One man ran a Mafia-controlled brokerage that fleeced investors out of millions. Another was an admitted drug user who once ordered a murder. Yet another operated a Ponzi scheme right under the nose of his employer -- the U.S. government.
To that rogue's gallery of federal snitches add the name of Solomon Dwek, the failed New Jersey real estate tycoon at the center of the biggest corruption sting in the state's history.
When Dwek takes the witness stand, possibly as early as next month, the success of the government's cases against potentially dozens of defendants will hinge on whether prosecutors can persuade a jury to believe a man who recently pleaded guilty to a $23 million bank fraud.
"Jurors don't like it when the government's star witness is a far worse criminal than the people he's testifying against,'' said Bradley Simon, a white-collar criminal defense attorney and former federal prosecutor.
Forty-four people were arrested in New Jersey in July, about half of them public officials accused of accepting money from Dwek in exchange for helping him gain zoning approvals and other permits for fictitious building projects. The U.S. Attorney's Office did not return a message seeking comment on Dwek's criminal history.
While prosecutors in New Jersey have a perfect record in corruption cases this decade -- nearly 150 people have pleaded guilty or been convicted -- the challenge in prosecuting the cases that make up Operation Bid Rig is multilayered.
Aside from Dwek's recent guilty plea, he faces lawsuits stemming from an alleged real estate Ponzi scheme in which he and others are accused of forging the signatures of unsuspecting property owners.
Jurors likely will hear defense attorneys argue that rather than reporting on existing criminal activity, Dwek was a government-sponsored instigator who helped create the crimes with which others now are charged.
Without evidence that Dwek and the defendants knew each other previously, it can be more difficult for prosecutors to use what attorney Rocco Cipparone calls the "association argument.''
"This isn't a situation of like-minded people hanging out with each other,'' said Cipparone, whose clients have included one of the five men convicted of plotting to kill soldiers at Fort Dix in 2006. He is not representing any Bid Rig clients. "If an informant is injected into the situation cold, you've lost the potency of that argument.''
Here's the other thing about government witnesses: Unsavory as they may be, they usually earn convictions.
Some of the colorful characters who have graced area courtrooms in recent years include:
-- Besnik Bakalli and Mahmoud Omar, who helped the government win convictions in the Fort Dix case last year -- but not before admitting smoking marijuana, ordering a killing and engaging in bank fraud (Omar) and shooting a man in a family feud (Bakalli).