Kidney "matchmaker" pleads guilty in organ trafficking case
A New York man pleaded guilty Thursday to buying human kidneys overseas to be transplanted into American patients, an act that prosecutors called a crime but that the defense said was a lifesaving service.
U.S. officials said it was the first U.S. conviction for illegal sales of human organs.
Levy Izhak Rosenbaum, 60, could face up to 20 years in prison and a hefty fine after pleading guilty in federal court in Trenton, N.J., to brokering three illegal kidney transplants. He also admitted to one count of conspiring to broker an illegal kidney sale. According to prosecutors, he procured the kidneys from sellers in Israel for customers in New Jersey, who paid at least $120,000 per transaction.
Rosenbaum, who lives in Brooklyn, was arrested in 2009 in a sweeping crackdown on corruption in New Jersey, which also netted politicians and rabbis. A government informant had recorded Rosenbaum setting up what was supposedly a kidney sale for a man seeking an organ for his sick uncle.
On the tape, Rosenbaum was heard describing himself as "a matchmaker" with extensive experience pairing kidneys with patients who preferred to pay cash for them rather than wait for donor organs to become available through hospitals. Rosenbaum got the kidneys from people in Israel, who sold them for $10,000 each.
Under 1984 federal law, it is illegal to buy or sell human organs for transplants. But waits for lifesaving transplants can stretch for years, leading to a global black market for kidneys in particular. According to information from the Department of Health and Human Services, there are more than 90,000 people waiting for kidneys in the United States, making it by far the most sought-after organ.
Kidneys also are popular among traffickers because they can be harvested from live donors, Art Caplan of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Bioethics said, according to the Associated Press. Caplan told the AP that internationally, about one-quarter of all kidneys may be trafficked, and he called Rosenbaum's actions "heinous."
But defense attorneys Ronald Kleinberg and Richard Finkel argued in a statement that Rosenbaum had helped people by arranging operations that were done safely in U.S. hospitals, which have not been named in court documents. "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."
Prosecutors said Rosenbaum took advantage of people in Israel, who sold their organs, and of desperately ill Americans willing to pay huge amounts for lifesaving treatment.
"A black market in human organs is not only a grave threat to public health, it reserves life-saving treatment for those who can best afford it at the expense of those who cannot," said New Jersey's U.S. attorney, Paul Fishman.
Read more about the case in this FBI statement on Thursday's developments.
Rosenbaum is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 2. Until then, he was ordered to remain under house arrest with electronic monitoring.
-- Tina Susman in New York
Photo: Levy Izhak Rosenbaum after his arrest in 2009. Credit: Mel Evans / Associated Press