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2018

  • A federal appeals court upheld five of seven convictions in the Bridgegate case against two former top aides to Gov. Christie. The ruling could mean former Port Authority executive Bill Baroni and Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, are headed to jail. Both have been free pending appeal and now will be resentenced. The appellate court dismissed a count of civil rights conspiracy for each defendant, but upheld convictions for wire fraud, wire fraud conspiracy and misapplying property of an organization receiving federal funds. The appeals court said Baroni and Kelly “altered the bridge’s decades-old alignment – without authorization and in direct contravention of Port Authority protocol – for the sole purpose of creating gridlock in Fort Lee.” It noted that “to execute their scheme, they conscripted 14 Port Authority employees to do sham work in pursuit of no legitimate Port Authority aim.” The court ruled there was no legitimate justification for their conduct, which prosecutors said was aimed at punishing the Fort Lee mayor for not endorsing Christie for reelection. Kelly’s lawyer, Michael Critchley, said he will petition the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.
    Mark Coyne, Chief, U.S. Attorney’s Appeals Division, Nov. 27, 2018; David Porter, Associated Press, Nov. 27, 2018; Ted Sherman, NJ Advance Media, Nov. 27, 2018

  • In true Soprano State style, the New Jersey Parole Board is expected to allow former Paterson Mayor Joey Torres to serve just over a year of this five-year sentence. Torres, a three-term mayor who won his office by calling for reforms after the previous mayor was jailed, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit official misconduct after admitting he had city employees do work on the taxpayers’ dime at a warehouse leased by his daughter and nephew. The original indictment charged Torres with official misconduct, which carried a mandatory five years in prison. The lesser charge opened the door for his release upcoming release in early December. Parole officials told the Paterson Press that Torres had earned “credits” toward an early release, but there was no explanation as to how those credits were earned. (If you want to learn more about the bad reputation of the state Parole Board, check out Chapter 8 of The Soprano State where you’ll read about the early release of mobster Angelo Prisco and others.) Shortly after Torres was jailed, his lawyer was looking to get him released under an intensive supervision program, but the state denied the application. Three former Paterson supervisors involved in the scheme were each sentenced to three years of probation. Developer Charles Florio, who provided key evidence in the case, called the Torres release a joke. “This sends a clear message that a politician can steal from the taxpayers and only do a year in prison.”
    Joe Malinconico, Paterson Press, Nov. 14, 2017; Feb. 22 and Nov. 26, 2018

  • Summons for assault and harassment have been issued to Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam and Councilman Jeffree Fauntleroy after what is being described as a melee outside the Haven Nightclub at the Golden Nugget Atlantic City, the Press of Atlantic City reported. The newspaper reviewed video footage of the fight and said it shows Gilliam “exchanging punches with an unidentified individual and Fauntleroy tossing another man to the ground from behind.” Even for Atlantic City, this is over the top, and the Atlantic City Democratic Committee wants the two to leave their posts, without pay, until an investigation by county prosecutors is completed. Both men are Democrats previously endorsed by the committee, which called their behavior disgraceful and “beyond the norms of conduct of elected officials.” The committee looked for help from the governor and lieutenant governor, but Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver said they will not use their powers to remove the mayor and councilman from office. She said the investigation should not be compromised. No charges have been filed or arrests yet made in the case.
    David Danzis, Press of Atlantic City, Nov. 27, 2018; Chris Franklin, NJ Advance Media, Nov. 26 and 27, 2018

  • Just in time for the election season comes a guilty plea in a voter bribery scheme. Hoboken resident Lizaida Camis admitted her part in a bribery scheme that paid voters $50 to cast mail-in ballots. Frank Raia, city council candidate in the 2013 municipal election, and Hoboken resident Dio Braxton, also were indicted in the case. According to federal investigators, Raia directed Camis, Braxton and others to provide voters with mail-in ballots and then deliver the completed ballots to the Hudson County clerk. Those filling in the ballots were told they could collect $50 checks after the election at Raia’s Hoboken office. According to investigators, bank records show the voters received those $50 checks from an entity hired by Raia’s political action committee. In some cases, voters filling in the ballots were told to vote for Raia and to vote in favor of an unsuccessful ballot referendum he supported to weaken Hoboken rent controls.
    U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito, Nov. 8, Oct. 31 and Sept. 20, 2018; Patrick Villanova, Jersey Journal, Oct. 18, 2018

  • In another truly Soprano State story, an Atlantic County therapist was charged with an assault-for-hire plot that all started because she knew her client was a former member of an organized criminal gang. The feds charged Diane Sylvia with asking the client to conspire to kill a Massachusetts man who was bilking her for money and threatened to report her to the licensing board. But things went wrong for Sylvia when the client went to the FBI, and an undercover agent played the role of hitman in a recorded meeting. Sylvia, a licensed clinical social worker working in Linwood, told the fake hitman she did not want the man killed, just beaten and permanently disfigured, according to the charges. “He needs his pretty face bashed in, that’s what I really want,” she told the undercover agent. Asked why, she said, “It’s just gonna make me feel better.” She paid $5,000 cash for the plan to be carried out, authorities said. She is officially charged with solicitation to commit a crime of violence, and if convicted, faces a statutory maximum of five years in prison.
    U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito, Nov. 5, 2018; Thomas Moriarty, NJ Advance Media, Nov. 5, 2018; CBS Philly, Nov. 5, 2018

  • State police say a municipal tax collector stole property tax payments from not one, but three towns in the northwestern part of the state. Rachellyn Mosher is charged with stealing more than $75,000 from Lopatcong (where she was a resident), Harmony and White townships. According to state police, she stole the cash payments from 2013 through 2018 and then falsified computerized tax records to hide the theft. Mosher is charged with official misconduct, theft and tampering with public records, police said.
    NBC New York, Nov. 3, 2018; New Jersey 101.5, Nov. 3, 2018; Associated Press, Nov. 5, 2018

