Politics in shades of gray The history of the dirty, the clean, and prospects for the future

On the Hudson County waterfront, a man who doesn’t want you to know his name sits in the back room of a bar. His glittering blue eyes dance as he tells stories about a lifetime of involvement in Hudson County politics. As the stories of various campaigns and convictions over the last 30 years roll off his silver tongue, the longtime county employee stops for a moment and laughs.

“Definitely nine out of 10 commandments were broken,” he says with a crooked smile on his face. “What I can say is, I seen all types of illegal action committed, outside of murder. I saw the envelopes come in. They took the cash in and they shared it. Not that good, but they did. The people that the public suspects the least are usually the ones who do the most. It’s just the nature of the beast.”

He was, and is, corrupt. But he is a free man. And he is among friends.

According to the office of Christopher Christie, the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, out of 97 New Jersey political corruption cases where the defendants have either pleaded guilty or have been convicted of politically related charges since 2002, 20 originated in Hudson County.

In the last five years, the following local politicians, from the petty to the powerful, are just a few of those who have been snagged:

Anthony Russo, a former Hoboken mayor who admitted accepting thousands of dollars in bribes from an accounting firm run by his best friend, and went to jail in 2005. His son Michael, now a councilperson, got teary-eyed at a 2004 council meeting where he voted for campaign reform: “I have seen, firsthand, how this concept affects people.”

Robert Janiszewski, the Hudson County Executive from 1988 to 2001, now sits in a Kentucky federal prison for extortion and tax evasion.

– One day in 1996, Patrick Cecala, the then-secretary to Hoboken’s Alcohol Beverage Control Board and former school board member who had no prior criminal record, asked a woman for a $1,000 bribe to smooth the process of getting a liquor license in Hudson County’s most bar-packed town. He later explained, “One thousand dollars was just a round number. I just could have used $1,000 cash in my pocket.”

Peter Perez, a former North Bergen parks and recreation commissioner, pleaded guilty to accepting kickbacks from an air conditioning contractor who had town contacts. The contractor also did work on officials’ private homes.

If political corruption makes New Jersey a national joke, then Hudson County is the punch line. For nearly a century, the 62 square miles hard by the west bank of the Hudson have been looked at as the spot where the cancer began eating the Garden State body politic alive.

What fuels the fire of Hudson County political corruption? Is there an ingrained culture here that knows no rival, and if so, can it change?

Whether it’s only gossip among the state’s newcomers or the sticking point in the current statewide U.S. Senate election, the answers are needed now more than ever.

Frank Hague’s ghost

It’s hard to talk about Hudson County corruption without mentioning the infamous man who ruled Jersey City for 30 years.

Frank “Boss” Hague was mayor of Jersey City from 1917 to 1947. Born in 1876 to Irish immigrant parents, he grew up tough in “the Horseshoe,” a long-gone tenement neighborhood near what became the entrance to the Holland Tunnel.

Expelled from school as an incorrigible 13-year-old, Hague’s natural political skills vaulted him through the ranks of the Hudson County Democratic Party.

He was elected Jersey City’s public safety commissioner in 1916 as a reformer – and used his position as head of the police and fire departments to build the rock-solid base and patronage system that would consolidate his power.

While he cleaned up the police force and lowered the crime rate, he also recruited a group of plainclothes policemen from the Horseshoe to be “Zeppelins,” a secret surveillance squad within the police force who had a fierce loyalty to him.

Riding a tide of simmering Catholic anger at the previous Protestant control of the city, plus the need for safer streets, Hague was unanimously elected mayor by the city commission government within a year.

Hague’s machine employed the now-familiar political methods of canvassing, telephoning voters and transporting voters to the polls, establishing the famed Hudson County Democratic “get out the vote” apparatus that is still revered and feared in New Jersey politics.

Between 1916 and 1940, Democrats won six of nine gubernatorial elections, most due to huge Hudson County electoral landslides.

Federal funds from allies such as President Franklin D. Roosevelt flowed into Jersey City. Through his ward leaders, Hague created a unique form of municipal socialism that provided needed services for his constituents at the height of the Depression.

When Hague said “I am the law” in Jersey City, he meant it.

Corruption continues

But after World War II, returning veterans increasingly felt locked out by Hague’s machine. And ethnic groups outside Hague’s Irish power base felt neglected. Hague’s strong-arm tactics and long vacations in Florida and Paris alienated working-class residents.

