Friday, July 24, 2009
Woke Up This Morning, Got Yourself A Gun
The arrests on Thursday of 44 people in New York and New Jersey laid out the plot for a fictious eighth season of The Sopranos in which Tony Soprano [portrayed by James Gandolfini, above] would get ensnared.
I'd forgotten how much I miss The Sopranos. The drama, violence, comedic stupidity, tension, sexual perversion...that's entertainment. What reminded me that I really, really miss The Sopranos was the arrest on Thursday of 44 would-be characters for a fictitious eighth season of the Emmy-winning HBO series. While they're real-life - as will be the jail terms many of these idiots are looking at - they could've just as easily been created by David Chase or any of the other Sopranos' writers.
In this eighth season, Tony - no, folks, he didn't get whacked in that diner. He passed out from hunger waiting for Meadow to finally show up - and the [new] gang get snared in an international money-laundering investigation stretching from the Jersey Shore to Brooklyn to Israel and Switzerland, culminating in the season-finale where charges are filed against 44 people - including Tony...and Carmela. Oh, it also snags three New Jersey mayors, two state assemblymen and - for comedic levity - five rabbis.
In real life, these 44 who were arrested on Thursday are a combination of criminal, stupid, and unlucky - a recipe for getting indicted, I believe. The real-life case began with bank fraud charges against a member of a virtually unknown and insular Syrian Jewish enclave centered in the seaside Jersey town of Deal. But when that man became a federal informant and posed as a crooked real estate developer offering cash bribes to obtain government approvals, Jersey pols, teamsters and a cast of others nearly fell over one another trying to get in on the payoffs. Thus what had been a small bank fraud investigation mushroomed into a political scandal that would lead television writers to call this fictious eighth season of The Sopranos "the fucking best ever" - says David Hinkley of the New York Daily News.
The story would be 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. "Sil," Tony would say - yes, Silvio survived that assassination attempt; the fact that Tony never visited him during his convalescence [in contrast to Sil's vigil at the hospital when Tony was shot] would be an underlying theme throughout the season, leaving the viewer to wonder if Silvio was plotting to whack Tony - "what the fuck?!? Apple Jacks!?? Jesus, you're worse than [the late] Bobby [Baccala]. Everything's food with you!"
Ralph J. Marra Jr., is the real-life Acting United States Attorney in New Jersey. He'd be played - in another one of those eclectic castings along the lines of Stevie VanZandt or Frankie Valli - by Jon Bon Jovi. At the news conference announcing the indictments at the end of the season, Bon Jovi - hair slicked back with more oil than you'd find in the Hudson on any given morning - would say, “These people existed in an ethics-free zone. Against these criminals, average citizens don’t have a chance. The culture of influence peddling this investigation has unearthed is breathtaking." The fact that Bon Jovi had appeared earlier in season eight - at the annual high-stakes poker game Tony runs [which also featured cameos by Bill Clinton, Bono and - inexplicably - Kenny Rogers] would make his appearance in the season-finale all-the-more shocking.
In real life, yesterday's indictments saw the arrests of the mayors of Hoboken, Secaucus and Ridgefield, New Jersey. The Hoboken mayor has been in office 22 days, by the way. I believe that is a record for getting indicted, even in the state of New Jersey. Also, in real life, the arrests had immediate reverberations in the New Jersey governor’s race, as a member of Gov. Jon S. Corzine's [D] administration was forced to resign after federal agents raided his home.
The real life situation would've been a great season plot: there would be two separate schemes, one involving money laundering that led to rabbis and members of the Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn and in the Jersey Shore town of Deal, where many of them have summer homes. The other scheme would have dealt with political corruption and bribery and involved public officials mostly in Jersey City and Hoboken, site of the famous Soprano/Esplande development from earlier seasons of the series.
Linking the two schemes would be a federal informant. In real life, the guy's name is Solomon Dwek, a failed real estate developer and philanthropist who was arrested in May 2006 on charges of passing a bad $25 million check at a bank in Monmouth County, N.J. In the series, Dwek would be played by Jason Earles, better knowns as Jackson Stewart in Hannah Montana. I told you Chase's castings are brilliant.
In real life, Dwek helped investigators penetrate an extensive network of money laundering that involved rabbis in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, where the Syrian Jewish community is based, and in Deal and Elberon, towns on the Jersey Shore. Dwek, a well-known member of the Syrian Jewish community whose parents founded the Deal Yeshiva, would make a great character once he was introduced in season eight. The guy was so brazen, he never even concealed from the Goodfellas and pols he was entrapping that he was facing bank fraud charges. Instead, he told his targets, who included three rabbis in Brooklyn and two in New Jersey, that he was bankrupt and trying to conceal his assets. Dwek needed a favor if he was going to be able to conceal his money, and that favor would net the targets lost of cash. Dwek proposed that the targets accept bank checks Dwek made out to charities that the targets oversaw. The targets would deduct a fee [the cash payoff], and would then return the rest to Dwek in cash. The targets - many who were arrested Thursday - agreed. Much of the cash they provided Dwek came from Israel, and some of that in turn came from a Swiss banker. All told, some $3 million was laundered for Dwek since June 2007.
That money-laundering angle - small potatoes - turned into a focus on public corruption after one of the men accused of money laundering, Moshe Altman of Monsey, N.Y., a Hudson County developer, introduced Zwek to a politically connected building inspector in Jersey City, who then steered him to another city official, Maher Khalil. In The Sopranos season, Altman would be Hesh. Still pissed off at the way Tony treated him during season seven when Hesh insisted on Tony repaying his $200,000 "loan", Hesh would have gotten Tony involved by asking Tony to get Dwek/Earles hooked up with Jersey City official Khalil - played brilliantly by....hold your breath: Justin Timberlake. Who knew the little creep could really act?
