Former Hoboken Housing Authority member Hector Claveria wasn’t the most notable Hoboken politician arrested by police in 2009. That was former Mayor Peter Cammarano, who was snagged by the FBI in July for allegedly taking bribes.
But Claveria’s story may be a companion tale to Cammarano and the “Bid Rig” scandal, a chapter rather than a mere footnote in the annals of Hoboken politics.
Claveria, who was a relatively new commissioner on the board that manages Hoboken’s low-income projects, was arrested last July 15 for allegedly taking $2,000 to help a woman get a Section 8 apartment voucher.
Claveria said he passed up a plea bargain deal last year that would have kept him out of prison.
In over his head
In a Reporter exclusive, Claveria talked over the last two weeks about his struggle to stave off eviction for his family; his shifting political alliances; his arrest for bribery hours after his family was evicted from their Hoboken apartment, and his claim that he was set up by a local official.
Claveria is facing three second-degree criminal charges that could land him inside a state prison for five to 10 years each, according to Leo Hernandez of the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office Special Investigations Unit.
More than a dozen individuals spoke with the Reporter for this article. Some were willing to be named, others spoke on varying conditions of anonymity.
Claveria has been indicted for bribery, misconduct by an official, and receipt of an unlawful benefit by an official.
Claveria is currently out on bail and living in East Rutherford. He claims he was set up by Carmelo Garcia, the executive director of the Hoboken Housing Authority, an on-and-off political ally.
Garcia cannot speak about the details of the matter because of ongoing legal proceedings, but he flatly denied the allegation last week. (See sidebar below.)
Many people contacted for the story called Claveria’s version an attempt to shift blame.
But some sources said that Hector Claveria and his wife, Barbara, suffered from the political equivalent of “the bends” – moving to the top too quickly, with severe repercussions.
Allegations of being framed
Chief Prosecutor Edward DeFazio said at the time of Claveria’s arrest that Garcia, along with Housing Authority Attorney Charles Daglian, first reported the situation to authorities.
Claveria is charged with allegedly taking a loan last summer from a local woman in exchange for “preferential treatment” for her on a housing voucher waiting list, according to the indictment.
Claveria doesn’t deny taking the money, a $2,000 loan. His family was facing eviction from their own $2,750-per-month apartment in Hoboken, and he had already taken $10,000 in personal loans from people around town, including a previous loan from the same woman. Her first loan to him was for $3,000 in March – five months after Claveria had been appointed to the HHA board. Claveria said that Garcia knew about the first loan and never questioned it. Claveria also believes Garcia knew the woman was on the Section 8 waiting list.
Claveria claims that political “friction” during the election of Cammarano in June, eight months after Claveria was appointed to the HHA board, ultimately caused Garcia to sour on him and call the Prosecutor’s Office.
Assistant Prosecutor Hernandez said they have audio recordings, statements, and other documents that they will use as evidence against Claveria.
The woman on the waiting list, who asked the Reporter to remain anonymous because – according to her – she has received a death threat, confirmed that she gave an initial loan to Claveria of $3,000 in March because she sympathized with his situation.
How Claveria knew her is part of a chain of events that some dispute. In any case, the woman said that in June, Claveria texted her asking for more money. She said he asked for a $6,000 loan and said something to the effect of, “This is Hoboken. You can stay on that list for a long time.”
She said that investigators now have her phone as evidence.
When asked about this last week, Claveria denied that such a text message ever came from him.
But the woman on the waiting list said that the message is what eventually landed Claveria in jail.
She said that after she got the text, she mentioned it to Garcia on the street. Garcia told the Prosecutor’s Office. The woman eventually worked with the Prosecutor’s Office to set up the second loan to Claveria, as a sting.
Becoming an official
When a City Council majority voted to appoint Claveria to the Housing Authority board in November of 2008, the move was controversial. He was taking the place of popular Chairman Angel Alicea, whose long service to the board had begun in 1987. But Councilwoman Zimmer and her “reformer” allies wanted new blood on the housing board, a political body that oversees the housing of thousands of low-income tenants and potential voters.
Claveria had first heard about the seat while watching a council meeting on TV. The council had said they were looking for applicants for the seat. So Claveria approached Zimmer.
Zimmer trumpeted the financial acumen of Claveria, who was at the time a 35-year-old director of finance and controller at Rosemount Capital Management in New York City.
At the same time, Alicea was an Internal Affairs detective in Union City. His supporters said he should be re-appointed and argued that the projects were more in need of public safety expertise than financial skills.
Alicea had the support of “old Hoboken.” That group likely included Garcia, who was a friend of Alicea but as executive director could not publically back a commissioner.
When Zimmer introduced Claveria to the public at a Housing Authority meeting, the first meeting he had ever been to, Barbara Claveria had to shout down some of the catcalls from the crowd.