As a result, Hague’s appointed successor, his nephew, lost to a reform slate led by John V. Kenny in 1949. (Ironically, Kenny, who also billed himself as a reformer, was himself later indicted for conspiracy and extortion.)

Hague died a millionaire in a Manhattan apartment in 1956, unable to return to his former seat of power, out of fear of being subpoenaed over the kickback schemes that made him rich. In fact, before his death, he was served with a subpoena in a $3 million kickback suit brought by city employees in an attempt to recover funds. Hague never paid back a dime.

Historian Thomas Fleming called Hague’s mayoralty a “blend of violence and benevolence” where order was maintained by “justice at the end of a nightstick,” a slogan Hague liked to use himself.

Despite his rough reputation and use of voter fraud involving a misused state voter registration law, Hague was never indicted and never spent a day in jail.

Although his Jersey City mayoral salary never exceeded $8,000 a year and he had no other source of legitimate income, at the time of his death, his wealth was estimated at more than $10 million.

Next ‘reformer’ took $3.5M

Hague was dead, but the boilerplate he set up for Hudson County politicians was alive and well. Kenny set up his own satrapy in Hudson County. Mayor of Jersey City until 1953, Kenny remained the power behind the country throne until 1971, when he and Mayor Thomas Whelan were indicted and convicted as members of the “Hudson County Eight” for conspiracy and extortion for taking $3.5 million in kickbacks in exchange for county construction contracts.

When Robert Janiszewski became Hudson County Executive in 1988, it was hoped that he was the true reformer Hudson County had been waiting for.

But “Bobby J” was destined to disappoint.

Janiszewski abruptly resigned from office in 2001, and it was subsequently revealed that he had secretly worked as an informer for the federal government since late 2000. They had quietly arrested him in Atlantic City regarding extortion and asked him to wear a wire to catch other politicians and contractors.

His testimony brought down officials including Nidia Davila-Colon, a five-term Hudson County freeholder, who received a 2.5-year jail term for passing more than $10,000 in bribes to Janiszewski to ensure that her then-boyfriend, psychiatrist Dr. Oscar Sandoval, would receive lucrative county contracts. Sandoval became an FBI informant and was never charged.

Janiszewski ultimately paid a price himself. He pleaded guilty in 2002 to extortion and tax evasion, admitting he had accepted over $100,000 in bribes. He was sentenced in 2005 to 41 months in federal prison, and is currently serving time in Kentucky.

Proven guilty? Says who?

While many convicted Hudson County officials remain mum, former Jersey City Mayor Gerald McCann, better known as Gerry, is more than willing to talk.

A decade before Janiszewski experienced his legal woes, McCann, the mayor of Jersey City from 1981 to 1985 and again from 1989 to 1992, faced his own day in court for criminal fraud and tax evasion that took place in his private business dealings while he was not in office.

After his fall, Janiszewski expressed remorse for his actions, but McCann is cynical.

“Do you really think people go into public service to serve the public?” he said. “There are hundreds of other ways to do it. Why do people like Jon Corzine want to become governor and Tom Kean Jr. want to become U.S. senator? It’s the power.”

He added, “It’s the only thing that they didn’t have. They had money, but they didn’t have power. Sometimes when power becomes almost absolute, then the potential for corruption occurs.”

But besides the major players like Hague who were looking to feather their nests, what about politicians who get involved in small-time government? What makes them cross the line?

“A councilman in a small town is not necessarily looking for power,” McCann conceded. “But there are people who believe that the problems that occur in a small town can be resolved if they themselves get elected. Once these people become decision makers, the people who want to become the beneficiaries of their new power start to get them to cross over, whether it’s paying bribes or getting kickbacks.”

He added, “Campaign contributions are part of the same thing. No one can get anybody to volunteer anymore because they think everybody is corrupt. It becomes self-perpetuating. In order to move up the chain in politics, you have to live in the gray. There are a lot of people more than willing to live in the gray. Gray is very close to black.”

Besides the major arrests in Hudson County politics over the last few years, like Janiszewski and Russo, there have been smaller busts, like politicians who used campaign funds for jobs for relatives, or accepted a jet ski from a contractor.

Mayor: ‘Temptations are astronomical’

For instance, Peter LaVilla served as the mayor of Guttenberg, a tiny four-by-12-block waterfront enclave bordered by North Bergen and West New York, from 1996 to 2000. He pleaded guilty in 2003 to misappropriation of campaign funds.

