Hearing delayed for NJ corruption defendants

AP News
Posted: Mar 16, 2011 3:04 PM
Hearing delayed for NJ corruption defendants

Several defendants arrested in New Jersey's massive corruption sting who face the possible dismissal of their cases over a legal misstep were told Wednesday they will have to wait another month while the government decides whether to fight a court ruling.

A hearing scheduled for Wednesday morning was postponed for five defendants, four of them unsuccessful candidates for the Jersey City's municipal council in 2009.

They were among 44 people arrested in July 2009 and were accused of accepting money from a government informant posing as a corrupt developer. But U.S. District Judge Jose Linares last year threw out the most serious charge, extortion conspiracy, against brothers Louis and Ronald Manzo, on the grounds that federal law covers public officials who accept money, but not candidates for public office who do so.

In a 3-0 ruling last month, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Linares' decision, which affects the cases involving defendants Lavern Webb-Washington, James King and Lori Serrano. Those three and the Manzos appeared in Linares' courtroom for a scheduled hearing Wednesday but were told the hearing was postponed after the government requested additional time to decide whether to appeal.

That appeal could come in the form of a request to have the full 3rd Circuit consider the ruling, or the U.S. Attorney's Office could appeal the case directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Through a spokeswoman, U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman didn't comment on the case Wednesday.

Two other affected candidates who have pleaded guilty already, former Hudson County Board of Elections investigator Denis Jaslow and former Jersey City fire arson investigator Michael Manzo (no relation to Louis and Ronald), are scheduled to appear before Linares later this month but could have those hearings postponed as well.

"Starting on July 23, 2009, my life was over," Louis Manzo said outside court. "I knew I didn't do anything wrong. I thought the one thing I could do with this appeal was to make sure this kind of thing never happens again, and to show the public what a corrupt prosecution is."

Some of the defendants have additional charges pending against them; for example, the Manzos each face bribery and mail fraud counts, but their attorneys could argue for the dismissal of those, as well.

About half of the defendants arrested in 2009 have pleaded guilty, but the government's record in trials has been mixed: Three defendants have been convicted and two, Ridgefield Mayor Anthony Suarez and former state Assemblyman L. Harvey Smith, were acquitted. The acquittals represented the first defeats in corruption cases for the U.S. attorney's office in New Jersey in more than 10 years.

In addition, charges were dropped in November against another defendant, Richard Greene, who had been accused of passing money from the informant to Smith.