Barbara’s grandmother has strong roots in the projects. So when some of the old-time politicians found out about that relationship, they started courting Claveria as an ally and thought of alternative political spots for Alicea.
(Alicea eventually made an unsuccessful run for City Council on Cammarano’s mayoral ticket. After Cammarano was elected in June, he appointed Alicea director of public safety.)
Once Claveria was appointed to the HHA board, it didn’t take long for him to shift his alliance from Zimmer and her council allies to Garcia and the Authority, sources said.
In March, Claveria lost his job at Rosemount. The Housing Authority board is an unpaid position. He didn’t have any sources of income.
No job, no rent
Claveria eventually received unemployment, but by March, he was struggling to pay his $2,750 rent to keep his three young children in their apartment on Clinton Street.
After his rent was late, his landlords moved to evict his family. Claveria claims he asked Garcia to reach out to the company, one of the largest developers in town, to see if an arrangement could be reached. But no help arrived.
Claveria said Garcia even put him in touch with a local woman whom Garcia knew, a woman who is not a tenant of the Housing Authority or a prospective voucher recipient. According to Claveria, this woman was a business associate of Garcia’s, and Garcia thought she might have the money to help him.
Claveria said the woman wanted to help him, but didn’t have funds available. Claveria claims the intermediary woman told him that the woman on the waiting list owed her money and could repay the debt directly to Claveria.
The woman on the waiting list denies that any debt existed between her and the intermediary, and says that the intermediary woman only vouched for Claveria.
The woman on the waiting list said she loaned Claveria the money in March because she sympathized with his plight: unemployed and facing eviction. When she gave him the loan, she had a bank official type up a letter saying the loan had nothing to do with the housing waiting list.
Claveria claims he knew the woman and even had “helped” her in the past by explaining how she could legally improve her status for housing vouchers.
In fact, Housing Authority commissioners have no control over the list. Claveria said he had explained this to the woman.
Claveria said last week that taking the loan from her made him nervous because she was on the list. “I had reservations about the whole thing,” he said, but he didn’t think he was doing anything illegal.
He believed that the money was coming indirectly from the intermediary woman, who had no business with the Authority.
When asked how someone on a housing voucher list could afford to loan anyone $3,000, the woman said her mother had recently passed away and she was the recipient of her life insurance plan. The woman remained on the wait list, and says now that she went through the insurance money quickly.
After the transaction was made, Claveria said he told Garcia about the loan in order to let him know that his living situation was stable for now. No one other than Claveria or Garcia can account for this conversation, and Garcia is unable to speak specifically in his own defense due to upcoming legal proceedings.
“I never thought I was doing anything wrong. The person who’s supposed to know these things didn’t tell me I was doing anything wrong,” Claveria said.
Sources very close to Garcia deny that he arranged for the intermediary woman to meet Claveria in the first place. The intermediary would not speak to the Reporter, but several sources claim she and Garcia were associated in the past.
Joining the campaign
After Claveria received the loan in March, Hoboken was heating up for mayor and council elections in May and a runoff in June.
Sources say that Claveria and his wife, still without work, were looking for a job with a campaign or a successful administration.
Claveria met Cammarano, a young lawyer and mayoral candidate. Claveria and his wife hitched his wagon to Cammarano in April, and they received some payment for their work on the campaign trail.
Both were ultimately appointed to Cammarano’s transition team after Cammarano won the June runoff election against Zimmer. Those positions were unpaid.
Claveria needed to pay his rent, and he also needed to make his car payments and settle his children’s tuition bills.
He found someone to help him out in Michael Novak, a local businessman who was running for City Council on Cammarano’s ticket. After hearing that Claveria and his family were going to be evicted, Novak said he wrote a $3,000 check with a note on the bottom of the check: Loan.
Claveria said he used the loan to cover other expenses – like his car, which was soon repossessed anyway – but he still needed to pay the rent.
Several sources who were close to Cammarano’s campaign said Barbara was pushing hard for jobs, but that Cammarano never promised either Barbara or Hector a job.
Splitting with Garcia
By June, Claveria still hadn’t paid his rent from June or May. He asked Cammarano for the same help he had previously asked Garcia for. Cammarano appealed to the landlords and Claveria was able to work out a payment schedule, according to Claveria and sources close to the situation. The management company would accept $4,000 to keep his family in the apartment and extend a 30-day period for him to get current on the rest of the rent.
However, Claveria still needed money for that and other bills.
Frank Raia, a well-known politician and local developer, said this month that he wrote Claveria a $4,000 check as a loan to keep Claveria’s family under a roof. Raia is known for having a soft heart and deep pockets.
“Everybody knew he was in trouble and his kids were going to be homeless,” Raia said. “If he never pays me back, I don’t give a s—. I’ve been locked out of my home before [when I was a young boy]. I know what it’s like.”