  • In another embarrassing hire for Gov. Murphy, an acting director in the Department of Education was terminated after NJ Advance Media started asking state officials about her past suspension as a teacher for mocking special education kids in a computer chat. Maryellen Cervenak was hired at the Department of Education at a salary of $70,000 as acting director of professional learning, and her job was to visit schools and to coordinate training, NJ Advance Media reported. Cervenak was suspended for 120 days in 2015 from her job as a teacher for mocking special education students and making sexual comments as part of a chat group during a teacher training session, media reported. Until recently, Cervenak used the name Maryellen Lechelt, NJ Advance Media reported. Teachers participating in the chat group used school computers, and anyone who knew the group’s name could view the messages, state documents showed. An arbitrator determined Cervenak was “guilty of serious misconduct,” but said she could keep her teaching job. Cervenak is just one in a series of hires-gone-wrong for the Murphy administration. Marcellus Jackson, the former Passaic council member who pleaded guilty to bribery, quit his job as special assistant to the state education commissioner after Attorney General Gurbir Grewal found it was illegal for Jackson to have been hired in the first place. Murphy launched an investigation into how Albert Alvarez was hired as former Schools Development Authority chief of staff after being accused of sexual assault during the Murphy campaign. No charges were filed against Alvarez, but after the accusations were published, he resigned.
    Adam Clark and Brent Johnson, NJ Advance Media, Oct. 26, 2018; Linh Tat, Politico, Oct. 26, 2018

  • Once again, New Jersey captured the nation’s attention with a scandal prompting multiple investigations into the hiring by Gov. Murphy’s administration of a senior official accused of sexual assault. In response, Murphy hired former state Supreme Court Justice Peter Verniero as his investigator. As usual in the Soprano State, Verniero comes with his own baggage. (See Chapter 5.) Verniero is remembered for the 150 times he told a Senate committee, “I don’t recall,” at hearings revealing that during his tenure as state attorney general he was lax on racial profiling by state police. Questions also were raised about whether Verniero mislead senators on the issue during his judicial confirmation hearing. He dodged impeachment and retired from the high court in 2004. Murphy charged Verniero with finding out how Albert Alvarez, former Schools Development Authority chief of staff, got hired for his state job after being accused of sexual assault during the Murphy campaign. (The legislature also is investigating, and the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office is reviewing the case.) No charges were filed against Alvarez, who has resigned from his state job. Katie Brennan, chief of staff at the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, told her allegations to the Wall Street Journal. She also said, in a statement, that Alvarez raped her on April 8, 2017 when he worked for the Murphy campaign and she was a supporter. After Murphy won, Alvarez was hired by the transition and then the administration. Alvarez’ attorney said his client denies the allegations. The Hudson County prosecutor’s office investigated the rape, which Brennan reported the next day, but did not file charges. Brennan said she brought her allegations to the transition team, to the chief counsel to the governor, and then emailed the governor and his wife in June. Murphy said he was not aware of the rape allegations until Oct. 2. Brennan’s email to the governor referred to a sensitive matter, but did not mention sexual assault. The governor wrote back, “Hang in” and “We are on it,” according to the Journal. Brennan never met with the governor. The scandal continues to grow with a report that when Murphy served as ambassador to Germany, the embassy was not proactive in dealing with sexual harassment claims. A second woman alleges sexual misconduct by Alvarez when he was a student at Rutgers Law School.
    Kate King, Wall Street Journal, Oct. 14 and 15, 2018; Laura Mansnerus, New York Times, March 29, 2001; Brent Johnson and Susan K. Livio, NJ Advance Media, Oct. 14 and 15, 2018; James Nash, North Jersey Record, Oct. 16, 2018; Matt Friedman, Politico, Oct. 15, 2018; Katherine Landergan, Politico, Oct. 15, 2108; Ryan Hutchins, Politico, Oct. 15, 2018; Dustin Racioppi, northjersey.com, Oct. 17, 2018

  • While everyone was focused on taxes, Soprano State lawmakers and the governor slipped $10 million into the state budget to boost salaries for legislative staffers. The budget listed $5 million for the Assembly and $5 million for the Senate for “operations.” At least one lawmaker saw it as wrong. “Whether or not it’s justified, allocating $10 million behind closed doors for such a controversial purpose comes off as deliberately evasive,” Assemblywoman Amy Handlin told the press. Funding for each of 80 Assembly offices will jump from $110,000 to $135,000 a year, with undetermined increases for the 40 Senate offices. Senate President Steve Sweeney claimed in an interview with NJ Advance Media that the language was in the budget for all to see. (But no one noticed.) Raises in Trenton are controversial. Lawmakers and the governor already boosted salaries by $15 million for the governor’s cabinet and top aides, legislative leaders, judges and county prosecutors. Former Gov. Christie and lawmakers ran into trouble when they tried to boost salaries for staff and others by linking the pay hikes to a deal allowing Christie to profit from a book while he was still in office. When that didn’t work, the new governor and lawmakers came up with the “operations” money. An editorial in the North Jersey Record called the stealth pay raises an insult to the public.
    Samantha Marcus, NJ Advance Media, Oct. 8, 2018; Nicholas Pugliese, Northjersey.com, Oct. 8, 2018; North Jersey Editorial Board, North Jersey Record, Oct. 9, 2018

  • It’s one of those only in New Jersey stories. Englewood Cliffs council voted to place Police Chief Michael Cioffi on leave without pay after a tape recording surfaced in which Cioffi says he would like to kill Councilwoman Carrol McMorrow. Hearing officers have been appointed to handle administrative charges against Cioffi, who also was caught on tape using an expletive to refer to the mayor and laughing while a police officer mocked an Asian councilman. Cioffi’s lawyer said he was joking about wanting to kill McMorrow and the police chief is “not going to lay down” when it comes to any charges against him, according to the North Jersey Record. In a long-running conflict between the mayor and the chief, Cioffi told the North Jersey Record that he taped himself in an effort to protect himself from the mayor, but now realizes it was a mistake. He was recorded saying, “I’d like to kill her (McMorrow) but I can’t do that … I look at ‘Shawshank Redemption’ and say, hmm.” The 120-day suspension will bring Cioffi to his mandatory retirement date.
    Steve Ianoski, North Jersey Record, Oct. 2, 2018; Deena Yellin, North Jersey Record, Oct. 9 and 12, 2018

