A guilty plea, an indictment, and two resignations in connection with this past July’s statewide FBI corruption sting came down Tuesday for present and former Jersey City political figures.
In U.S. District Court in Newark, newly-elected Jersey City Councilman Phil Kenny pleaded guilty to taking $5,000 in bribes from the government’s “cooperating witness,” Solomon Dwek, allegedly in exchange for Kenny’s influence after he got elected. The day after he pleaded guilty, Kenny resigned from his Ward B council seat, representing the city’s west side.
Kenny had not been previously charged in the July 23 arrests of 44 figures, so this 45th case in connection with the sting was a surprise to many observers. Kenny is free on a $50,000 bond pending his sentence, which is scheduled for Jan. 12, and he faces a sentence of up to 24 months.
“He made a mistake and he admitted to his mistake.” – Bill O’Dea
Manzo brothers and Vega
Last week, the U.S. Attorney’s office also announced that former state Assemblyman and several-time Jersey City mayoral candidate Louis Manzo was indicted along with his brother Ron, on charges of allegedly accepting $27,500 in bribes from Dwek.
And amidst all these legal actions, Jersey City Councilman Mariano Vega resigned the council presidency effective Friday, though he remains a council member. Vega was arrested on July 23. He has been accused of allegedly taking $30,000 in bribes from Dwek.
Councilman no more
When the next City Council meeting occurs this coming Wednesday, there will be some changes in the council’s seating arrangement.
Kenny, 53, will not be sitting in on the council meeting unless he is in the audience. According to the city clerk’s office, the council has 30 days to select his replacement. If they choose not to do so, then the seat can remain vacant until a special election is held in November of next year to elect someone to serve the remainder of Kenny’s term, which ends June 30, 2013.
Ironically, the need to fill a vacant council seat was how Kenny was appointed to the governing body only one month before he won the Ward B post outright in May, having taken over when Mary Spinello stepped down to head the city’s Parking Authority.
What did Kenny do to become an ex-council member?
According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey, Kenny admitted in court he accepted two $2,500 payments from Dwek in meetings between March and May of this year in exchange for his future influence if elected to the City Council. That influence was to get Dwek’s now-infamous, fictitious Garfield Avenue condo project greenlighted by the city.
Those close to Kenny said they were “shocked” by his guilty plea, as they were unaware of his connection to the corruption investigation until Tuesday. Among them was his friend and political mentor, Hudson County Freeholder Bill O’Dea.
“He made a mistake and he admitted to his mistake,” O’Dea said. “I had no clue about it.”
According to the indictment, Louis Manzo, 54, and Ronald Manzo, 65, were charged with allegedly promising former city employee Maher Khalil a promotion if Manzo won the May mayoral election. Khalil pleaded guilty last month to accepting payments from Dwek.
The Manzos, according to the indictment, had three meetings with Dwek between March and May, usually at a restaurant in Staten Island, and allegedly accepted payments of $10,000, $7,500, and $10,000. The meetings were facilitated by former Hudson County affirmative action officer Edward Cheatam. Cheatam has already pled guilty to accepting bribes.
At the meetings, Ron Manzo usually did the talking and allegedly accepted the payments for his brother, who allegedly agreed to accept future payments from Dwek after the election if he won, according to the indictment.
An indictment is a formal, written accusation issued by a grand jury charging someone with a crime, and not proof of a crime. However, if both Manzos are found guilty, they each face a maximum possible sentence of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, although federal sentencing guidelines could lead to lesser sentences.
Is it really stepping down?
Amidst all the U.S. Attorney action, there was an announcement that Vega was resigning as city council president.
City spokesperson Jennifer Morrill said Vega submitted his resignation letter to the city clerk’s office Tuesday afternoon.
Morrill said taking his place will be the president pro tem, Councilman Peter Brennan.
Vega was one of the 44 arrested on July 23. He has been accused of taking $30,000 in bribes from Dwek.
Mayor Jerramiah Healy issued a statement after Vega’s announcement: “We believe this decision is the right one for our city and our people, and we will work with the governing body to focus on the business of moving this city forward with honest, open and effective government.”
At recent council meetings, members of the public have held up signs calling not only for Vega’s resignation, but also the resignation of Mayor Healy, who has acknowledged he is “JC Public Official 4” named in several of the July 23 arrest complaints, and for Ward C Councilwoman Nidia Lopez to step down over questions about whether she is legally a city resident.
Ricardo Kaulessar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.