New Jersey corruption case advances with two guilty pleas

Jersey City officials Guy Catrillo and Maher Khalil admitted Wednesday to receiving bribes in a probe that netted 44 people.

A corruption scandal case that shook New Jersey – involving three mayors, five rabbis, two state legislators, and a man accused of organ trafficking – took a step forward Wednesday when two of the accused entered guilty pleas.

Guy Catrillo, a former planning aide, and Maher Khalil, the suspended deputy director of the Jersey City Department of Health and Human Services, admitted to a federal judge that they took bribes – worth tens of thousands of dollars – from an undercover witness to facilitate business deals.

The undercover sting, which stretched for two years across multiple countries and netted as many as 44 people, exposed the deep and wide roots of graft in New Jersey.News of the sting has captured attention in New Jersey and beyond, as much for its cast of characters as for the outlandish details of the sting, as the New York Times described in July:

It was replete with tales of the illegal sales of body parts; of furtive negotiations in diners, parking lots and boiler rooms; of nervous jokes about “patting down” a man who turned out to indeed be an informant; and, again and again, of the passing of cash — once in a box of Apple Jacks cereal stuffed with $97,000.

At the center of the operation was Solomon Dwek, “who was arrested in 2006 on a bank fraud charge,” Bloomberg reports. Mr. Dwek became an undercover witness and solicited various officials and political operators with bribes on behalf of the federal sting.

“Federal authorities said the guilty pleas from Khalil and Catrillo mark a key step in the case,” reports New Jersey’s Star Ledger.Bloomberg adds:

Khalil appeared first before U.S. District Judge Jose Linares, admitting he conspired to commit extortion from March 2008 to July 2009 to get corrupt payments and illicit political contributions for exercising influence on Dwek’s behalf….

Catrillo admitted to attempted extortion between February and May 2009, saying he took bribes from Dwek while running for the city council. Catrillo lost the election.

Entering his guilty plea, Khalil also implicated others charged in the case, reports the Star Ledger:

Aside from admitting accepting $72,500 in bribes, Khalil told U.S. District Judge Jose L. Linares that three other people charged in the case took cash from the informant.He named two of them: Jersey City Council President Mariano Vega and Edward Cheatam, a former city housing commissioner and board of education vice president. The third, Khalil described only as the treasurer of the Guttenberg board of education.

As for Catrillo, reports The Jersey Journal:

In court today, [he] admitted that he had arranged for a meeting between the Jersey City planning director, Bob Cotter, and the federal witness about purchasing and developing attractive land in Jersey City.Cotter couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

The trial is likely to divulge other details of the extent of corruption in New Jersey. As NBC reported: “A parallel track of the probe focused on religious leaders accused of running a money-laundering ring.”

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