Anyway, the real-life Khalil is accused of accepting $30,000 in bribes from Dwek. Khalil in return made a series of referrals to what he called “players,” helping Dwek to branch out to a web of public officials, mayoral and council candidates, and their confidants. Dwek — now operating under an assumed identity — honed an approach: introduced to a local influence-peddler, he would say he was looking to build high-rises or other projects in their city or county. He would offer $5,000 in cash for an upcoming campaign, or as a straight-up bribe, with the promise of more to come, and with earnest pleas that his official requests be “taken care of.” And he would pull the money out of the trunk of his car. Dwek also came up with a lingo: corrupt payments were “invitations,” approvals for development projects were “opportunities.” The communities where his pitch appears to have worked included Jersey City, Hoboken, Bayonne, Ridgefield and parts of Ocean County.
Among the public officials arrested in real life on Thursday were Mayor Peter J. Cammarano III of Hoboken, who was a City Council member before he took office as mayor on July 1, and Mayor Dennis Elwell of Secaucus, both Democrats; Assemblyman L. Harvey Smith of Jersey City, also a Democrat; and Assemblyman Daniel M. Van Pelt, a Republican from Ocean County. For The Sopranos, Cammarano - again, in a brilliant piece of casting only a guy like David Chase could get away with - is played by disgraced former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey. Elwell and Smith would be played by two of those 'used-to-be-real-mobsters-now-they-act-on-The-Sopranos' guys. Van Pelt, though, would be the jewel of casting: Chase would cast Larry Hagman to play him.
Like some of the others arrested, the real life Assemblyman Smith from Jersey City ironically ran for office on an anticorruption platform, telling the New York Times: “I don’t take cash. I don’t let people give me things.” He is charged with taking $15,000 in bribes.
The real-life Van Pelt, who sits on an assembly committee that oversees the Department of Environmental Protection, accepted money to help the informant obtain environmental permits. On The Sopranos, Hagman - playing Van Pelt - would meet in Atlantic City with Earles - playing Dwek - assuring the informant that the environmental agency “worked for” him. Hagman would then take $10,000 in cash and tell Earles to call him “any time.”
In real life, the bulk of the corruption charges arose in Hudson County. The president of the City Council in Jersey City, Mariano Vega Jr., and the city’s deputy mayor, Leona Beldini, were also arrested. Vega took three $10,000 payments before and after the municipal elections in May. Anthony R. Suarez, the mayor of Ridgefield, in Bergen County, was charged with accepting $10,000 in bribes.
As we saw throughout the run of The Sopranos, the court papers detailed the ease and relatively modest payments with which local officials seemed willing to be part of criminal schemes. In Hoboken, for example, Cammarano, then a councilman running for mayor who - in The Sopranos - would have been played by Freddie Prinz, Jr. - eagerly agreed in a meeting at the Malibu Diner this year to help Dwek with his projects in exchange for cash. Dwek asked for assurances that his requests would be expedited by the Hoboken City Council. Cammarano replied, “I promise you,” adding, “You’re going to be, you’re going to be treated like a friend.” Dwek responded that he would give a middleman $5,000 in cash for Cammarano and another $5,000 after his election as mayor. “O.K.,” Cammarano replied. “Beautiful, ” although the real life Cammarano expressed confidence that he would be elected no matter what. “Right now, the Italians, the Hispanics, the seniors are locked down. Nothing can change that now." In a brilliant foreshadow, Prinz, Jr. would say, “I could be, uh, indicted, and I’m still going to win 85 to 95 percent of those populations.”
For comic relief, we'd have the money laundering scheme I spoke of earlier. In real life, Thursday saw a series of rabbis arrested. These included Saul J. Kassin, 87, a leader of the Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn and New Jersey; Mordchai Fish and Lavel Schwartz, both rabbis in Brooklyn; and Eliahu Ben Haim and Edmund Nahum, who lead congregations in Deal.
Rabbi Nahum - who would've been played by another brilliant casting decision: Jackie Mason - told Dwek that he should spread his money through a number of rabbis. “The more it’s spread the better,” Mason would tell Earles on the series, in that delivery that only Jackie Mason could do.
In true comedic tradition, another man in Brooklyn, Levy-Izhak Rosenbaum, enticed vulnerable people to give up a kidney for $10,000 and then promised to sell the organ for $160,000. Dwek pretended to be soliciting a kidney on behalf of someone and Rosenbaum said that he had been in business of buying organs for years.
Back to the governor's race. Corzine is facing off against former United States Attorney Christopher J. Christie, a Republican, under whom the investigation began. And, as mentioned earlier, Corzine's administration was caught up in the arrests Thursday. Agents raided the home of Joseph V. Doria Jr., commissioner of the state’s Department of Community Affairs. Doria, who is also the former mayor of Bayonne, resigned hours later at Governor Corzine’s request.
On The Sopranos, Corzine - portrayed brilliantly by Rob Reiner - would bellow, “Any corruption is unacceptable — anywhere, anytime, by anybody. The scale of corruption we’re seeing as this unfolds is simply outrageous and cannot be tolerated.” In real life, Corzine also called for the resignations of Assemblymen Smith and Van Pelt.
Season eight would fade out with Tony and Carmella both in separate holding cells awating arraignment. In their last scene together, Tony and Carmella would pass each other as they were being led to their respective arraignments. Carmella would eye Tony and bitterly say under her breath, "I should've left you when I had the fucking chance." Viewers would wonder if that's a prelude to Carmella ratting out Tony; we'd still wonder about Silvio...and we'd all be looking forward to season nine. In lieu of that, though, at least we have the upcoming trials of these 44 idiots.
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