would very much want to be considered minnow-like.

When Joseph Castagna, the Jersey City health officer, left the federal courthouse Thursday surrounded by photographers and cameramen, he didn't protest his innocence or even clam up. Instead, he said, "I'm just a little fish."

This may be true. According to the complaint filed against him, Castagna did not actually take a bribe for himself. The feds say he passed along an envelope stuffed with cash to Michael Manzo, an arson investigator for the city who was running for city council.

Michael Manzo -- two other Manzos, brothers Ronald and Louis, also were charged -- and Castagna are described by the prosecutors as "close associates."

But there are few friends in adjoining cell blocks when they are charged with the same, or related, crimes.

"Their lawyers will be telling them their options,'' says Zegas.

The feds would not talk about this, but number of the complaints were constructed in a way that will make being a little fish all the more attractive to some defendants Two guys -- a big guy and a small guy -- involved in the same alleged offense, are often named. For example, take the complaint against Peter Cammarano III, the newly elected and newly charged Hoboken mayor.

Cammarano is charged in the same complaint with Michael Schaffer, a commissioner on the North Hudson Utilities Authority. Schaffer is charged with helping to set up a meeting between the federal informant Solomon Dwek -- known as "CW" or cooperating witness--and Cammarano. The affidavit also describes Schaffer as the guy who took envelopes filled with cash.

Zegas thinks these cases may be strong, especially if, as acting U.S. Attorney Ralph Marra says, agents took videotapes and audiotapes during all the conversations. He says he thinks some of the political defendants might be able to raise "reasonable doubt" by arguing the so-called bribes were really legal political contributions.

"Then the feds will have to prove a quid pro quo,'' says Zegas.

One of the great mysteries of the case is the fact that informer Dwek was not recognized by his political targets. Dwek's troubles with the government were no secret. His picture was in this newspaper.

"He wasn't just toxic, he was radioactive," says Horn. "Why would anyone want to meet with him knowing he was on the hook with the feds anyway.''

John Guarini, yet another little fish, may have inadvertently provided an answer. Unlike other defendants, Guarini -- cousin of former Rep. Frank Guarini (D-13th) -- was one of the few charged who was willing to talk to the press. Protesting his innocence.

An affidavit attached to the complaint against him reports Guarini, a Jersey City housing inspector, met several times with Dwek. When asked why he would meet with a man like that, this conversation followed:

"What man?" asked Guarini, himself a candidate for Congress in 2006.

"Solomon Dwek."

"Who's that?"

"The guy you're charged with meeting with."

"Never heard of him"

"So you never met with the CW, the cooperating witness?"

"Oh, that guy. I thought his name was David something.''

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