It began with the best of intentions a week ago Tuesday, a simple taping of a public access political forum between candidates for the upcoming election for Hudson County freeholder.
It ended with some of the most bizarre circumstances ever witnessed, with accusations of political shenanigans and tomfoolery, of candidates being censured and silenced, allegedly by an existing political regime. It featured the appearance of several police officials, an attempt to seize a videotape, and pure bedlam – depending upon whose side of the story one believes.
Here’s what is definitely known:
A public access television show entitled “Talking Politics,” hosted by Jersey City resident Bob DuVal and produced by a trio of Jersey City’s most prominent political activists – Mia Scanga, Vito Brunetti and Yvonne Balcer – was set to be videotaped at High Tech High School in North Bergen last Tuesday evening.
The show, which had been taped at the location twice before last week, was to feature current Hudson County Freeholder Maurice Fitzgibbons and several other candidates running in the June 4 Democratic primary for Freeholder, including Tom Murphy of Jersey City and Russell Pascale of North Bergen, a known adversary of North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco.
The half-hour show was apparently going along smoothly for some 25 minutes, when DuVal apparently asked a question about politicians holding multiple positions.
That’s when Pascale began to mention Mayor Sacco and the litany of positions that the mayor holds, including state senator and North Bergen assistant superintendent of schools. Soon after, the mayhem apparently began. Several Hudson County sheriff’s officers, acting on an apparent complaint call, arrived on the scene. The actual number of officers differs depending on the witness. Some say as many as 15 sheriff’s officers were there. Others say that there were five. But it was definitely more than a handful.
North Bergen police also arrived on the scene as well. Again, the numbers of actual officers differ, but police records distinctly show that two officers were summoned to the site – and only after receiving a call from Pascale’s political ally and fellow Sacco foe, Edward “Bo” Scannavino.
There were also reports that someone from the security department at the school – apparently the lieutenant in charge of the school’s security and the law enforcement officer, Brian Guaschino – confiscated the tape and kept it away from the producers of the program. Guaschino steadfastly maintains he was strictly doing his job.
So what is the true story of what happened? The entire scenario seems bizarre.
What the heck happened?
Pascale believes that the whole fiasco is the work of Sacco, whom Pascale believes ordered the apparent raid in an attempt to silence him from speaking ill of him on television.
“Who else would have the ability to get seven officers there to take that tape in the matter of five minutes?” Pascale said during the public portion of the North Bergen Board of Commissioners’ meeting a week ago Wednesday, a day after the incident. “It was you, Nick Sacco. How low can you stoop? It’s vicious and unbelievable. What about freedom of the press?”
Sacco never acknowledged Pascale during the meeting.
Pascale said that he is sure that Sacco was behind the incident.
“I’m saying that it’s Sacco,” Pascale said. “But this is not about Russell Pascale or Nick Sacco or Thomas Liggio [the other candidate for Freeholder, who did not participate in the forum]. This is about freedom of speech and the freedoms that so many people gave their lives for. To shut down a debate, then attack me in public, is ridiculous. The fact how the whole thing was done is mind-boggling. The show was geared to let people have a voice, but then this happens.”
Producer Mia Scanga, an accountant and resident of Jersey City, said that the incident began within minutes of Pascale’s mentioning of Sacco’s different positions.
“I’m telling you, it was within two minutes of the Sacco comment,” Scanga said. “At that point, Brian [Guaschino] is at the door, saying that he has to shut us down because we didn’t have the proper forms. I said that we only had about three minutes left in the show, so could we continue and then talk about it after, and he was insistent to stop the taping right there. I was trying to whisper because the taping was still going on. But everyone became very animated in a hurry. And then the cops were there.”
According to Guaschino, the taping was shut down because the producers of the show did not have proper clearance to use the facilities.
An employee who works at High Tech set up the show’s taping, but also did not get approval from the Hudson County Schools of Technology’s Board of Education to use the facilities, Guaschino said. That person apparently let the producers into the building.
“Whenever anybody has a function in the school, of any kind, it has to be approved,” Guaschino said. “This TV production was never approved. They didn’t have proper authorization to be there. Since that was the case, I had to shut it down.”
However, Scanga said that there were several other political public access shows taped at the school in the past and nothing was ever said before.
“I was involved with another show, ‘Discerning Opinions,’ that was taped there at least five years ago,” Scanga said. “We already had shot two shows [one featuring Jersey Journal columnists Earl Morgan and Peter Weiss and another featuring Jersey City politicians Gerry McCann, Bill O’Dea and Eliu Rivera]. So this was not the first time we were using the facilities for a taped political forum. So it was nothing new.”
Guaschino said that he denies Pascale’s claim that he confiscated the tape, then ran around with the tape while sheriff’s officers chased after him through the halls of the school.
“That is absolutely false,” Guaschino said.
However, Scanga said that she saw Guaschino running through the halls of the school with the tape in hand.
Guaschino was a track and field standout at both North Bergen High School and the University of Tennessee and is a member of the Hudson County Sports Hall of Fame.
Guaschino said that he was not the one who called the Hudson County sheriff’s officers. In fact, it has not been determined how the officers arrived on the scene. Several phone calls were made to Hudson County Sheriff Joseph Cassidy, but those calls went unreturned.
“Normally, we have a sheriff’s officer on duty that is paid by the school to help with our security,” Guaschino said. “Maybe that officer called for help. I don’t know.”
Scannavino said that he called the North Bergen police after he saw the sheriff’s officers because the situation was getting out of hand.
Fitzgibbons witnessed the entire situation and couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
“I’m all for public access television,” Fitzgibbons said. “I’m a big supporter of it and always have been. When my constituents ask me to appear, I’m going to do so. I also believe in freedom of speech. I think an error was made that they didn’t go through the proper channels and get the necessary paperwork beforehand. I was certainly caught by surprise by what happened and I had never seen anything like it.”
Scanga said that she was told by the sheriff’s officers that if she didn’t leave, she was going to be arrested. Fitzgibbons apparently stepped in and wouldn’t allow that to happen. Eventually, calm was restored, except for one thing. The tape was not returned to Scanga and the producers. None of the tapes have ever aired.
Apparently, a school employee has them in her possession and will not return them to Scanga.
“The whole thing was ridiculous,” Scanga said. “It’s like something out of ‘The Three Stooges.’ It’s like we conducted a bank robbery, with all the police there. I was really concerned that I was going to be arrested. Thankfully, we had Freeholder Fitzgibbons there to witness the whole thing.”
Added Scanga, “To me, the whole thing was dirty politics. I think they were trying to slam dunk Russell Pascale. The first two times we taped there, no one was interested. But because they know Pascale is there, then this happens. Suddenly, we became trespassers. I think they wanted to squash any information he had to say. As soon as they saw Pascale, then that’s what sent the message that something had to be done.”
Sacco refused to comment on the situation. Spokesman Paul Swibinski claimed that it was just another incident involving Pascale to gain attention.
“They say I don’t have credibility,” Pascale said. “Well, then why were they there?”
It’s a question that still remains to be fully answered.