Corruption bust leads top-10 list, Christie and Goldman follow

“Assemblyman Daniel Van Pelt, Lakewood, covers himself as he leaves federal court in Newark in July after his arrest as part of a corruption probe.”

“Gov.-elect Chris Christie, left, and Lt. Gov.-elect Kim Guadagno greet their supporters after unseating incumbent Democratic Gov. Jon S. Corzine to win the state governors race in Parsippany on Nov. 3.”

A string of high-profile stories put New Jersey and the Shore at the center of national and international media attention in 2009.

From a massive corruption bust to a hotly contested and closely watched gubernatorial election to the end of a Monmouth County family’s fight to regain custody of an abducted child, the first decade of the 21st century was packed with big headlines.

But the annual list of the year’s top ten stories compiled by Press editors and reporters also contains articles that chronicle powerful events that never made national news. Here they are:

1.”> OPERATION BID RIG: On July 23, New Jersey’s largest-ever corruption probe turned into the year’s biggest story, as 44 were cuffed and charged with offenses that ranged from bribe taking to trafficking in human kidneys.”>The FBI’s Operation Bid Rig arrests followed two tracks: officials accused of corruption and rabbis in Syrian Jewish and Hasidic communities accused of money laundering.

Among those arrested were the mayors of Hoboken, Secaucus and Ridgefield, as well as Ocean County Republican Assemblyman Daniel Van Pelt, Lakewood Housing Inspector Jeffrey Williamson and rabbis from congregations in Deal and Long Branch.

At the center of the scandal was″> Solomon Dwek, the former real estate mogul from Ocean Township who became a cooperating witness in the investigation after he was arrested for bank fraud in 2006.

2. CHRISTIE ELECTED GOVERNOR: Responding to a tax-cut platform, recession-weary New Jersey voters chose Republican former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie in this year’s gubernatorial election, ousting Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine in a contentious race that, while close, led to the biggest GOP victory since 1970.

Christie took 49 percent of the vote and Corzine took 44 percent. Independent Chris Daggett, who had a strong debate performance but faded in the polls at the end of his campaign, won 6 percent.

Monmouth and Ocean counties proved their political clout in the race, delivering 22 percent of Christie’s vote.

3.”>THE FIGHT FOR SEAN GOLDMAN: Tinton Falls father”>David Goldman’s five-year international custody battle for his 9-year-old son Sean attracted attention worldwide this year as lawmakers, State Department officials and even President Barack Obama joined efforts to return Sean to the U.S. from Brazil, where he was living with Goldman’s former in-laws.

Goldman’s wife, now deceased, took their son to Brazil in 2004 and never returned. Her family and the man she married, a prominent and influential lawyer, fought off Goldman’s attempts to regain custody of Sean until last week, when a Brazilian judge ordered they turn the boy over to his father. Goldman and his son returned to the U.S. in time for Christmas.

4.”> ECONOMIC FALLOUT ON THE JERSEY SHORE: The longest recession since the Great Depression continued at least until the fall of this year, but its damage lingered all year. New Jersey and the Shore felt the pain.

From January to November, the state lost 88,900 jobs, and its unemployment rate rose from 7.3 percent to 9.7 percent. When the unemployment rate reached 9.8 percent in September, it marked the highest jobless rate since 1977, according to the state.

Behind the job losses was an economy trying to recover form the housing market’s collapse. Despite attempts this year to breathe life into the market with mortgage rate cuts and first-time homebuyer credits, the median price of an existing home in the region that includes the Shore was $343,800 during the third quarter, down 8.9 percent from $377,300 in the same quarter a year ago, according to the National Association of Realtors.

Still, some experts are hopeful that the worst is over.

“It was really a year of stabilization and setting a stage for what should be recovery in 2010,” Jeffrey Otteau, an East Brunswick-based real estate analyst.

5.”>SEX ABUSE IN THE LAKEWOOD ORTHODOX COMMUNITY: What some have called an epidemic of sexual abuse in Orthodox Jewish communities in Lakewood and elsewhere in the country was spotlighted this year as Jewish leaders, abuse survivors and activists clashed over how to deal with the problem.

While Lakewood’s rabbinical leaders strongly deny their residents are discouraged from reporting sex abuse to law enforcement, many critics said that’s exactly what has happened, and have blasted the internal tribunals set up to address abuse in the community as ineffective.

But changes began over the summer, as leaders in Lakewood planned seminars for teachers, clergy, parents and others on how to prevent and fight abuse. One rabbinical court that handled many of the town’s abuse allegations also was closed, and Orthodox leaders met with Ocean County prosecutors to fuse a joint approach to dealing with sex crimes.

“We blithely thought that religious values would keep this from happening,” said Ronald D. Price, the executive vice president of the Union for Traditional Judaism. “But enough evidence has come forward where you reach that tipping point, and a responsible leader has to acknowledge it, even if he doesn’t want to.”

6. EMINENT DOMAIN BATTLE ENDS IN LONG BRANCH: In September, an eight-year battle between a group of Long Branch residents and city officials over whether properties could be seized through eminent domain came to an end as both parties signed a settlement allowing residents to stay in their homes.