  • Kim Bogan did the crime, but did not do the time. A former Brick Township employee and daughter of former Brick Township mayor Joseph Scarpelli (who went to federal prison for bribery), Bogan pleaded guilty to stealing nearly $1 million from the township by submitting bogus insurance claims. When she was sentenced to five years in prison, then Attorney General Christopher Porrino said the sentence “sends a message that stealing money from health care plans is a serious crime with serious consequences, no matter what role you play in the illegal plot.” Last week, Bogan was released after only 10 months through the state’s Intensive Supervision Program. Her lawyer, Steven Secare, said Bogan was eligible for the program because she did not commit a violent crime and did not have a parole disqualifier. “The program is designed for people like her,” Secare told NJ Advance Media. Bogan submitted false insurance claims for chiropractic services purportedly provided by her brother, Glenn Scarpelli. The brother and his wife committed suicide by jumping from a New York City building. The New York Post reported that the couple was badly in debt. Under the terms of her release, Bogan will wear a monitoring device and must find employment to begin paying back $941,354 in restitution.
    Amanda Oglesby, Asbury Park Press, Oct. 11, 2018; Chris Sheldon, NJ Advance Media, Oct. 12, 2018; Spencer Kent, NJ Advance Media, Jan. 2, 2018; Attorney General Christopher Porrino, Oct. 24, 2017; Mary Ann Spoto, NJ Advance Media, Oct. 24, 2017; Shawn Cohen, New York Post, July 28, 2017

  • Former Gov. Christie hasn’t looked this good since he was a U.S. attorney. Battered by Bridgegate and Beachgate and with a record-low approval rating during his gubernatorial tenure, Christie is described as an unlikely hero in Michael Lewis’ new book The Fifth Risk, Quartz news reported. Christie initially headed President Trump’s transition team before the former governor was booted out after the election. In the Lewis book, as the transition gets underway, “Christie appears as the patient voice of reason, the only person who seems to have any actual government experience, the one trying to avoid nominations of corrupt people, the one patiently trying to walk the high wire over the debut performance of a third-rate circus act,” Quartz reported. According to Lewis, Trump said he didn’t want a transition team, but Christie pointed out this simple fact: it’s required by law. You can find more about Christie as a lawman in The Soprano State.
    Thu-Huong Ha, Quartz, Sept. 29, 2018

  • Marcellus Jackson, the former Passaic council member who pleaded guilty to bribery, quit his job as a special assistant to the state education commissioner after Attorney General Gurbir Grewal found it was illegal for Jackson to have been hired in the first place. Gov. Murphy said the hire was simply a matter of giving someone who repented another chance. But Grewal, who just set up a special unit to combat New Jersey’s notorious corruption, said no one convicted of an out-of-state crime or a federal crime, like Jackson, can be a public employee in the Soprano State. Either the state attorney general or a county prosecutor should have filed an application in court to bar Jackson from public employment after his conviction in 2007, but that never happened. Grewal’s new Office of Public Integrity and Accountability is investigating Jackson’s hire and has learned that others who should have been barred from holding public employment also have fallen through the cracks. Those forfeiture applications will be filed, and a new system will be put in place to make sure future offenders are barred from public employment, the attorney general pledged. Taking anti-corruption efforts a step further, a bill was introduced in the Assembly that would ban anyone convicted of public corruption from holding a job in local and state government. Current state law bans anyone convicted of corruption from holding elected office or any position of trust under the state or its subdivisions. Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi is the prime GOP sponsor of the new bill which she said would clear up any ambiguity. “We are a state that has been the butt of national jokes because of corruption,” she told NJ Advance Media.
    Dustin Racioppi, northjersey.com, Sept. 28, 2018; Brent Johnson, NJ Advance Media, Sept. 28, 2018

  • Bergen County Sheriff Michael Saudino resigned after WNYC released a recording of Saudino making racist remarks to his staff about the new governor’s inauguration. According to the recording, Saudino said, “He talked about the whole thing, the marijuana, sanctuary state…better criminal justice reform. Christ almighty, in other words, let the blacks come in, do whatever the (expletive) they want, smoke their marijuana, do this do that, and don’t worry about it. You know, we’ll tie the hands of cops.” He said Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, who is a Sikh, was given his job because he wears a turban and questioned whether Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver is gay because she is unmarried. Four of Saudino’s undersheriffs also resigned. Grewal and the Bergen County prosecutor will investigate. “The fact that a top official could make racist comments about the African-American community, and that no one in the room would challenge or correct him, raises serious concerns,” Grewal said. Saudino apologized and tried to stay in his post, before resigning on Sept. 21. He then tried to move his resignation date to Oct. 5, which would mean that the governor could appoint his replacement instead of the voters in the next election. But the secretary of state said no way, the Sept. 21 date would hold. Saudino will not get the Soprano State’s traditional big payout for unused sick days and vacation. In 2001, Bergen County ended such payouts for elected officials, thereby saving $14,000 in Saudino’s case. WNYC pointed out that Saudino headed the largest law enforcement agency in the state’s most populated county. WNYC’s story on the tape recording followed its reporting that the majority of the inmates in the Bergen County jail are immigrants arrested by ICE in New York and imprisoned under a contract paying the county $1.4 million a month. The jail, unlike other ICE facilities in the region, operates under old detention standards that forbid “contact visits” that would allow those detained to hug their children.
    Matt Katz, WNYC, Sept. 20, 2018; Allison Pries, NJ Advance Media, Sept. 21, 2018; Steve Ianoski, North Jersey Record, Sept. 27 & 28, 2018; Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, Sept. 21, 2018

