New York Times - Eleven current or former public officials, including two members of the State Assembly, were charged Thursday with taking thousands of dollars in bribes in exchange for promising municipal business to undercover officers posing as insurance brokers in the latest federal probe into New Jersey’s rampant political corruption.
The officials, and a man affiliated with one of them, were rounded up by agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation early Thursday morning and appeared before a judge in Federal District Court here by afternoon. The arrests culminated an 18-month investigation in which an undercover agent and cooperating witnesses posed as insurance brokers and traded wads of cash ranging from $1,500 to $17,500 for assurances of votes on school boards and city councils.
The investigation initially focused on the Pleasantville Board of Education, which runs a tiny, impoverished school district near Atlantic City. With 13 superintendents in the last 10 years, the district has been plagued by turmoil and is now working with a state-appointed monitor.
But then, unexpectedly, Pleasantville officials led federal investigators on what Christopher J. Christie, the United States attorney for New Jersey, described at a news conference here as a “corruption tour” of New Jersey by referring the fake insurers to other parts of the state.
That tour, prosecutors said, ranged 125 miles north to Passaic and Paterson, two gritty towns just outside New York City known for rough politics, as well as to Newark and Orange. And the way it transpired resembled the New Jersey of Hollywood as meetings unfolded in parked cars, rest stops on the Garden State Parkway, restaurants and hotels.
The arrests are the latest example of how the state’s roster of elected and appointed officials has come, at times, to resemble a police blotter. Two powerful Democratic veterans — Sharpe James, the former mayor of Newark, and Wayne R. Bryant, a state senator from Camden — were indicted earlier this year, and State Senator Joseph Coniglio, a Democrat of Bergen County, has been notified by prosecutors that he is the target of a corruption investigation.
But even Mr. Christie said that he was stunned by the business-as-usual boldness uncovered in the most recent investigation, which the F.B.I. dubbed Operation Broken Boards. Mr. Christie noted that one of those charged, Assemblyman Mims Hackett Jr., is the chairman of the State Government Committee, which is responsible for government rules and oversight, including ethics legislation.
“It’s been six years doing this job, and I thought I could no longer be surprised by a combination of brazenness, arrogance and stupidity,” Mr. Christie said. “But the people elected in this state continue to defy description.”
Along with Mr. Hackett, who is also the mayor of Orange, the highest-ranking person arrested was Assemblyman Alfred E. Steele, who is also a Baptist minister and an undersheriff in Passaic County. Both hold leadership posts in the Democratic-controlled Assembly.
Federal investigators also arrested Mayor Samuel Rivera of Passaic, who resigned Thursday from a committee of mayors supporting Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential bid. Mr. Rivera, a former police officer in both New Jersey and Puerto Rico, has had a variety of run-ins with law enforcement, including domestic violence charges filed by his daughter in 2004 that were later dropped; charges in 2002 of making terroristic threats against a boxer who had gone to the home of a woman Mr. Rivera later married (also dropped); and a 2003 assault conviction for yelling obscenities at a woman and pushing her. In 1966, a 20-year-old Mr. Rivera, who was working as a security guard, killed his brother-in-law in what was ruled an accidental shooting.
And then there was Keith O. Reid, chief of staff to the president of the Newark Municipal Council, who told the undercover investigators that he was the “offensive coordinator” in the city and could make even the quarterbacks get in line.
“So, therefore, I get to say, ‘That’s not the play we’re running,’ ” Mr. Reid told the agents, according to court records. “This is the play we’re running.”
As for those arrested, the general response to reporters’ questions at the federal courthouse in Trenton was no comment. Mr. Steele even ran away, literally, from hordes of reporters chasing him through downtown Trenton, causing rush-hour traffic to halt.
One person who did say a few things, though, was Mr. Rivera, who suggested in Spanish that Hispanics had always been unfairly targeted.
“Siempre,” Mr. Rivera said, which means “always,” before adding in English later, “I’ll have my day in court.”
The arrests come two days after Gov. Jon S. Corzine signed a package of ethics bills limiting the ability of state lawmakers to hold local posts, which critics say has led to much corruption. They also coincide with the state’s Democratic convention, being held in Atlantic City, prompting renewed accusations that Mr. Christie, an ambitious Republican who is mentioned as a likely candidate for governor in 2009, factors politics into the timing of his announcements.
Mr. Christie denied that, as he has at every news conference announcing arrests related to political corruption. He noted that one of the key players arrested, Jonathan Soto, a former city councilman in Passaic, was a Republican, and insisted that law enforcement considerations alone determined the timing of arrests.
“We never consider politics in those considerations,” he said. “It’s an old song by people who are trying to defend criminals.”
The complaints are based, in part, on hundreds of tape-recorded and videotaped encounters — including some as recent as last week — during which the officials are accused of boasting that they could use their positions to help get insurance and roofing contracts for the undercover agents. And in both Pleasantville and Passaic, they delivered on their promises, as the school board and City Council passed resolutions helpful to the fictitious insurance business, the complaints say.
Indeed, Mr. Rivera, in exchange for $5,000, declared in an expletive-laced claim on Aug. 29, according to the complaints: “I make the decision. And believe me, I’ve got the four votes on the Council.”
At times, some of those arrested joked about the impropriety of their actions. Jaysan Adams, a former president of the Pleasantville Board of Education, told a cooperating witness that they would either “get this job together or go to jail together.”
The other men arrested are Marcellus Jackson, of the Passaic City Council; James Pressley, Rafael Velez and James T. McCormick, of the Pleasantville School Board; Maurice Callaway, a former member of the Pleasantville School Board; and Louis Mister of Pleasantville, an associate of Mr. Callaway’s.
As news of the arrests spread in the places affected, many residents, so cynical about government officials, said they were not surprised.
Friday, September 07, 2007
Keepin' It Real In Jersey
Keepin' It Real In Jersey