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Oct. 28 (Bloomberg) -- An Israeli man who brokered black- market sales of human kidneys in the U.S. arranged transplant surgeries at medical centers, including Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, according to five people familiar with the case.
Levy Izhak Rosenbaum, 60, pleaded guilty yesterday to three counts of organ trafficking and one count of conspiracy, becoming the first person convicted in the U.S. of organ trafficking. A 1984 U.S. law bans the sale of human organs.
He said in federal court in Trenton, New Jersey, that three ailing people paid him a total $410,000 to arrange the sale of kidneys from healthy donors, and an undercover FBI agent paid him $10,000.
Rosenbaum, who lives in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, was arrested in a July 2009 crackdown by the Federal Bureau of Investigation on money laundering and political corruption in New Jersey. After yesterday’s hearing, Rosenbaum’s lawyers depicted him as a lifesaver.
“The transplant surgeries occurred in prestigious American hospitals and were performed by experienced and expert kidney transplant surgeons,” attorneys Richard Finkel and Ronald Kleinberg said in a statement.
Rosenbaum admitted in court papers that he “would assist the donor and the recipient to coordinate a cover story to mislead hospital personnel into believing that the donation of the kidney was a purely voluntary act and not a commercial transaction.”
One Rosenbaum client used Johns Hopkins, according to the people familiar with the case. Rosenbaum sold a kidney to a New Jersey man who got a transplant there around three years ago, according to the people, who couldn’t be identified because the hospital hasn’t been publicly named.
Gary Stephenson, media relations director at Johns Hopkins, said he couldn’t comment on the case because of privacy law.
“All potential donors and recipients are interviewed multiple times by a team of providers during a rigorous screening process,” he said in a statement. “However, no matter how thorough our policies and procedures are, the pre- transplant evaluation may not detect premeditated and skillful attempts to undermine and deceive the evaluation process.”
U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman said Rosenbaum admitted he “was not new to the human kidney business when he was caught brokering what he thought was a black market deal.”
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,” Fishman said in a statement.
At yesterday’s plea hearing, Rosenbaum briefly described one of the three transactions to U.S. District Judge Anne Thompson.
“The son told me the father has kidney failure,” said Rosenbaum. “I helped him.”
Rosenbaum faces as long as five years in prison on each of the four counts. He also agreed to forfeit $420,000 and may be deported to Israel, where is a citizen. The judge set sentencing for Feb. 2.
Rosenbaum was arrested in a crackdown that netted several rabbis and mayors among the 44 people charged in New Jersey. The same cooperating witness, Solomon Dwek, who helped the government gather evidence in the corruption and laundering probes brought authorities to Rosenbaum.
The U.S. didn’t charge or identify any people who bought kidneys through Rosenbaum.
Started in 1999
Rosenbaum admitted details of a scheme that federal prosecutors outlined in a criminal complaint with his arrest. According to Rosenbaum’s statements to investigators, he began brokering kidney sales around 1999, recruited Israelis to sell their organs and charged Americans as much as $160,000 a kidney.
In court yesterday, Rosenbaum admitted that from 2006 to 2009 he recruited Israeli donors, arranged for their travel to the U.S. and their lodging, and set up blood tests to match them with recipients.
He told an undercover FBI agent that he had arranged “quite a lot” of transplants, according to the complaint.
“I’ve never had a failure,” he told the agent in a 2008 conversation quoted in the complaint.
Court papers don’t identify hospitals where Rosenbaum’s clients underwent transplants. Prosecutors haven’t accused hospitals or doctors of wrongdoing.
Rosenbaum’s defense attorneys said in a statement after the hearing that the transplants “were successful and the donors and recipients are now leading full and healthy lives.” They said that “each of the recipients had been on an official organ donor network waiting list for receipt of a kidney, but was unable to obtain a kidney and had little or no hope in obtaining a kidney through the waiting list system.”
Rosenbaum arrived in the U.S. from Israel after living in Australia, according to an acquaintance, Isaac Lichtenstein. In Brooklyn, he launched a company called Medicalink USA Inc. in 2000 and took control of a charity set up by a nephew.
The company and charity, called Kav Lachayim United Lifeline Inc., aimed to “help needy, sick and disabled people,” mostly Orthodox Jews, according to corporate filings and other records.
Court papers don’t say how much Rosenbaum made from his 10- year scheme. Beginning in 2003, he, his wife or a company he controlled bought four New York properties for a total of $5.1 million and built the 6,745-square-foot brick house where he lives, according to real estate records.
He previously rented a three-bedroom, two-bath apartment for about $1,500 a month, according to Yitzchok Krasne, who lives there now. In court, Rosenbaum said he worked in the real estate business.
In an interview, Rosenbaum’s sister-in-law, Rachel Rosenbaum, recalled an elderly man close to death telling Levy Rosenbaum that he was desperate for a kidney.
“So he helped him,” she said.
The case is U.S. v. Rosenbaum, 09-mag-3620, U.S. District Court, District of New Jersey (Trenton).
--Editors: Andrew Dunn, Charles Carter
To contact the reporters on this story: David Glovin in Trenton, New Jersey, at firstname.lastname@example.org; David Voreacos in Trenton, New Jersey, at email@example.com; Michael Smith in Santiago at Mssmith@bloomberg.net.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Hytha at firstname.lastname@example.org.