TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - A New York man pleaded guilty Thursday to what experts said was the first ever proven case of black-market organ trafficking in the United States.
Levy Izhak Rosenbaum admitted in federal court in Trenton that he had brokered three illegal kidney transplants for New Jersey-based customers in exchange for payments of $120,000 or more. He also pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to broker an illegal kidney sale.
His attorneys, Ronald Kleinberg and Richard Finkel, said in a statement their client had performed a life-saving service for desperately ill people who had been languishing on official transplant waiting lists.
"The transplants were successful and the donors and recipients are now leading full and healthy lives," the statement said. "In fact, because of the transplants and for the first time in many years, the recipients are no longer burdened by the medical and substantial health dangers associated with dialysis and kidney failure."
The lawyers added Rosenbaum had never solicited clients, but recipients had sought him out, and the donors he arranged to give up kidneys were fully aware of what they were doing. The money involved, they argued, was for expenses associated with the procedures, which they claim were performed in prestigious American hospitals by experienced surgeons and transplant experts. The lawyers did not name the hospitals involved, nor are they named in court documents.
Prosecutors argued Rosenbaum was fully aware he was running an illicit and profitable operation - buying organs from vulnerable people in Israel for $10,000, and selling them to desperate, wealthy American patients.
"A black market in human organs is not only a grave threat to public health, it reserves lifesaving treatment for those who can best afford it at the expense of those who cannot," said New Jersey's U.S. Attorney, Paul Fishman. "We will not tolerate such an affront to human dignity."
Each of the four counts carries a maximum five-year prison sentence plus a fine of up to $250,000. Rosenbaum also agreed to forfeit $420,000 in real or personal property that was derived from the illegal kidney sales.
The 60-year-old Rosenbaum is a member of the Orthodox Jewish community in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn, where he had told neighbors he was in the construction business.
He was arrested in July 2009 in a sweeping federal case that became the largest corruption sting in New Jersey history. Though he was one of more than 40 people arrested, including politicians and rabbis in New Jersey and Brooklyn, and was not a rabbi himself, the image of rabbis illegally selling kidneys garnered international headlines and made its way into the routines of late-night comedians for weeks afterward.
Rosenbaum was arrested after he tried to set up a kidney sale to a man posing as a crooked businessman but who actually was government informant Solomon Dwek, a disgraced real estate speculator facing prison time for a $50 million bank fraud.
Dwek, wearing a wire for federal investigators, brought Rosenbaum an undercover FBI agent posing as his secretary, who claimed to be searching for a kidney for a sick uncle on dialysis who was on a transplant list at a Philadelphia hospital.
"I am what you call a matchmaker," Rosenbaum said in a secretly recorded conversation. "I bring a guy (who) I believe, he's suitable for your uncle."
Asked how many organs he had brokered, he said: "Quite a lot," the most recent two weeks earlier.
For someone who was not a surgeon, Rosenbaum seemed in his recorded conversations to have a thorough knowledge of the ins and outs of kidney donations, including how to fool hospitals into believing the donor was acting solely out of compassion for a friend or loved one.
He was recorded saying money had to be spread around liberally, to Israeli doctors, visa preparers and those who cared for the organ donors in this country. "One of the reasons it's so expensive is because you have to shmear (pay others) all the time," he was quoted as saying.
"So far, I've never had a failure," he bragged on tape. "I'm doing this a long time."
At a 2008 meeting with the undercover agent, Rosenbaum claimed he had an associate who worked for an insurance company in Brooklyn who could take the recipient's blood samples, store them on dry ice and send them to Israel, where they would be tested to see if they matched the prospective donor, authorities said. Donors would then be brought from Israel and undergo surgery to remove the kidney in a U.S. hospital, according to court documents.