What happened, LaVilla said in a recent interview, was that during a 1999 campaign against Robert Janiszewski for county executive, he took out $63,000 worth of advertising in the now-defunct senior citizen newspaper that he owned. He didn’t report those funds as income, and the IRS came after him. He said he no longer had the paperwork to prove his innocence, so he pleaded guilty.

LaVilla did six months of probation, paid a large fine, and has gone back to working as a screenwriter and a documentary filmmaker.

“The temptations are astronomical,” he said, remembering his time in office. “There’s always a fine line between what is legitimate and what is not legitimate. As mayor, I made four grand a year. I couldn’t live on that. I had to have other income. If you have a contractor and he wants to get some business from the town, and he says things like ‘Hey, can I take you to lunch?’ that’s where the fine line comes in. Do you pick up the tab?”

When asked about the politicians he served alongside in the 1990s, LaVilla declined to mention names, but said, “You’re having a fundraiser, you send the ABC company two tickets, and they buy them, is that a violation? Because the temptations are so great, it’s up to the individual who is in office to take care of due diligence and be above board.”

Really low salaries

The great disparity in mayoral incomes in Hudson County seems to be one of the problems. (See sidebar.) Guttenberg’s current mayor earns $7,640 a year, but the town budget is approximately $12.8 million. That means that a $7,000-a-year mayor is giving out millions of dollars in contracts.

The CEO of a $12.8 million company certainly would earn more than $7,640.

What’s worse, the mayors in North Bergen, West New York and Union City draw incredibly low mayoral salaries to deal with high budgets. Union City Mayor Brian Stack gets $16,000 for a town with an $80.2 million budget. North Bergen’s Nicholas Sacco gets only $15,000 for $71.2 million. According to Jersey City City Clerk Robert Byrne, some of the towns, like Union City and West New York, technically consider the mayoralty a part-time job.

Stack, Sacco, and West New York Mayor Albio Sires have state legislative jobs as well, making one wonder if they have time to do both jobs to the best of their abilities.

After a while, low-paid politicians tend to do one of two things: Seek another job at the same time – like assemblyman or county executive – or give contracts to friends and start asking for cash back over dinner.

‘I didn’t do anything corrupt’

As for McCann, he drew a fine line between black and white until he finally left a distinct gray smudge. He was convicted in December of 1991 of defrauding a South Florida bank. He was charged with having diverted for personal gain at least $267,000 of a $300,000 investment the bank entrusted to him in 1986 and 1987 to develop a marina at Liberty State Park in Jersey City.

He was sentenced to 33 months in federal prison and ultimately served 24 months.

When asked if he felt he did anything wrong, his answer was Jersey City blunt.

“I absolutely do not believe anything that I did was illegal,” he said. “The power of the prosecutor’s office got me. I didn’t do anything corrupt. Corruption is when you are in a public position, and you do something to violate that trust. I was convicted for things that occurred when I wasn’t the mayor. I’m very proud of what I achieved as mayor. I can show you the development at Newport, Harsimus Cove, Exchange Place, Grove Street, the light rail, and the new homes where Roosevelt Stadium was. If you have a legacy, it’s what you’ve achieved in your own life. You can’t point to one person, including Frank Hague, who did more.”

It fell off back of a truck

Not everyone agrees with McCann’s assessment.

“Dream on, Gerry,” said Jersey City native and published author Helene Stapinski. “Those buildings on the waterfront would have been built sooner and better, without him.”

Stapinski’s critically acclaimed memoir Five-Finger Discount chronicled her coming of age in a Jersey City where personal and political corruption were often intertwined, including among some of her relatives.

Stapinski’s frustration with McCann and the rest of Hudson County’s ruling political class comes from both early observation and subtle cooperation. Stapinski describes growing up with the concept of “SWAG” – which stood for Stolen Without A Gun.

“Swag was a socially acceptable way of taking what wasn’t yours, mostly stuff to live on,” she said. “Your socks and underwear just fell off the back of a truck.”

Stapinski detailed, in her book, how her father brought home frozen seafood not normally seen in working-class Jersey City homes from his job at Union Terminal Cold Storage.

“There were a lot of lobster tails on my table growing up,” she said. “The thievery among the common folk happened because it trickled down from above. When you were bringing Ivory Soap home from the job, that’s peanuts compared to what Hague was doing.”

What might start with ripping off one’s boss ballooned into bigger misdeeds.

“I used to think that [politics] were unimportant and that I didn’t have to vote,” the current Brooklyn resident said recently. “But the older you get, the more you see. Politicians are making the laws, and they are breaking the laws. They are defining what happens on a large scale and for the long-term future. If the schools are poorly run because of corrupt politics, the Yuppies will leave. This makes me really want to vote three times, which you can do in Hudson County sometimes.”

