Saturday, July 14, 2012

Israeli citizen in Brooklyn sentenced to prison for illegally brokering kidney transplants

This gruesome item reminds me of the Eyes segment of the pilot movie for the television series Night Gallery (1969), in which Joan Crawford was a wealthy, middle-aged blind-from-birth woman offering to buy someone's eyes and have them transplanted, even if it meant that she would be able to see for just a few hours. As reported by Jason Grant of the Newark Star-Ledger, July 11, 2012 (updated July 12, 2012):

TRENTON — The 31-year-old man said he was lying on a hospital bed, getting anesthesia just before a four-to-five hour surgery to remove a kidney he had agreed to sell for $25,000 on the black market. He was having second thoughts and was asking his "caretaker" if he could still turn back.

"He was holding my hand, and he said it was not too late, but before I finished the conversation, I was gone" into unconsciousness, Elahn Quick testified Wednesday in federal court in Trenton. The next thing Quick remembered was coming to in the Minnesota hospital bed as a nurse shook him and called out: "Wake up, wake up, it’s done."

The caretaker had done nothing to stop the surgery, he testified. And soon after Quick lost his kidney, the friendship he thought he’d developed with convicted kidney broker Levy Itzhak Rosenbaum and his associate, a caretaker identified in court only as Ido, just disappeared, he said. He concluded they were in it only for the money.

Quick’s testimony would be among the more riveting moments during a dramatic daylong sentencing hearing in Trenton that ended with Rosenbaum — the first person convicted in the United States of brokering illegal kidney transplants for profit — getting 2½ years in prison.

"I prayed on it, and I felt like I was victimized," Quick said, moments after explaining his role in the 2008 transaction arranged by Rosenbaum, in which the broker connected a penniless Quick with a severely ill Brooklyn man whose family paid Rosenbaum $150,000 for the organ.

In addition to imposing the prison sentence, U.S. District Judge Anne Thompson ordered Rosenbaum to forfeit $420,000 he’d made as a kidney broker in Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn and New Jersey.

Emotional and divergent testimony painted Rosenbaum as both a "predator" who took advantage of people desperate for either a kidney or money and a "hero" who helped saved lives that would otherwise have been lost.

Beckie Cohen, the daughter of Max Cohen, a kidney recipient who paid Rosenbaum $150,000 to find a donor, called him a "hero."

"As far as I’m concerned, Isaac is a hero," Beckie Cohen said, even though, she said, she had taken the stand for the prosecution in exchange for immunity from being prosecuted herself.

"My father was dying, and the system was failing us," the Brooklyn resident testified, her eyes starting to tear, as she referred to her father’s five-year wait on a list that never produced the kidney she said he desperately needed.

Max Cohen, she said, is no longer bed-ridden or in pain, and is "up and about" and doing well.

The 61-year-old Rosenbaum, who pleaded guilty to his crimes last October after being swept up in the "Bid Rig III" FBI takedown of 2009, sat stoically for most of the hearing, wearing a dark suit and yarmulke, and at times stroking his white beard and mustache. An Israeli citizen who lives in Brooklyn, he spoke briefly, telling Thompson he’d done wrong in committing his crime, and that he’d never do it again.

Those attending the sentencing packed the courtroom and included more than 65 Orthodox Jewish men — mostly from Brooklyn and other areas of New York — and national advocates against organ trafficking — such as Nancy Scheper-Hughes of the group Organs Watch — who hoped Rosenbaum would be given a stiff sentence.

In the end, Thompson noted Rosenbaum clearly knew he was violating the law by brokering transactions in a system that is supposed to be based on donations. She said imposing a prison sentence on him would send an important deterrent message to society.

Thompson also noted Rosenbaum had faced a maximum prison sentence of 20 years, and she spoke highly of the detailed and extensive letters she’d received on his behalf — letters, she said, that seemed "authentic" and that convinced her he’d also led a very kind-hearted and charitable life before he got "caught up" in the money-oriented criminal business.

"This is a difficult case; it is not a prototype," Thompson said in the moments before handing down the sentence, which also included a $5,000 fine.

Noting that no one "suffered an ill result" in Rosenbaum’s enterprise, Thompson said the business nonetheless is "a kind of trading in human misery." If paying people to donate organs were legal, she said, then "of course, the most vulnerable people would be poor people," who may sell their organs and face risky surgeries for small amounts of money.

At the center of the three-year "Bid Rig" investigation that netted Rosenbaum was failed Monmouth County real estate investor Solomon Dwek, who faced charges in an unrelated case and became an undercover informant for the FBI. Rosenbaum’s connection to the high-profile sting had been a mystery, but it was later revealed Dwek had long known of the kidney broker.
And as reported by Mr. Grant on July 11, 2012:

TRENTON — ...In the “Bid Rig” sting, which came to light with arrests in July 2009, Rosenbaum tried to help the undercover Dwek procure a kidney for a person Dwek said he knew and was in need.

The price that Rosenbaum paid Dwek for his services in his illegal kidney operation was initially set at $150,000 and later grew to $160,000.

But the actual kidney sale was never allowed to proceed beyond an initial deposit paid by the undercover informant, Dwek.

Rosenbaum was alleged to have also bragged on surveillance recordings — which were released as part of a criminal complaint — that he had participated in many such black-market kidney deals.

In addition, at his October plea hearing before Thompson, he admitted arranging transplants for three other New Jersey patients with failing kidneys — all of whom underwent surgery in out-of-state hospitals after paying Rosenbaum. None of the patients or hospitals was named, nor were they charged in the case.

Rosenbaum's case served as one of the most bizarre chapters of the sweeping takedown that led to the arrests of 46 people on charges of money laundering and political corruption. Those charged included three mayors, two legislators and more than 20 candidates for public office who were accused of taking cash bribes to help green-light questionable development projects.

Separately, five Orthodox rabbis from Brooklyn and the Jersey Shore were charged with laundering millions of dollars through religious charities.

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