  • The Toms River Municipal Utilities Authority hired the president of the town Republican Club as its new executive director at a salary of $120,000, and Democrats are calling foul. Two Democratic council members said Robert DiBiase does not have a C4 wastewater collection system operators license, a preferred qualification for the job, the Asbury Park Press reported. DiBiase quit as president of the GOP when he hired at the authority where Chair Carmen Memoli said DiBiase did not need the wastewater license because one person at the MUA already has one. Memoli said the position was advertised for a week on the MUA website and the board felt DiBiase was the most qualified candidate. You can find much more on how authorities operate in New Jersey in Chapter Seven of The Soprano State.
    Jean Mikle, Asbury Park Press, Sept. 21, 2018

  • Just to keep the Soprano State image rolling, Gov. Murphy has hired a former Passaic council member, who pleaded guilty to bribery, as a $70,000 special assistant in the Department of Education. Politico reported Marcellus Jackson began work in July in the Department of Education’s Office of Civic and Social Engagement. Department of Education spokesman Michael Yaple said the department believes in second chances and Jackson will work “with various stakeholders, faith-based groups and other community and civic organizations to advance public education in New Jersey.” In 2007, Jackson was arrested along with 10 other public officials in one of U.S. Attorney Chris Christie’s anti-corruption sweeps. Jackson pleaded guilty after he was charged with taking $26,000 in bribes in a sting operation dubbed Operation Broken Boards. The feds said Jackson took $26,000 from a fake company and in return promised the company insurance contracts and meetings with other public officials. During one parking lot exchange of $6,000, Jackson promised an undercover FBI agent, “Good things is gonna happen,” the feds said. Jackson was sentenced to 25 months in prison.
    Matt Friedman, Politico New Jersey, Sept. 17, 2018; Dustin Racioppi, northjersey.com

  • Attorney General Gurbir Grewal has taken the task of rooting out government corruption out of the hands of the state’s Division of Criminal Justice and put it in the hands of a former federal prosecutor whose unit reports directly to Grewal. After talking with members of the public, Grewal said he came to this conclusion: “We must root out the corruption and misconduct that undermines faith in our public institutions.” The new unit under Thomas Eicher, former head of the criminal division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Newark, will tackle cases involving local, state and federal officials. At a time when federal courts have made it tougher to fight corruption, this unit will fill the void, Grewal said. Readers only need to look at Chapter 5 of The Soprano State, “See No Evil Law Enforcement and Court Jesters” to see the need. In an op-ed piece for the New York Times and when they visit college classes, coauthors Bob Ingle and Sandy McClure cite the reasons for New Jersey’s culture of corruption, and among those reasons is the failure of the Attorney General’s Office to take on government corruption. Grewal’s actions are a step in the right direction.
    S.P. Sullivan, NJ Advance Media, Sept. 10, 2018

  • Hudson County Judge Paul DePascale sentenced former Kearny school district bookkeeper Gina Neri, accused of stealing more than $200,000 from the school district by writing checks to herself, to five years of probation. Neri told the judge she was “very, very sorry.” She was ordered to pay $318,000 in restitution after pleading guilty to third degree theft by deception. She was originally charged with second-degree theft. Second-degree theft carries the possibility of 10 years in prison. Her lawyer argued in court that there were “extenuating circumstances” for the theft.
    Michaelangelo Conte, Jersey Journal, Sept. 14, 2018

  • In a continuing scandal at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for women, a third round of indictments charged corrections officer Ronald Coleman with sexually assaulting an inmate with the help of officer Brian Ambroise, who is accused of allowing the women into a secure area. Ambroise faces previous charges in the case where seven employees from the facility have been charged with sexually abusing inmates. The abuses were brought to light by NJ Advance Media and have resulted in investigations by Hunterdon County, the state attorney general and the feds. Nearly a dozen lawsuits, including two class action suits, also have been filed.
    Rebecca Everett, NJ Advance Media, Sept. 14, 2018

  • An audit by the state Office of Legislative Services found the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (funded by casino fees and luxury taxes) failed to keep tabs on the cost of the Miss America Pageant. “The CRDA was unable to provide documentation to support any efforts on their part to monitor the actual costs related to the Miss America Competition,” the audit said. There were no reports, as required, every 90 days to account for production costs. The audit covered the years 2014 to 2017. Under the first three-year contract, CRDA paid $6.8 million toward the pageant. Under a second three-year contract, CRDA agreed to pay $12.5 million, NJ Advance media reported. The audit recommends that CRDA “develop and institute monitoring controls” and find out if funds were spent “in and efficient and effective manner.” Readers can find plenty more on the CRDA in Chapters 7 to 9 of The Soprano State.
    Amy Kuperinsky, NJ Advance Media, Sept. 14, 2018

  • The New Jersey state pension fund invested $500 million in the National Enquirer? Yes, another national scandal with a Soprano state connection. The council overseeing the state’s $78 billion public worker pension fund invested $500 million in Chatham Asset Management, the hedge fund that is the money behind American Media, publisher of the National Enquirer, according to media reports. Adam Liebtag, acting chair of the New Jersey pension investment council, said the pension fund made direct investments in Chatham’s holding in American Media, but those investments are less than the total $500 million that went into Chatham, NJ Advance Media reported. The issue of just who supplies the money for the National Enquirer has come to light in the wake of President Trump’s former personal lawyer telling federal prosecutors that he worked with the supermarket tabloid’s executives to protect Trump. Michael Cohen told prosecutors he worked with the executives to pay a Playboy playmate for her story alleging an affair with Trump in what is called a “catch and kill” because the story would then never be published. The Wall Street Journal reported the CEO of the National Enquirer, David Pecker, was granted immunity in the probe. Vanity Fair reported Dylan Howard, another executive with American Media, has been offered immunity to talk with prosecutors. Liebtag said the state will be in contact with Chatham to review any possible liability, NJ Advance Media reported. “I think we have to do a gut check and do our due diligence,” he told NJ Advance Media. New Jersey was not alone in its investment. Other state pensions funds (California) also invested in Chatham, according to media reports.
    Samantha Marcus, NJ Advance Media, August 30, 2018; Gerry Smith, Katherine Burton, Shahien Nasiripour and Allison McNeely, Bloomberg, August 30, 2018; Reuters, Aug. 23, 2018