Stapinski wondered aloud if New Jersey voters will actually pull the lever for any Hudson County politician running for statewide office.

“Hudson County was such a power magnet in statewide politics, but that time is all gone,” she said. “It’s more of an albatross now. Even the whiff of Hudson County makes people itchy.”

In the shadows

The man in the back room of the bar on the waterfront is just the type of Hudson County resident who makes people reach for calamine lotion.

His desire for anonymity is based on a certain practicality. “I would not like to expose my family to this,” said Mr. C (not his real initial). “You never get complimented on something like this. There is always something that backfires. I’m almost done, and will leave this life with my pension.”

The man’s description of the life he lived and witnessed is murky at best.

“You could say I was more involved in south Hudson, but helped others in north Hudson,” he says. “I was mainly a county person, so Bobby Janiszewski was whom I supported the most. Basically, we all get recycled.”

Around Bobby J, the man saw the same cycle over and over, deals made in various shades of green.

“Corruption might be dressed differently, but it is mainly the same,” Mr. C said. “Kickbacks are always in cash, unless the other people are dumb and make some kind of gift that is tangible. Major law firms always get the big contracts. Unnecessary jobs go to workers who support the campaigns. If you were to actually hold interviews for some major jobs, three-fourths of the individuals would never get the job.”

In the last few years, statewide “pay to play” laws have cut the ability for contractors to donate to municipal and county governments. Recently, reformers have tried to adapt those laws to local school boards as well.

Mr. C believes that people are fooling themselves if they think legislative measures to stem corruption are anything more than a futile finger in a dike.

“If a law is made, it is made mostly by lawyers,” Mr. C said. “They are the same people who find ways around the law. Pay-to-play laws appease the public, but that will never change who gets contracts and whose friend gets a job.”

Christie’s anti-corruption campaign

Christopher Christie was appointed U.S. Attorney for New Jersey by President George W. Bush in December 2001. His stance against corruption has resulted in 97 successful prosecutions of both elected officials and other participants in illegal activities, including contractors, who are part of the circle of corruption.

Christie has received bipartisan accolades for his work, in part because officials of both the red and blue persuasion have been subject to his purple bruises.

Former Republican Essex County Executive James Treffinger, for instance, was brought up on corruption charges in 2002 when Treffinger was a leading G.O.P. contender for the U.S. Senate.

Recently, Christie was the driving force behind the legal effort that led former Democratic State Senate President John Lynch to plead guilty to mail fraud and tax evasion. At a Sept. 15 press conference following Lynch’s plea, Christie spoke about the struggle against corruption in New Jersey.

“At this point, this is an old story,” he said. “This office will continue to be vigilant about going after anyone who violates the law and betrays the public trust. Absolutely no one in New Jersey is above the law.”

The advocate

Donald Scarinci knows the law. In the early 1970s, the politically connected attorney was editor of the school newspaper at Union Hill High School around the time U.S. Senator and current senatorial candidate Robert Menendez was student body president.

The two men formed a friendship that lasted while both served as aides to Union City Mayor and State Sen. William Musto. Musto’s political career would come to a close in 1982 after his federal conviction on racketeering charges. Menendez was among those who testified against him.

Menendez went on to build a political career that took him to Musto’s mayoral chair, the state assembly, the state senate, the U.S. House of Representatives and finally, after his appointment in January by Governor Jon Corzine, to the U.S. Senate. At the same time, Scarinci’s law practice also grew, becoming one of the most influential in the state.

In the current U.S. Senate election, Scarinci very recently had to sever ties with Menendez’s campaign after a 1999 telephone conversation was released in which Scarinci was recorded using Menendez’s name to gain political leverage.

Scarinci said recently that he believes Hudson County simply gets an unfair rap.

“I’ve been involved in Hudson County politics and government since 1972,” Scarinci said. “It is mythology that Hudson County is more corrupt than anywhere else. It has nothing to do with anything that has happened since the days of Frank Hague. The reality is that there are fewer instances of public corruption in Hudson County than in 50 percent of the other counties in the state of New Jersey. Bad people will do bad things.”

He added, “Just because there are a few bad people like Gerry McCann and Bob Janiszewski doesn’t mean all public officials are bad. You haven’t had people stealing public money in Hudson County since the Musto trial in 1982. Wall Street would not be developing the waterfront if they had the concept that Hudson County was a corrupt place. I think the perception is based on folklore.”