It was campaign issues that started to drive a wedge between Garcia and the Claverias, Hector said.
He said there was a heated exchange involving Barbara during the final ballot counting following election night in June. Cammarano’s campaign was trying to have a couple of ballots thrown out because they believed the voter no longer lived in the Housing Authority, according to sources, and they wanted Garcia to verify this claim in a very short time. Sources said Garcia was taking legal precautions and researching the claim and was not able to verify the claim in time to have the ballots dismissed.
Claveria claims that in a heated moment, Cammarano said of Garcia, “He’s dead to me.”
He claims this deepening rift between Garcia and Cammarano is what led Garcia to ultimately turn over Claveria to the Prosecutor’s Office.
The woman on the waiting list said that she received the text message from Claveria in June asking for more money. She said two weeks ago that late in June, she mentioned to Garcia on the street about the first loan and the text message.
At Cammarano’s inauguration on July 1, she also mentioned the loan to a housing commissioner, according to that commissioner.
Garcia scheduled an appointment with the woman on the waiting list and the Authority’s attorney soon after the commissioner told him.
It was after this conversation that Garcia and the lawyer contacted the Prosecutor’s Office.
On July 13, 2009, Claveria said the woman on the waiting list called him and said, “I can’t sleep knowing your children might be homeless. How much do you need?”
He said he told her he could use $6,000, and she agreed to meet him the next day. On July 14, she handed him $2,000 in cash as a loan.
Claveria said that he never made any promises to the woman.
He said that after he received the loan, the woman called him three or four times asking for help with the waiting list. The woman on the list was very, very close to the top of the list and didn’t really need help moving up, but wanted to know her status.
At one point during their conversations, Claveria said he told her he “already helped her,” referring to the advice he had given her on how to file for the vouchers and improve rank legally.
Claveria said prosecutors are taking this statement to mean he had already given her preferential treatment.
But he said he stated clearly during the conversation that he had no control over the list.
He said he finally agreed to call Garcia’s office to find out what the hold-up was on getting out letters to the next people on the waiting list. He said that when he called, he was told by an assistant that the letters would be sent out in August.
The next morning, his family was locked out of their apartment on Clinton Street because they hadn’t yet paid all the rent.
A few hours later, Claveria was arrested by the Prosecutor’s Office.
“I never asked [her] for a loan, directly or indirectly,” Claveria says now. “Carmelo knew that [she] lent me the money [the first time]. [We] discussed that I borrowed this money. He never told me it was wrong. He never told me that I did anything unethical or illegal.”
Cammarano called for Claveria to step down from the housing board – citing a “zero-tolerance” policy for public officials – but was himself arrested just a week later. Claveria did resign his seat.
Claveria said that last year, he passed up a plea bargain deal that would have kept him out of prison because it still would have carried a felony charge. He said he would no longer to be able to get a job in finance with a felony on his record.
He was unable to retain the services of his former lawyer, so he has recently been appointed a public defender.
Hernandez said the two sides will meet for a status conference on Monday, Feb. 22, and that the prosecutors will most likely make a plea bargain offer to Claveria at that time. He said if the offer is not taken, Claveria’s attorney may counteroffer. If no agreement is reached, a court date will be scheduled.
Timothy J. Carroll may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Officials respond to claims
Carmelo Garcia, executive director of the Hoboken Housing Authority, said Friday that he is proud he did the right thing by turning over a potential criminal situation to investigators.
“I did my duty as a public official,” he said.
Garcia and HHA attorney Charles Daglian spoke Friday about the episode and denied that Garcia withheld any information that Claveria gave him.
As far as when Garcia found out about the loans, Daglain said, “Carmelo Garcia is the executive director of the Housing Authority. He’s not a police investigation agency. As director, he hears a lot of rumor. He’s not obligated to track down every rumor.”
The woman who loaned Claveria the money said she told Garcia “a few weeks” before she was finally contacted by the Authority.
Once a commissioner alerted him of the situation, Daglian said, Garcia brought in legal counsel and “started to look at it.”
Once the “substance” of the claim was confirmed, Daglian and Garcia stopped any further investigation and turned the matter over to the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office.
At the Housing Authority meeting just weeks before Claveria’s arrest, Garcia presented the entire board with the HUD Inspector General’s “Dos and Don’ts of Housing Authority Officials,” a list of how commissioners can interact with tenants or potential tenants on a waiting list.
“You can’t even promise to get their bathroom painted,” Garcia said.
Daglian said, “If you’re involved with a tenant, any tenant, you have to recuse yourself from any dealings with that tenant.” In other words, if Claveria had previously given the woman on the list advice and guidance, Claveria should not have entered into any kind of loan transaction with the tenant.
Daglain said public housing administrations across the state are trying to break free from “any perception that you can work your way up the ladder by either knowing somebody or paying somebody.” – TJC