  • New Jersey made headlines again with qualifiers like “It’s no joke” and “(really)” when the media learned Stockton University opens its Fall semester with a minor in medical marijuana. WNYC broke the story, but NJ Advance Media picked it up and added, “You read that right.” New Jersey has a medical marijuana program but has yet to legalize marijuana. Twenty-five students signed up for the five Stockton classes that include the history of and laws that apply to cannabis. An internship is part of the program. An associate professor said the industry is opening up a lot of possibilities and new jobs. New Jersey joins other states like Michigan and Vermont in offering the specialty. Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia also is starting a medically focused program this fall in cannabis studies.
    Karen Rouse, WNYC News, August 30, 2018; Payton Guion, NJ Advance Media, August 30, 2018

  • With Gov. Murphy winning the endorsement of the powerful New Jersey Education Association even school testing isn’t exempt from politics in the Soprano state. Gov. Murphy was already determined to do away with the state’s standardized testing, and now comes word that the majority of the state’s students still cannot pass the math portion of the PARCC. But that’s no worries for the state’s teachers. The Murphy administration decided state test scores will only count for 5 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, down from 30 percent. In July, the Star-Ledger editorial board noted the test isn’t perfect, but advocated for finding something to replace it before it is scaled back and eliminated. The Soprano state’s powerful teachers’ union is opposed to the testing. The editorial board pointed to a union ad showing a parent with a crying first grader who was too tired to go to karate because of the testing. Come to find out, the test isn’t even given in first grade and the parent was a union leader. Parents in affluent school districts argue they don’t need the tests to evaluate teachers. But in poorer school districts with a long history of underserving students, parents think differently. “In Newark, we don’t have the luxury in trusting our teachers and administrators to do the right thing because they have failed us for so long,” Tanya King of Newark told the newspaper.
    Adam Clark, NJ Advance Media, Aug. 22, 2018; Hannan Adely, North Jersey Record, Aug. 31, 2018; Star-Ledger Editorial Board, July 15, 2018

  • The security of the Soprano state’s voting system remains at risk because only one county (Warren) of 21 New Jersey counties has a paper trail to verify election voting. A $10 million federal grant to try to rectify the situation, isn’t enough, according to the North Jersey Editorial Board. The New Jersey system has been vulnerable for years without a paper trail to check the votes. “The problem in New Jersey is you wouldn’t know if there was a hack or not,” Aquene Freechild, co-director of voting project for Public Citizen, told the newspaper. Earlier this year, the Center for American Progress gave New Jersey a D rating on voting security. “Until New Jersey switches to a statewide paper-based voting system and requires post-election audits, its elections remain vulnerable,” the report stated. It is interesting to note that a bill is pending in the Legislature that would correction the situation over a four-year period.
    New Jersey Editorial Board, Aug. 22, 2018; Nicholas Pugliese, northjersey.com, June 4, 2018

  • U.S. District Judge Freda Wolfson, the same judge who sentenced former Sen. Wayne Bryant (the politician facing 10 years in prison for bribery and pension fraud) to four years, sentenced former Jersey City police chief Phil Zacche (who also faced 10 years after admitting he stole more than $20,000 from the city in a no-show job scheme) to two years of probation. Zacche will serve six months of the sentence in home confinement. He was given one of the lightest sentences of the 11 officers who have pleaded guilty in the off-duty jobs scheme, the Jersey Journal reported. Zacche admitted he was paid for security at the city housing authority but did not show up for the work. Wolfson ruled the amount Zacche stole was “not substantial.” The judge said she saw no need to deter Zacche from future crimes, but his sentence would deter others, the newspaper reported. We’ve seen this before too: Zacche’s family, friends and others sent letters to the judge who noted that his loved ones had already forgiven the ex-chief. She suggested he “do some healing for yourself and move on.” A state pension board will decide if he gets a pension of $143,000 a year. It is worth noting that Wolfson acquitted Bryant of all charges in a second corruption trial. Prosecutors labeled undisclosed legal fees paid to Bryant as bribes. Wolfson ruled there was not enough evidence to prove the charges. You can find much more on Bryant in Chapters 1, 3, 4, 5 and 10 of The Soprano State.
    Terrence T. McDonald, Jersey Journal, Aug. 14, 2018; George Mast and Jim Walsh, Courier-Post, Aug. 11, 2012; Jeff Pillets, northjersey.com, Aug. 10, 2012; Star-Ledger, July 24, 2009.

  • Taxpayers in the Kenilworth School District will foot a bill of $100,000 in salary, severance and unused vacation days for their former Superintendent Thomas Tramaglini, who resigned after being charged with daily pooping near a neighboring school’s running track. No one yet knows a motive. Tramaglini, who earned $147,500 a year, resigned July 26 and will be paid through September, plus two months of severance and $23,827 in unused vacation days, NJ Advance Media reported. The school district defended the payout by saying no staff can be suspended without pay unless indicted or brought up on tenure charges, and superintendents are tenured for the life of their contract. The school district also will not block Tramaglini’s applying for unemployment. His attorney called Tramaglini’s actions a minor offense and said he intends to sue the Homdel police for circulating the former superintendent’s mug shot.
    Chris Sheldon, NJ Advance Media, Aug. 16, 2018; Steve Strunsky, NJ Advance Media, Aug. 14, 2018

  • Michael Coppola, police chief for the scandal ridden Palisades Interstate Parkway police department, resigned after he was arrested and charged with buying cocaine and having it sent to his post office box, The Record reported. Coppola was suspended without pay for three months after the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office released a report saying an investigation revealed the police department engaged in improper high-speed chases, illegal incentives for arrests and poor internal reviews of misconduct. The Prosecutor’s Office also ordered a halt to parkway police using the Internet to lure drug dealers into the park for arrests.
    Steve Ianoski, The Record, July 12 and Aug. 17, 2018; Acting Bergen County prosecutor Dennis Calo, July 12, 2018