He said the perception is also based in something even darker than local legend.

“The idea has its foundation more in racism and prejudice than in any reality,” he said. ” ‘Hudson County’ to some people becomes a euphemism for Latinos, in the same way that ‘Essex County’ becomes a euphemism for African-Americans. When people want to suggest that the people from Hudson County are above-average corrupt, I think that there is a very large element of bigotry and racism in that kind of remark.”

Scarinci defended his friend Menendez as a true reformer.

“He demonstrated by his actions that he is a reformer,” he said. “He testified against his mentor Musto, who was a personal and a political disappointment to him. Several people who were indicted with Musto were members of organized crime. Bob Menendez testified against them. That took courage. I saw him wear the bullet-proof vest [during the trial].”

Corruption issue affects Senate race

The question of ethics has recently become a major campaign issue for the Nov. 7 midterm elections. While Menendez’s side has tried to portray him as someone who would stand up to President Bush, Republican challenger Tom Kean Jr. has depicted him in ads as just another corrupt Hudson County politician.

Menendez has had to fend off several corruption allegations in recent weeks. These criticisms have included that while in the House of Representatives, Menendez leased a building he owned to a Union City nonprofit agency for which he helped win federal funds.

But Tom Kean Jr.’s campaign had to deal with an ethics accusation after Menendez’s campaign discovered that a researcher working for Kean’s chief campaign consultant was digging for dirt on Menendez through an exchange of letters with the infamous Bobby Janiszewski. Janiszewski apparently wrote the letters from the confines of a federal prison cell in Kentucky.

See next week’s paper for more on the campaign.

A policy perspective

Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers and a longtime observer of New Jersey politics, said there are cultural and structural reasons for the county’s corruption.

“Hudson County deserves every bit of its reputation,” he said. “One of the things about Menendez, particularly after he turned state’s evidence against Billy Musto, was that he stood out as the glowing exception, proof that a reformer could come out of Hudson County. But then again, Frank Hague and Bobby Janiszewski originally were reformers too.”

He noted, “The low state of public rectitude in Hudson County tends to rub off on people who try to escape its clutches.”

Baker said the problem starts with having too many politicians. He cites county executives, positions that not all states have.

“The center [of power] is never as powerful as the collective might of the 21 county chairs,” he said. “Office double dipping has to be abolished. It tends to monopolize elective offices. It’s a dangerous concentration of power. Pay-to-play legislation also has to be passed.”

But Baker worried that some of it is ingrained.

“There are also cultural factors that will only change over the long run,” he said. “A lot of the politics of Hudson County is tribal in that political ties are intermingled with ethnic ties. The more Hudson County becomes a desirable place for upper-middle-class people to live, the more that leads to the demographic transformation of Hudson County. The waterfront communities offer probably the best hope for reform.”

What can be done?

It appears, from observers’ comments and even politicians’ own suggestions, that some waves of change are coming, but more has to be done. Suggestions include:

Consider banning dual office holding. This move would provide more assurance that elected officials are not prey to conflicts of interest, and that running for office is seen as a path to public service, not personal enrichment. It also means separate officials will have more time to do the job better. However, not everyone agrees that dual office-holding is always bad. Scarinci says: “I think a legislator who is also a mayor, or a freeholder or a county executive, brings something to the table at the state legislature. In Trenton, they truly know what state laws mean at the local level. There’s no evil in a $12,000-a-year mayor being a state senator.”

Increase mayoral salaries for towns with large budgets. If mayors are ultimately controlling large sums of money without commensurate compensation, this becomes an inducement to steal. For instance, in 2003, former Hoboken Mayor Anthony Russo was indicted for having given kickbacks to an accounting firm run by his best friend, the late Joseph Lisa. Lisa’s firm had earned more than $5 million in contracts from Hoboken in just a few years.

Consolidate towns and town services. New Jersey currently has 566 separate municipalities. Through carefully considered regionalization, the number of towns and municipal positions would decrease, and with it opportunities for influence-peddling and fiscal temptation.

Ban “pay-to-play” at every level of New Jersey government, including redevelopment agencies. “Pay-to-play” is the practice of giving professional service contracts to campaign contributors. Such practices can result in politicians approving overly expensive or unnecessary projects in exchange for campaign support. Giving someone a government contract in exchange for a political donation is illegal, but often it is difficult to prove. “Pay to play” laws cut out the possibility of that happening by saying that a business contributing a certain amount cannot get a contract. The state legislature should close loopholes in the laws.