Members of the Marine Terrace, Ocean Terrace, Seaview Avenue Alliance had fought since 2003 to stop the redevelopment that threatened to level the working-class neighborhood that sits between Seven Presidents Oceanfront Park and the city’s first phase of the Beachfront North redevelopment project.

In what lawyers called a “complete win” for the homeowners, the consent order not only eliminated the use of eminent domain in the MTOTSA neighborhood, but gave property owners the right to act as their own redevelopers, providing incentives and five-year tax abatements on any improvements they make.

Long Branch Mayor Adam Schneider pledged residents in several communities would never again be threatened with the use of eminent domain in connection with redevelopment. He and other council members resisted efforts by one councilman to introduce an ordinance that would outlaw the use of eminent domain throughout the city.

7. THREE CONVICTED IN KILLING CONNECTED TO LAKEWOOD BARBERSHOP MURDER GET LIFE: The sentence was handed down early this month: Lee Reeves, Jamell Scott and James Russell, the three Lakewood men convicted of murdering 55-year-old Athelma Vasquez as she slept on a couch in her Lakewood apartment on Oct. 14, 2008, would serve life in prison.

Vasquez was shot to death the same day two of her killers and another man went on trial for the Feb. 7, 2006, murder of 21-year-old Jose Francisco Olivares in the Man, Woman and Child barbershop in Lakewood. Russell and Scott were sentenced to life in prison last year for that gang-related killing.

Prosecutors argued Vasquez was killed in an unsuccessful attempt to stop Christian Vivar Granados, the boyfriend of Vazquez’s daughter, Alisa Morales, from testifying at the barbershop murder trial. Morales and Granados also were supposed to be killed, but their lives were spared because Reeves’ gun jammed after he shot Vasquez, prosecutors said.

While Reeves expressed remorse for killing Vasquez at the sentencing, Scott and Russell both maintained their innocence, and their lawyers promised to appeal their convictions.

8”>. SOLOMON DWEK PLEADS GUILTY TO BANK FRAUD: In 2006, Solomon Dwek was a well-respected real estate mogul with a $300 million empire in seven states. Now, the 37-year-old son of a prominent Monmouth County rabbi is a community outcast and admitted felon facing up to 11 years in prison.

Dwek pleaded guilty Oct. 20 in federal court in Newark to one count each of money-laundering and bank fraud after admitting that he defrauded PNC Bank in 2006 by depositing a phony $25.2 million check — which was credited to his account before the checked cleared — and then wiring away $22.2 million the next day. A day later, he tried the same scam, which was rejected after PNC already lost millions.

But in the twists and turns of the four-year-long case, Dwek became the linchpin of a major FBI anti-corruption case in which 44 politicians, public officials and rabbis — some from his own Orthodox Jewish community in Ocean Township and Deal — were arrested in a sweeping corruption and money-laundering sting this July.

Dwek is free on a $10 million bond until his Feb. 9 sentencing. The U.S. Attorney’s Office has said it may recommend a lighter sentence based on Dwek’s ongoing cooperation.

9. LAKEWOOD POLICE SHOOTINGS: A September drug raid on a Lakewood house by a joint force of township police and federal, state and county officials ended in the first police shooting at the Shore in more than a decade.

Patrolmen Jonathan Wilson and Leonard Nieves Sr., Lt. Gregory Meyer and Sgt. Louis Sasso, all of the Lakewood Police Department, were shot by the target of the probe who was upstairs in the two-story house when the authorities, bearing a no-knock search warrant, forced their way into the home.

Wilson, a decorated, six-year veteran of the township police force, was shot in the face, and Meyer was shot in the foot; both were hospitalized and survived, though Wilson may never fully regain the ability to see form his left eye. Nieves and Sgt. Sasso were spared serious injuries by their bulletproof vests. The man police identified as the shooter, Jaime Gonzalez, 39, was critically wounded during the raid, and has since been charged with four counts of attempted murder and drug and weapons possession charges; two others have also been charged in connection with the incident.

10–George-E.-Smith–accepts-Nobel-Prize-in-Physics”>. LOCAL MAN WINS NOBEL PRIZE: In 1969, current Waretown resident George E. Smith was a researcher for Bell Labs in Union County, batting around ideas for improving data storage with co-worker Willard S. Boyle. Together, they sketched the CCD, a chip that transforms patterns of light into useful electrical information.

Their invention led directly to the development of a staggering array of imaging technologies, from digital cameras to high-powered astronomy telescopes. It also won them the Nobel Prize for physics this year.

Smith and his wife, Janet Murphy, traveled to Stockholm, Sweden earlier this month, where Smith accepted the award, which came with his share of the $1.4 million in prize money. In interviews, Smith was humble about the discovery that changed the way people everywhere see the world.

“I won’t tell you about all the times we sat at the blackboard and came up with duds,” he said.


Published in: on December 27, 2009 at 10:05 am  Comments (1)  
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