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'Black market' cash-for-kidneys trader Rosenbaum gets 2-1/2 years in prison

Mel Evans / AP

Levy Izhak Rosenbaum, a 61-year old Israeli citizen who lived in Brooklyn who pleaded guilty last October to charges that he brokered kidney transplants between paid donors and recipients, was sentenced to 2-1/2 years in prison.

NEW YORK -- An Israeli man who pleaded guilty to illegally brokering kidney transplants for profit in the United States, the first such conviction under federal law, was sentenced on Wednesday to two-and-a-half years in prison, prosecutors said.

Levy Izhak Rosenbaum, a 61-year old Israeli citizen who lived in Brooklyn, pleaded guilty last October to charges that he brokered kidney transplants between paid donors and recipients on three occasions.

Prosecutors said Rosenbaum charged between $120,000 and $150,000 to help three New Jersey residents find kidneys for transplant between 2006 and 2009.

He also pleaded to a count of conspiracy to broker a fourth kidney transaction following a sting operation leading to his arrest involving an undercover FBI agent who pretended to have a sick uncle.

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Prosecutors said Rosenbaum typically found donors in Israel through newspaper advertisements who were willing to give up a kidney in exchange for payment, and that he helped arrange the necessary blood tests to ensure a match and for the donors' travel to the United States.

As part of his service, he also helped donors and recipients invent a cover story to trick hospital staff into thinking the donation was a purely altruistic exchange between friends or relatives, which is legal, rather than an illegal business deal, according to prosecutors.

At least one relative of a kidney recipient spoke in defense of Rosenbaum at the hearing at the U.S. District Court in Trenton, New Jersey, on Wednesday, saying he was a hero who helped save her father's life, local media reported.

"My father was dying, and the system was failing us," Brooklyn resident Beckie Cohen said of her father's five-year wait on a kidney transplant list, according to New Jersey's Star-Ledger newspaper.

Nevertheless, one of the donors, who agreed to cooperate with the government's case in exchange for immunity from prosecution, described to the court that he felt exploited by Rosenbaum.

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Elahn Quick, who agreed to have his kidney removed for $25,000, said he was having second thoughts as he lay on the hospital bed and raised it with his "caretaker," identified as a Rosenbaum associate named Ido. Quick described how the caretaker reassured him but before anything could be done to cancel or delay the surgery, he slipped out of consciousness.

"He was holding my hand, and he said it was not too late, but before I finished the conversation, I was gone," Quick said according to the Star-Ledger. He awoke hours later, after the surgery, to a nurse shaking him. The caretaker had disappeared, he said.

'Right into his pocket'
U.S. District Judge Anne Thompson also ordered Rosenbaum to forfeit $420,000 that he made during his time trading kidneys for cash in Brooklyn.

According to the paper, Thompson said that based on multiple letters she received on Rosenbaum's behalf, she believed he was a charitable person before he got "caught up" in the illegal business.

"This is a difficult case; it is not a prototype," she said in court before handing out the sentence, which could have been as high as 20 years, the Star-Ledger reported.

Rosenbaum's sentence also includes a $5,000 fine.

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Paul J. Fishman, the New Jersey U.S. Attorney, whose office prosecuted the case, said Rosenbaum was motivated by profit, not the saving of lives.

"A black market where the moneyed sick can buy replacement parts from the less fortunate is not only grim, it apportions lifesaving treatments unfairly, insults donor dignity, and violates the law," Fishman said in a statement following the sentencing by Judge Thompson.

"Prison is an appropriate punishment for Levy Rosenbaum's illegal capitalization on others' desperation. Although Rosenbaum painted himself as a benevolent kidney matchmaker, the criminal profits went right into his pocket."

Rosenbaum's lawyers could not immediately be reached for comment. Rosenbaum had been facing up to five years in prison for each of the four counts to which he pleaded guilty, prosecutors said.

Rosenbaum is due to begin his sentence on October 12. As he is not a U.S. citizen, immigration authorities will decide whether to attempt to deport him once he has finished his sentence.

Msnbc.com staff and Reuters contributed to this report.

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