Institute a zero-tolerance policy on the acceptance of gifts. Current ethics laws forbid legislators from accepting gifts worth more than $250 in total value from any single source for anything related to their official jobs. Instead, legislators should be banned from receiving any gift of any value whatsoever from lobbyists, government affairs agents, or anyone else.

Combine the Joint Legislative Commission on Ethical Standards into the new state Ethics Commission. Merging these two commissions would centralize and provide a vehicle for consistent and rigorous enforcement of the state’s ethics laws.

Make the new Uniform Ethics Code compulsory for the legislature and local governments. While more and more municipalities have taken up the cause of ethics reform, a clear, consistent approach must be taken regarding the application, control, supervision and enforcement of stronger ethics standards.

End pension-padding. This practice allows for the promotion of state officials immediately before retirement, allowing them to receive a public pension based on the higher salary of a position that they never held. Convicted corruption offenders can sometimes still get their pensions.

More aggressive investigations. Newly confirmed New Jersey Attorney General Stuart Rabner, who helped prosecute Janiszewski as an assistant U.S. attorney under Christie’s leadership, can continue to work with Christie in this vein.

Don’t state corruption rumors as facts. As Hoboken Councilman Michael Cricco said at a 2004 council meeting, “This is Hudson County. It seems like we’re already guilty before we even do anything.” The unfair stereotype of every politician being corrupt is often spread by cynical new residents, or by campaign hopefuls hoping to gain office by slandering the other side. It paints hundreds of local public servants, unpaid board members and volunteers with the same brush, sometimes solely because they grew up here. The stereotype becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because only career politicians will be willing to undertake the name-calling that comes with holding these positions.

Voters should reward and punish at the ballot box. On the grass-roots level and on Election Day, voters should remember who has been doing the right thing, and who hasn’t.

Young councilman reflects on potential change

Will reforms like the above work?

Jersey City Councilman Steven Fulop, 29, was raised in Edison. He moved to the Jersey City waterfront for the same reason many other new Hudson County residents did.

“I was working at Goldman Sachs,” he said. “Goldman was moving their building to Jersey City. You get a lot of the benefits of being close to Manhattan, but at the same time all the benefits of being in Jersey. It just kind of made sense.”

What Fulop did after he made the move to Jersey City was more unusual. He enlisted in the Marines after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and temporarily left Wall Street in 2003 to serve a tour with Marines in Iraq.

Shortly after his return, he entered politics. Fulop stunned many local political observers by winning the downtown Jersey City council seat in 2005 over the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO)-backed incumbent Junior Maldonado.

When looking at the question of campaign contribution reform, Fulop offered some cautionary comments.

“If the reforms are not done in a way that would affect the county organizations as well, you will inadvertently adversely affect the reform candidates, because you won’t give them the same access to funds the other side is going to have times 10,” he said. “Jersey City adopted the state’s pay-to-play reform package. Now some groups have come forward and said that they want a kind of pay-to-play law that would restrict developers from giving money to any Jersey City candidates. The premise is good, but if you do that, you restrict the money that somebody can get independently, but you can’t restrict a developer from giving the money to the HCDO, which will ultimately give to the candidates that they choose.”

Fulop continued, “Reform should go further to include not only banning dual public-office holding, but also holding two jobs that are paid for by taxpayer dollars in any capacity. Here in Hudson County, we are one of the biggest violators of this. Taxpayers paying one salary should be enough.”

One more idea

But why is it that even politicians who originally run for office as “reformers” wind up covered in sludge?

Fulop thinks self-imposed term limits might avoid this fate.

“What I’d like to do is have an impact in the near term, and then I think that I’m done,” he said. “You go back to the private sector, say that you served the public, and that’s it. When you stay in office for too long, that’s when things start to go awry.”

And sadly, he agrees that some people duck local politics because of the reputation for corruption, causing a vicious cycle.

“You can’t say everybody is corrupt and evil here,” he said, “because that’s surely not the case. We’re headed in the right direction. In Hoboken, we have some young council people with fresh ideas coming from the private sector. In Jersey City, we’re moving that way. You need the residents to put the right people in elected office, and then you need those elected officials to do the responsible thing. Part of the problem is that we still have the mentality that if you’re good at hanging campaign signs, then you might qualify for some senior-level position, which is ridiculous. We’re long past that mentality. So you either recognize that and get involved with change and progress, or you’re going to have to get out of the way.”

