NEW YORK - Dennis Elwell, the Democratic mayor of Secaucus, New Jersey, resigned on Tuesday following his arrest last week as part of a federal corruption probe that netted 44 people.
The resignation is effective immediately, said Elwell's lawyer, Jeffrey Garrigan of Jersey City-based law firm Cammarata, Nulty & Garrigan LLC.
Elwell was charged by U.S. Justice Department officials with conspiracy to commit extortion for accepting bribes to smooth a hotel project. The mayor stepped down in the interests of his family and the citizens of Secaucus, and he maintains his innocence of all charges, the lawyer said.
Those who perceive this action to be an admission of culpability as to the pending criminal allegations are gravely mistaken, Garrigan said in a statement.
Dennis pleaded not guilty to the charges, is presumed innocent and will vigorously defend the unproven allegations made against him, the lawyer said.
Elwell is the first elected New Jersey official to resign after federal investigators on July 23 announced the arrests of public officials, including three mayors, a deputy mayor, two state legislators and a group of prominent rabbis.
The arrests came after a 10-year investigation into political corruption, money laundering and human organ sales that stretched from New York to Israel.
Democratic Governor Jon Corzine called for the resignation of all local and state officials swept up in the probe, which he said had uncovered a deep vein of corruption in the state.
Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean on Tuesday called for an immediate meeting of the state's Local Finance Board to consider taking emergency control of cities that he said have been thrown into turmoil by the refusal of public officials to resign after their arrests.
Community Affairs Commissioner Joe Doria, a former Bayonne mayor whose home was searched, resigned from his appointed position last week at Corzine's request. Doria, who has not been charged, helped municipalities handle their finances, including tax exempt bond sales.
But other officials have rejected the call to step down. Peter Cammarano, the Democratic mayor of Hoboken, has defied calls from community organizations to resign, saying he has not done anything wrong.
David Drumeler, the administrator for Secaucus, said the government would continue to operate as usual.
We want to reassure the residents of the town of Secaucus that the government will continue to be here on a daily basis, the administrator said.
New Jersey has long been bedeviled by political corruption, and the latest scandal has undermined Corzine's campaign for re-election in November as it plays to the strength of the Republican challenger, Chris Christie, a former graft-fighting federal prosecutor.
The latest poll from Raleigh, North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling, released on Tuesday, shows Christie has pulled further ahead of Corzine since news of the probe.
A survey of 552 New Jersey voters conducted between July 24 and July 27 gave Christie a 14 point lead over Corzine, up from a 10 point lead at the end of June.
The margin of error was plus or minus 4.2 percent, the polling group said.
A new Secaucus mayor will be chosen from three Democrats whose names are submitted to the Council, the town administrator said.
If the Council does not act within 30 days, the Democratic municipal committee, whose members represent each district and ward, will then vote to fill the post.
The next mayoral election will take place in November, Drumeler said.
(Reporting by Joan Gralla and Ciara Linnane; Editing by Kenneth Barry)