  • If you are a parent or student wondering why tuition at Rutgers University continues to climb, take a look at research done by NJ Advance Media showing Rutgers paid out $11.5 million over the past decade in settlements to more than 12 top administrators and coaches “booted from their jobs.” The payments included settlements, contract buyouts and sabbatical payments. Sometimes the amounts were made public. In other cases, NJ Advance Media had to use requests under the Open Public Records Act to get the information. Here’s a few of the payments: Athletic director Julie Hermann, $1.66 million payout; football coach Kyle Flood, $1.4 million payout; Flood’s assistants, $3.3 million; basketball coach Eddie Jordan, $2.1 million; basketball coach Mike Rice, $475,000. Rice was fired after a video was made public of him hitting, kicking and shouting gay slurs at players during team practice. The university says the payouts avoid lawsuits. Rutgers is raising its tuition 2.3 percent for the school year 2018-2019, an increase similar to those in the past five years. In-state tuition for a boarding student will be $27,681. Out-of-state students will pay $43,988.
    Kelly Heyboer, NJ Advance Media, Aug. 3, 2018; Catherine Carrera, northjersey.com, July 18, 2018

  • What we labeled as a “bright spot in the Soprano State” turned out not to be one at all. In fact, it turned out to be another example of the same stuff taxpayers in Paterson and elsewhere have seen for years: politicians who say one thing and then do another. When Paterson Mayor Jane Williams-Warren, the city’s municipal clerk for 24 years, took office, she said, unlike the previous mayor (who went to jail for having city employees do work for his daughter’s business on city time), she would not be a double dipper who collected a state pension from her previous job while drawing her mayor’s salary. “There’s a right way and wrong way to do things,” she told the Paterson Press. “I intend to stop the pension.” But the Paterson Press reports that for her 264 days a mayor, Williams-Warren did take her $8,123 monthly pension ($97,500 per year) while collecting her $119,000 mayoral salary. Here’s how she explained it: “At the time you asked me, I did not know if I had to stop the pension. That was my intent, if I had to stop the pension I would have no problem doing it.” As to why she didn’t come forward about the dual payments: “I just didn’t think of it,” she told the newspaper. Williams-Warren also departed her job as mayor with a $40,552 check for unused vacation days during her time as Paterson’s clerk. Municipal records for the payment indicate she was still owed the money because of a miscalculation when she retired from the clerk’s post in 2015, the Paterson Press reported.
    Joe Malinconico, Paterson Press, Aug. 2, 2018 and Oct. 2 and 10, 2017

  • It’s Paterson again where an investigation by former state Supreme Court Justice John Wallace recommended that Karen Johnson, principal of Eastside High School during a basketball recruiting scandal, should be disciplined along with five others. The others were disciplined (two fired), but Johnson instead went on 206 days of paid medical leave before retiring July 1, the Paterson Press reported. (Her annual pay for the school year 2017 to 2018 was $170,016.) With her retirement comes $63,756 in unused sick leave. She is one of 38 district retirees who will be paid a total of $936,874 in unused sick and vacation days this year. But Johnson is perched at the top of the list because she will be getting more in unpaid sick leave than 400 district retirees over the past five years, according to research by the Paterson Press. The newspaper noted Johnson’s domestic partner, Eileen Shafer, is Paterson’s schools superintendent.
    Joe Malinconico, Paterson Press, June 21 and Aug. 8, 2018, April 13, 2017

  • Rarely do we tip our hat to an elected official, but with the passing of former state Sen. Bill Schluter at 90 years of age, it must be done. Schluter authored the New Jersey Campaign Contributions and Expenditures Reporting Act, legislation creating campaign contribution limits, disclosure requirements and the New Jersey State Election Law Enforcement Commission. It is hard to imagine what the state would be like without it. But Schluter knew too well that laws won’t cure all in the Soprano State. In 2012, he told the Star-Ledger that political action committees were being used to circumvent “pay to play” laws in New Jersey. Schluter also was the author of Soft Corruption: How Unethical Conduct Undermines Good Government and What to Do About It. Sen. Tom Kean Jr. labeled Schluter a courageous leader in the fight for good government and said, “There is no questions that we are a better off as a state because of his advocacy.” A fitting tribute.
    Kevin Shea, NJ.com, Aug. 6, 2018; Politico, Matt Friedman, Aug. 6, 2018

  • More than 20 years ago at the Soprano State’s annual correspondence club dinner, Gov. Christie Whitman told the crowd that like his former wives, she understood Donald Trump’s “shortcomings.” She was poking fun after Trump vexed her with legal challenges to an Atlantic City tunnel of benefit to Trump’s casino competitor. Now, things are far more serious. In an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, Whitman called for President Trump to quit after he sided with Russian leader Vladimir Putin rather than U.S. intelligence on the issue of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. “Trump’s 2016 ‘America First’ platform might be more aptly named ‘Russia First,” Whitman wrote. “As a candidate and as president, he has constantly praised Putin just as he has constantly undercut the core institutions of our democracy, the courts, the media and the FBI.” Whitman charged that Trump “distains democracies and admires dictatorships” and has “undermined the United States’ reputation as a consistent, reliable moral force for good in the world.” She called on her fellow Republicans to speak out and for Congress to implement sanctions against Russia and to protect the Mueller investigation. Whitman was governor from 1994 to 2001 when she stepped down to head the Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush. A moderate Republican, she was considered a vice presidential pick in 1996, but conservative Republicans objected to her prochoice stand on abortion. As EPA chief, she is infamous for assuring New York City that the air was safe after 9/11. (More on Whitman in The Soprano State, Introduction and Chapters 2 to 7 and 9.)
    Christine Todd Whitman, Los Angeles Times, July 22, 2018; Brett Pulley, The New York Times, Oct. 21, 1997

  • A Bloomfield councilman, believed to have flushed $5,000 in bribe money down the toilet when state police knocked on his door, has been sentenced to five years in the slammer. Elias Chalet pleaded guilty to accepting a $15,000 bribe in return for using his position to assure the township would purchase a business owner’s commercial property. After Chalet told the businessman the sale would only go through if the $15,000 bribe was paid, the businessman told state police, who recorded the next two meetings where Chalet was first paid $10,000 and then $5,000, investigators said. When state police closed in after the last payment, Chalet locked himself in his real estate office for 45 minutes and refused to open the door or window. That’s when state police believe the cash was flushed.
    Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, July 12, 2018