He added, “Change can be forced, or change can be embraced. Either way, we’ll take it.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Mark J. Bonamo at mbonamo@hudsonreporter.com.


A trip to the dark side in North Bergen

Another man who witnessed political corruption was an aide in the late 1980s to Joe Mocco, the North Bergen town clerk at the time. In 1987, Mocco was indicted for racketeering, specifically for facilitating illegal garbage-dumping in the Meadowlands.

The former aide, who says “I’ve been in politics since I’m ten years old,” recounted how he saw Mocco’s downfall up close.

“Mocco gave a man named George Hurtuk a job weighing trucks for the town,” he said. “Hurtuk started to weigh the trucks, but the truck drivers started to give Hurtuk twenty bucks to leave them alone. After a while, Hurtuk said, ‘If you give me a hundred bucks, you can dump the garbage right off of West Side Avenue near the Meadowlands and not even bring it to the dump.’ I used to say to Hurtuk, ‘Don’t tell Joe about it, because Joe Mocco would steal a hot stove.'”

The way that Hurtuk eventually got caught was shocking.

“The pile of garbage got so high that one of the truck drivers drove up to the top, lifted the lid of the truck, hit an electric wire, and fried himself,” the former aide said. “That’s how the investigation started.”

To the former aide, Mocco and Hurtuk’s motivation was simple:

“Straight-up greed,” he said. “Money in their pockets gets them girls, gets them drugs, and makes them happy.” Ultimately the former aide tried to tell Mocco about Hurtuk’s activities. Mocco’s answer to his aide was succinct: Mind your own business.

“He said it would be even better if I helped him,” the former aide said. “But that’s not me. That’s why I’m still here.”

The way under-the-table business is done has changed, according to the former aide.

“They no longer take the envelope full of cash,” he said. “The methodology is to give the contracts to friends. Meanwhile, you’ve got a secret share in the friend’s business. But now, with all the different jobs these political guys give themselves, what do you need to take envelopes for? How are they doing the job? It’s impossible.” From his North Bergen base, the man had some thoughts about why the cycle of corruption in Hudson County politics keeps repeating itself.

“Lazy people who don’t want to work for a living have found out that if you can get yourself elected, you can make a lot of money, without doing a lot of work,” he said. “People living in brownstones in Jersey City and Hoboken making a million dollars a year allow somebody to run their towns that wouldn’t be able to work in the mailroom of where they work. Maybe they are lazy too.”

With a jaundiced squint, the North Bergen man noted the two things that might change Hudson County: “Death and (U.S. Attorney) Chris Christie.” SIDEBAR

Former teacher-turned-mayor succumbed to corruption

Anthony Russo, a former schoolteacher, ran a scrappy campaign for Hoboken mayor in 1993, against newcomer lawyer and tenant activist Ira Karasick.

The charismatic Russo captured the native Hoboken vote and won. Many still credit Russo for revitalizing city’s waterfront, but his legacy will be forever tarnished by his submission to corruption.

Over the years, he gave contracts to a major Hudson County accounting firm that was run by his best friend Joseph Lisa. Some of those contracts were meant to provide audits that had not been completed during the previous mayor’s term, and millions of dollars were given out. The Lisa firm also served as city accountants, so when they did the future audits, they were auditing themselves.

When Joe Lisa died of a heart attack in 1997, his more mild-manned brother, Gerry, took over the firm. It was Gerry who was fingered by the FBI and had to cough up details of payoffs to Russo.

Russo was sentenced in May 2005 to 30 months for taking bribes from the Lisa accounting firm. He remains in federal prison.

Since then, Russo’s young son Michael, 31, has run for 3rd Ward council in his father’s place, saying he would not fall prey to his father’s weakness. He voted for measures raised by town reformers that would prevent campaign donors from getting jobs on campaigns.

The younger Russo said that he understands that taking bribes and accepting campaign contributions from contractors are different, but that one can often lead to the other.

“I have seen, firsthand, how this concept affects people,” Michael Russo said in 2004. “We need to draw a line. The more a big developer or attorney donates, the more temptation sets in and the lines begin to blur. After a while they start asking questions like, ‘Do you want $5,000 in cash and $5,000 in campaign contributions?'”


Mayor who pleaded guilty: ‘Temptations are astronomical’

Peter LaVilla served as the mayor of Guttenberg, a four-block-by-twelve-block north Hudson town bordered by North Bergen and West New York, from 1996 to 2000, and enjoyed the perks of office. He pleaded guilty in 2003 to misappropriation of campaign funds, having used the money to play the stock market.

