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Does Manzo guilty plea hurt former Secaucus mayor in corruption case?

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

YOU READ IT HERE FIRST : The prospects for former Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell of acquittal at a federal trial may have taken a hit today when Ronald Manzo admitted in U.S. District Court in Newark that he conspired to funnel $10,000 in bribe money to him, as part of the largest corruption sting in New Jersey history.

Elwell (l.), Dwek

Manzo — brother of former state Assemblyman Louis Manzo — originally was to have stood trial besides Elwell in June, following a series of delays in their respective cases. He had been under house arrest.

Then last week, U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman said his office decided not to appeal a February U.S. Third Circuit Court decision that the Manzos couldn’t be charged with public corruption because neither was a public official at the time of the sting. Whether the remaining charges would stand was an open question.

That was answered when Ronald Manzo, 67, pleaded guilty today to the first count of a federal grand jury indictment charging him with conspiring with Elwell and another man, Edward Cheatam, to collect $10,000
from Solomon Dwek, a government cooperator posing as a crooked developer, in exchange for the former mayor’s help in securing project approvals. Federal prosecutors dropped two other charges as part of the plea agreement.

Elwell, 65, resigned days after his July 23, 2009 arrest. He has been preparing to go to trial and may be considered as having a shot at acquittal, particularly after federal jurors last October cleared Ridgefield Mayor Anthony Suarez, one of the three mayors swept up in “Operation Bid Rig II.”

But another in a series of postponements was disclosed this week — apparently due to the agreement Manzo’s lawyer quietly hammered out. That deal includes forfeiting $42,500 that Manzo admitted collecting from Dwek.

What this means for Elwell is uncertain, given the likelihood that Manzo has agreed to testify on behalf of the government in exchange for a lighter sentence. Elwell’s trial is due to begin toward the end of June.

The former Secaucus mayor, along with then-mayors David Cammarano of Hoboken and Suarez, were among more than 40 public officials the government said were caught with their hands in the public’s pocket, thanks to Dwek.

A convicted felon from the Jersey Shore, Dwek worked as an operative for the government in an attempt to reduce his sentence for embezzling more than $50 million. The swindler-turned-snitch potrayed a developed looking to gain project approvals, wearing a hidden camera that recorded conversations with a number of people.

They included Manzo and Cheatam, who was an Affirmative Action Officer for Hudson County and a Commissioner of the Jersey City Housing Authority, during the spring of 2009, federal authorities said.

Dwek told the men he was interested in buying influence and would pay cash.

At a May 28, 2009 meeting that followed, federal prosecutors allege, Dwek directly told Elwell and Manzo that he’d pay them off in installments after the primary election, which Elwell won, and the upcoming November election.

Manzo admitted today that he later accepted the $10,000 in cash purportedly intended for Elwell as a first installment. When asked whether he passed the bribe along, Manzo wrote “yes, no problem” on a napkin that he showed to Dwek, prosecutors said.

Manzo admitted collecting even more cash, which he has agreed to repay the government.

Ronald and Louis Manzo were originally charged with accepting $27,500 under a federal statute that governs public officials. But the courts have ruled they were improperly charged, given that they weren’t public officials when the FBI arrested them as part of “Operation Bid Rig II.” Lou Manzo was running for mayor of Jersey City, and Ron was his campaign manager.

Federal prosecutors then obtained a new grand jury indictment last month, while keeping several charges against Ronald Manzo. Those stood until today.

Depending on how much he can help the government in the Elwell case, Manzo could get 12 to 18 months in federal prison when he is sentenced on Sept. 7.

Fishman credited Special Agents of the FBI and the IRS Criminal Investigation Division with making the case, which is being handled by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Maureen Nakly and Eric Kanefsky of the Special Prosecutions Division.

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