US law enforcement agents on Thursday arrested dozens of politicians and rabbis in an anti-corruption sweep alleging money laundering, extortion, bribery and even trafficking in human organs.
The stunning New Jersey swoop netted 44 people across a state long seen as one of the most corrupt and crime-ridden in the country.
Five rabbis were among the suspects, along with the mayors of the cities of Hoboken, Secaucus and Ridgefield, the Jersey City deputy mayor and council president, two state assembly members, and numerous other politicians, prosecutors said.
Acting US Attorney Ralph Marra told a press conference the arrests demonstrated "the pervasive nature of public corruption in this state."
The money laundering ring allegedly stretched from New Jersey and New York to Israel and Switzerland, while US politicians easily exploited loopholes in state law to disguise bribes as contributions in bitterly fought campaigns.
"The politicians willingly put themselves up for sale," said Marra, while "clergymen cloak their extensive criminal activity behind a facade of rectitude."
Although New Jersey is more famous for a history of Italian Mafia families, it was Jewish clergy who allegedly played a central role in this crime network.
The Department of Justice said in a statement that the international network "laundered at least tens of millions of dollars through charitable, non-profit entities controlled by rabbis in New York and New Jersey."
The bribe-taking meanwhile was connected to fund raising efforts in "heavily contested mayoral and city council campaigns in Jersey City and Hoboken."
Authorities raided several synagogues and among those arrested was the chief rabbi of Syrian Jews in the United States.
One rabbi, Levy Izhak Rosenbaum, was also charged with conspiring to broker the sale of a human kidney for transplant.
Marra said that Rosenbaum's "business was to entice vulnerable people to give up a kidney for 10,000 dollars which he would turn around and sell for 160,000 dollars."
He'd allegedly been peddling kidneys for a decade.
Raids began shortly after dawn, officials said, targeting a who's who of state leaders.
Television footage showed FBI and tax agents bringing a stream of handcuffed suspects, including rabbis wearing traditional Orthodox Jewish garb, into custody in the city of Newark. Other suspects were shown being put onto a bus.
The operation was believed to be one of the biggest such actions ever in a state deeply associated with organized crime, and famous as the setting of the hit Mafia television drama the "Sopranos."
Officials said the arrests were part of an ongoing 10-year probe into statewide corruption code-named "Bid Rig."
If found guilty, suspects face prison sentences of up to 20 years for political extortion and money laundering, 10 years for offering bribes to officials, and five years for conspiring to transport human organs.
Democratic State Governor Jon Corzine said "the scale of corruption we're seeing as this unfolds is simply outrageous and cannot be tolerated."
"Any corruption is unacceptable -- anywhere, anytime, by anybody," he said in a statement.
The dramatic crackdown came as Chris Christie, a crusading former US attorney, stepped up his campaign against Corzine in an election this November.
Christie, a Republican, previously won fame for his relentless and successful prosecution of political corruption in New Jersey.
Corzine is battling widespread dissatisfaction with his performance as the state reels from the national recession, spending cuts, and shorter working weeks for state employees.
FBI agent Weysan Dun was quick to deny any political motivation behind the arrests, a majority of which appeared to involve Democrats, rather than Republicans.
"This investigation has transcended multiple administrations of both political parties," he said.
This is "not about politics, certainly not about religion. It is about crime. It is about criminals who use politics and religion."