What happened, he said, was that during a 1999 campaign against Robert Janiszewski, he took out $63,000 worth of advertising in the now-defunct senior citizen newspaper that he once ran. He didn’t report those funds as income, and the IRS came after him. He said he no longer had the paperwork, so he pleaded guilty.

LaVilla did six months of probation, paid a large fine, and now works as a screenwriter and a documentary filmmaker. A film about his experiences could be a kind of morality tale about small-town corruption. “Temptations are astronomical,” he said. “Always the fine line between what is legitimate and what is not legitimate. As mayor, I made four grand a year. I couldn’t live on that. I had to have other income. If you’re a contractor and you want to get some business from the town, and he says things like ‘Hey, can I take you to lunch?’ that’s where the fine line comes in. Do you pick up the tab?”

LaVilla declined to mention names, but said, “You’re having a fundraiser, you send the ABC company two tickets, and they buy them, is that a violation? Because the temptations are so great, it’s up to the individual who is in office to take care of due diligence and be above board.”

In fact, the disparity in mayoral incomes in Hudson County seems to be one of the problems.

For example, Guttenberg’s mayor earns $7,640 a year, but the town budget is approximately $12.8 million. That means that a mayor who is earning as little as $7,000 a year is giving out millions of dollars in contracts to lawyers and accountants. After a while, they tend to do one of two things: Seek another job at the same time, like assemblyman or county executive, or give contracts to friends and start asking for money back over dinner.


Dual office-holding common but controversial

Many political observers in New Jersey believe that one path to reform should include ending the common Garden State political practice of dual office-holding.

Powerbroker Donald Scarinci is not so sure that this is so.

“I’m one of the people who believes that dual office-holding is a good thing,” he said. “I think a legislator who is also a mayor, or a freeholder or a county executive, brings something to the table at the state legislature. In Trenton, they truly know what state laws mean at the local level. People presume something evil is going on, but there’s no evil in a $12,000-a-year mayor being a state senator.”

The discrepancy between the mayoral salaries of the 12 Hudson County municipalities was explained by Robert Byrne, the Jersey City city clerk and a respected observer of the inside workings of local municipal government. “How big is Guttenberg?” he asked. “Guttenberg has a population according to the 2000 census of 10,807. Jersey City is only about 2,400 percent larger. Guttenberg wouldn’t be a quarter of a ward in Jersey City. The responsibilities of places the size of Jersey City are much greater.”

Byrne also noted that while some smaller cities such as West New York and Union City have technically part-time mayoral positions, which is reflected in their salaries, the same is not true of the larger Hudson County municipalities.

“Being the mayor of Jersey City is like having a full-time factory floor job, plus a job working in a Jersey turnpike toll booth on the weekend,” he said. “The people in Jersey City and Hoboken would never let anyone get away with the mayor’s job being a part-time position.”

The reason why some officials cross the line escapes Byrne.

“I think that people are innately [either] honest or corrupt,” he said. “I guess for some people, making six figures is not enough.”

Scarinci went further concerning his view of dual office-holding.

“It would be a tragic mistake to eliminate dual office-holding just because people label it reform,” he said. “You should watch out for the reformers, because all they are, are criminals in training. Real reformers don’t label themselves.”

Scarinci continued, “I don’t know what it’s going to take to take to convince the public that people who enter public service are usually good and not all criminals.”


Low salaries, high budgets

The following is a list of the mayoral salaries and municipal budgets of several Hudson County municipalities. If the mayor has a second salary from another government job, it is also included.

Note that mayors earning low salaries usually added one or two other public jobs to their dossier.

Listed below are the town name, total municipal budget, mayor and mayoral salary.

Bayonne, $105M, Joseph Doria, $72,000 + $49,000 State Senator
Guttenberg, $12.8M, David Delle Donna, $7,640
Hoboken, $73.2M, David Roberts, $124,000
Jersey City, $423M, Jerramiah Healy, $98,000
North Bergen, $71.2M, Nicholas Sacco, $15,000 +$145,000 Superintendent of Schools +$35,000 State Senator Secaucus, $38.7M, Dennis Elwell, $25,000
Union City, $80.2M, Brian Stack, $16,000 +$49,000 State Assemblyman
Weehawken, $26.6M, Richard Turner, $7,500 +$85,000 West New York town administrator
West New York, $52M, Albio Sires, $15,000 +$49,000 State Assemblyman


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