Official guilty on 2 counts in NJ corruption trial

Attorney Brian Neary walks with then-Jersey City, N.J., deputy mayor Leona Beldini as she leaves federal court Thursday, July 23, 2009, in Newark, N.J.

February 11, 2010 4:55:09 PM PST
Jersey City Deputy Mayor Leona Beldini was convicted on two of six counts Thursday in the first trial stemming from New Jersey's largest federal corruption sting, although she was acquitted of the most serious charges. The jury returned its verdict at the end of its second day of deliberations following a nine-day trial.

Beldini was convicted on two counts of accepting $10,000 from a government informant posing as a corrupt developer looking to bribe public officials to help him with building approvals. She was acquitted on one count of extortion conspiracy, two counts of attempted extortion and a third bribery count.

The extortion counts were the most serious and carried a maximum sentence of 20 years each; the bribery counts carry a 10-year maximum sentence.

"We're pleased with this verdict. We're not pleased that she did it," U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman said. "The verdict "validates our theory of the case and what she was doing," he added.

Beldini's attorney, Brian Neary, said he would appeal and said the verdict showed the jury "disbelieved the government's case" and was skeptical of the informant, Solomon Dwek, a failed real estate speculator who has pleaded guilty to a $50 million bank fraud. Dwek was on the witness stand for five days, including three days of intense cross-examination by Neary.

"This was an inconsistent verdict," Neary said. "In terms of the bribery convictions, we believe this was an incorrect application of the bribery law. Campaign contributions are not bribes."

All but the third bribery count stemmed from the payments made by Dwek that the government contends were funneled through intermediaries and converted into campaign donations for Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah Healy, for whom Beldini served as campaign treasurer. Healy has not been charged.

The third bribery count, on which Beldini was acquitted, arose from Dwek's alleged deal that would have allowed her to be the primary real estate agent for his fictitious condominium project.

Beldini, a 74-year-old grandmother, was among 44 people arrested last summer in a dual public corruption and money laundering sting that netted nearly two dozen public officials as well as prominent members of Orthodox Jewish communities in New Jersey and New York.

A dozen people already have pleaded guilty in the case.

The trial hinged on secret videotapes Dwek made of meetings with Beldini and others, including Healy, at diners and restaurants in Jersey City.

Both sides played the same tapes for the jurors. The prosecution sought to show that Beldini knew Dwek's cash had been broken up into checks to avoid violating campaign finance laws, and made references to helping Dwek's building approvals, such as when she referred to "flipping the pile" so that his applications landed on top.

Neary sought to bring out the ambiguity of many of the conversations and portray Dwek as a pursuer who followed Beldini as she left the meetings, sprinkling his patter with code words that held sinister meaning only for him.

Some of that apparently resonated with jurors, but not enough to sway them toward a full acquittal.

Panelist Mike Cuppari, a building maintenance supervisor from Cranford, called Dwek "a bad guy," but added, "It takes a criminal to catch a criminal."

The government acknowledged that Beldini never took cash directly from Dwek but contends she accepted campaign donations that had been divided into checks by late political consultant Jack Shaw and former Jersey City housing commissioner Edward Cheatam in order not to run afoul of campaign contribution limits.

Neary characterized Shaw and Cheatam as "double agents" who set up meeting for Dwek with several Jersey City mayoral candidates and numerous other officials so that they could continue getting paid by Dwek, who gave them more than $100,000 for the introductions.

Cheatam, who did not testify at the trial, has pleaded guilty to extortion conspiracy and faces seven to nine years in prison; Shaw died of a Valium overdose five days after his arrest.

Neary got Dwek to admit on the witness stand that he has not been criminally charged for orchestrating a real estate Ponzi scheme that victimized members of his family and Orthodox Jewish community for more than $100 million.

Dwek became a cooperator after his arrest for bank fraud in 2006; he faced a maximum sentence of 40 years but under a plea agreement faces nine to 11 years and could serve less time if the government recommends a lighter sentence to a judge.