Newark, NJ - Split Verdict in Dwek Corruption Trial Has Both Sides Claiming a Measure of Victory
Newark, NJ - A split verdict in the first trial in New Jersey’s biggest federal corruption sting has shone a spotlight on the government’s case and particularly its reliance on a cooperating witness with an extensive criminal history.
Jersey City Deputy Mayor Leona Beldini, the first of 44 people arrested in last summer’s massive sweep to come to trial, was found guilty Thursday of accepting bribes from the cooperator but acquitted on the more serious charges of extortion conspiracy and attempted extortion.
The verdict left some observers puzzled because the charges all derived from the same allegations: Beldini’s acceptance of $20,000 in campaign donations and the promise of future real estate commissions from the informant, purportedly in exchange for her help with building and zoning approvals.
“It’s actually a very confusing verdict,” said Robert Fuggi, attorney for indicted former state Assemblyman Daniel Van Pelt, whose trial is scheduled for early May.
“She got convicted on the same counts she got acquitted on. The main thing I would take away is that the government is on tenuous ground by the way they conducted this investigation and by putting all their eggs in one basket, and the jury showed that yesterday,” Fuggi said Friday.
Not surprisingly, both sides claimed a measure of victory Thursday. U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman said the two convictions vindicated the government’s case.
“You can’t speculate on why the jury reached one result on one count and one on another count,” Fishman said. “What we do know is that jury found that Leona Beldini accepted bribes for official action, and we’re pleased with that result.”
Brian Neary, Beldini’s attorney, said he would appeal. He said the verdict repudiates the informant, failed real estate speculator Solomon Dwek, who secretly recorded hours of meetings with public officials and was the government’s chief witness at the trial.
Dwek comes with heavy baggage. He has pleaded guilty to a $50 million bank fraud, and during the trial acknowledged running a real estate Ponzi scheme in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Neary’s strategy, sure to be employed by attorneys in future trials, sought to portray him as the initiator of any discussions of illegal activity.
In Beldini’s case, this usually occurred when she was putting on her coat to leave a meeting, as two tapes played for the jury demonstrated.
It may be significant that the two bribery charges on which Beldini was convicted were strengthened by campaign finance disclosure forms and the testimony of an accountant who worked on Mayor Jerramiah Healy’s campaign. Beldini served as Healy’s campaign treasurer. Healy has not been charged.
That wasn’t enough to convince the jury to convict Beldini on the more serious extortion counts, though, which relied more heavily on the conversations secretly taped by Dwek.
“I can’t speculate on how this will affect upcoming prosecutions,” Fishman said. “One of the defense arguments has been that the government shouldn’t use people like Solomon Dwek in these investigations. But the jury obviously rejected that argument” by convicting her on some charges.
The split verdict likely will give defense attorneys more confidence going forward, said Henry Klingeman, who represents indicted Hudson County political consultant Joseph Cardwell.
“It has to, for the simple reason that the government usually wins 100 percent of these cases, and in this one they won 33 percent,” Klingeman said.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office has won more than 130 convictions or guilty pleas in corruption cases during the last eight years without a defeat. That could change, Fuggi said.
“I think they’re going to lose one of these high-profile cases, and they’re going to lose it because of Dwek and because of the way the investigation was done,” he said.
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