  • The Schools Construction Corp. is a Soprano State legend when it comes to authorities out of control. (Chapter 7) The corporation was set up by the state to spend $8.6 billion on new schools in New Jersey, but wasted hundreds of millions of dollars through poor management and financial controls, high-priced professional fees and lax oversight, according to the state inspector general. Washing away the tainted authority’s name, the state abolished the agency in 2007 and started what is now called the New Jersey Schools Development Authority where there has been a theft of smaller proportions. Corey Jester, a temp worker hired for the IT help desk, has been indicted and charged with stealing 28 computers and then selling them on the Internet. Investigators said he took the computers, valued at $25,000 to $30,000, from a storage closet, erased the data, and then sold them for $100 to $200 each. His brother, Darryl Jester, also was indicted and charged with helping to sell the computers.
    Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, July 16, 2018; S.P. Sullivan, NJ Advance Media, July 16, 2018

  • The administrations of both Gov. Christie and now Gov. Murphy think safety reports on NJ TRANSIT bridges should be kept secret. A request by The Record to see bridge inspection reports for 600 bridges has been denied twice. The administrations say security is the reason. Now comes the collapse of a railroad bridge in Bergen County as a freight train passed over it. No one was hurt. But the last wheels of the last car went into the water. The Open Public Records Act was created to keep the public’s records open to the public. Hard to fathom why the records can’t be available since it’s the public riding the rails.
    NBC New York, July 28, 2018; WCBS 880, April 30, 2018

  • At a cost of more than $15 million a year for taxpayers, top New Jersey officials got a big raise this month, 30 of them getting pay hikes of more than $30,000 a year. The raises, approved in the Spring, bringing salaries for the governor’s cabinet to $175,000, the same as the governor and lieutenant governor. The governor’s chief of staff and chief counsel also bring down a $175,000 salary, along with the Senate president, Assembly speaker and minority leaders in both houses. Judges and county prosecutors get a $24,000 boost over three years. The governor’s communications director will earn $140,000 and his chief spokesman $135,000. Toping them all is the CEO of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority who draws a salary of $225,000.
    Samantha Marcus and Brent Johnson, NJ Advance Media, July 16, 2018; Brent Johnson, NJ Advance Media, May 18, 2018

  • New Jersey taxpayers shell out big bucks for the state’s retirement plan. The newest example is the retirement of Bayonne Police Chief Drew Sisk, who has been in the chief’s job for a year. Sisk, who earned $252,912 as chief, will get a yearly pension of $177,000, or $14,753 a month, the Jersey Journal reported. Sisk’s payout for unused sick and vacation time was not yet public, the newspaper reported. He has been on the force for more than 30 years.
    Corey W. McDonald, Jersey Journal, July 17, 2018

  • Improper high-speed chases, illegal incentives for arrests, and poor internal review of misconduct were reported by the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office after an investigation of the 28-officer Palisades Interstate Parkway Police. The department patrols the Palisades Interstate Parkway in New Jersey and the Palisades Interstate Park. The investigation began after the death of an East Harlem man who crashed his motorcycle during a high-speed chase where the officer’s vehicle reached speeds of 130 miles per hour. The report found parkway police broke the attorney general’s guidelines for high-speed pursuits in 36 of 41 chases. Speeds exceeded 100 miles per hour 23 times and exceed 120 miles per hour on 13 occasions, according to the report. The Prosecutor’s Office also ordered a halt to parkway police using the Internet to lure drug dealers into the park for arrests. During one such incident, a Bronx man fell to his death during a pursuit. The report also found officers were illegally given special parking spaces and police cars and meal tickets of $200 as rewards for issuing the most tickets or making the most arrests in a month. In addition, the report said the Parkway Police Association functioned as a labor union, but solicited donations as a charity. Parkway police chief Michael Coppola has been suspended for three months.
    Acting Bergen County prosecutor Dennis Calo, July 12, 2018; Steve Ianoski, Northjersey.com, July 12, 2018

  • The Kushner family grabbed Soprano State headlines by suing Jersey City and alleging the mayor failed to follow through on 30-year tax breaks for a troubled high-rise project because the city (filled with Democrats) doesn’t like President Trump. The federal lawsuit alleges “political animus” toward the Kushners and Trump, and claims the project was defaulted “to appease and curry favor with the overwhelmingly anti-Trump constituents of Jersey City.” Charles Kushner told The Real Deal that the city “switched on a dime because they were pandering to the Trump haters.” (The details of how Charles ended up in the federal slammer can be found in Chapter 2 of The Soprano State.) Mayor Steven Fulop, who said the project missed its deadline to begin construction, was having none of it. “It’s not like the Kushners have a great deal of credibility in anything they say,” Fulop said via email. “Their entire lawsuit is hearsay nonsense. Bottom line, the same way they illegally use the presidency to make money is the same way here they try to use the presidency to pretend victims. They will do anything to manipulate a situation.” The high-rise in question (two towers of 56 stories for apartments and retail space) has been the subject of other negative publicity. Charles’ son, Jared Kushner, son-in-law and advisor to the president, no longer runs Kushner Cos., but his sister Nicole Meyer-Kushner came under fire for touting the family ties to Trump while soliciting money for the project in China under a program that trades investments for visas. That’s when Fulop pulled his support for the city tax breaks, the Associated Press reported. State tax breaks, once $93 million, also have been reduced by $59 million, The New York Times reported.
    Charles V. Bagli, The New York Times, June 28, 2018; Bernard Condon, Associated Press, June 28, 2018; Max Greenwood, The Hill, June 28, 2018; Terrence T. McDonald, Jersey Journal, June 27 and 28, 2018

  • In one of those only in New Jersey stories, a former reporter for The Trentonian, a Trenton tabloid, has been charged by the feds with a million-dollar scheme involving the illegal trapping and trafficking of more than 3,500 diamondback turtles worth more than $350 each, The Trentonian reported. Investigators charged David Sommers with poaching the diamondback terrapins from the state’s coastal marshes and moving them to Pennsylvania before selling them in New York and Wisconsin. He also is charged with smuggling turtles to Canada in a package supposedly containing a $10 book, the tabloid he once worked for reported.
    Isaac Avilucea and Penny Ray, The Trentonian, July 10, 2018; CBS News, July 10, 2018

  • The executive director of the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor, the organized-crime watchdog for the ports of New York and New Jersey, told CBS News that Marlon Brando’s On the Waterfront is alive and well today. “I like to say if you watch On the Waterfront, not much has changed, except the waterfront is now in color,” Walter Arsenault told CBS. All five of New York’s organized crime families are somehow connected to the port, Arsenault said. As Gov. Christie went out the door last year, New Jersey tried to unilaterally withdraw from the bi-state commission, but federal Judge Susan Wigenton has now blocked the way, saying “The Commission works to reform corrupt and discriminatory hiring practices in the port.” The ruling counters former Sen. Ray Lesniak who spearheaded the push to withdraw from the commission by saying it was no longer needed. Lesniak wants to take the $12 million New Jersey contributes each year to the commission and instead send it to the state attorney general’s office where he claims “they have better tools to do what the waterfront commission is doing, without interfering with the legitimate business practices.” (See The Soprano State’s Chapter 5, “See No Evil” Law Enforcement and Court Jesters, to find out just how well the attorney general’s office attacks corruption.) In recent years, the commission helped prosecute high-ranking union officials who teamed with the Genovese crime family to extort their own union members. (Federal investigators said Genovese crime family associates and high-ranking members of the International Longshoremen’s Association conspired to collect tribute payments from New Jersey port workers every year at Christmas.) The commission also has identified 400 longshoremen it says are almost always connected to union leaders or organized crime and who have special jobs (worth $117 million a year) and who sometimes are paid 24 to 27 hours a day, even when they are out of the state or on vacation. In March, longshoreman Paul Moe was convicted of fraud and sentenced to prison for earning $493,000 a year “mostly when he wasn’t there,” Arsenault said. (Moe said he did nothing wrong because he only had to be “on call” to collect his pay and is appealing. His lawyer said he was targeted because of his friendship with a top union official.) Lesniak still contends that hiring practices should be left to the terminal operators and the shipping association. But Arsenault said the commission is charged, not just with keeping the mob out of the ports, but with ending corrupt hiring practices.
    CBS News, June 22, 2018; Ted Sherman, NJ Advance Media, June 4 and March 26, 2018; Patrick McGeehan, The New York Times, June 4, 2018

  • With a tragic school bus accident that killed a teacher and a student fresh on the minds of New Jersey’s parents, now comes another case: the conviction of a New Jersey Motor Vehicle clerk who gave bogus driver’s licenses to school bus drivers who never passed mandatory tests, but were willing to pay a bribe. Rodman Lora pleaded guilty and was sentenced to seven years in prison for accepting tens of thousands of dollars in bribes in return for giving 200 people licenses without the required exam. Prosecutors said Lora altered the driver records for bribes averaging $700 per license. A runner (who recruited customers), a bus company owner and a security guard also were sentenced in the scheme that resulted in charges against 70 people and allowed those with bogus licenses to drive school buses as well as vehicles carrying hazardous materials, state prosecutors said.
    Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, June 15, 2018; Cassidy Grom, NJ.com, June 15, 2018

  • An ABC News political contributor and a former high-profile federal prosecutor, Chris Christie kept himself in the news with strong talk about President Trump’s likely impeachment if he pardoned himself and more talk about how Trump could legally be charged with obstruction of justice. Christie’s comments are contrary to those of Trump legal advisor Rudy Giuliani, another former federal prosecutor and ex-New York mayor. The Christie comments grabbed big headlines just about the same time Giuliani claimed he was sending clients to Christie’s newly opened law firm in Mendham, something a Christie spokesman denied. Giuliani also speculated about the possibility of Christie replacing Attorney General Jeff Sessions should Trump replace Sessions after the November congressional elections. Christie, a big booster of Trump, quickly was ousted as transition chief after Trump’s election. Political pundits blame the ouster on Christie’s prosecution of Charles Kushner, father-in-law to Trump’s daughter Ivanka. You can read all about Kushner’s hiring of a prostitute to entice his brother-in-law and Kushner’s prosecution for witness tampering in Chapter 2 of The Soprano State.
    Jacqueline Thomsen, The Hill, June 3, 2018; Veronica Stracqualursi, CNN, June 3, 2018; Dustin Racioppi, Northjersey.com, June 9, 2018; Nancy Cook, Politico, April 25, 2018

  • The two men at the top of a medical testing laboratory that became the target of the largest ever medical bribery case (involving cash bribes, prostitutes, getaways and strip club visits for medical professionals) are going to jail. (Another New Jersey first.) David Nicoll, president of Biodiagnostic Laboratory Services, and his brother Scott Nicoll (a senior employee) were sentenced to six years and 43 months respectively. Prosecutors said the company raked in more than $100 million in blood sample referrals with bribes to physicians willing to write the orders, even if the tests weren’t needed. The federal case resulted in the conviction of 53 defendants, 38 of them doctors. The two brothers at the top of the scheme received reduced sentences for their cooperation with federal authorities, who laid out a picture of medical professionals willing to trade blood specimen orders for money, prostitutes, a New York strip club and sports and concert tickets. David Nicoll lived in Morris Plains and spent the money he raked in on a $800,000 pool shaped like Mickey Mouse and on a collection of classic cars, according to court testimony.
    U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito, June 13, 2018; Associated Press, June 15, 2018; Ted Sherman, NJ Advance Media, June 13, 2018

  • Former Gov. Christie is using his old attorney general, now his lawyer, to block the public from seeing emails between the Christie administration and Kushner Companies, previously managed by Jared Kushner until he moved to Washington D.C. to become a top advisor to his father-in-law, President Trump. At the end of Christie’s tenure last year, the New Jersey Economic Development Authority again authorized a $33 million tax credit for Kushner Companies’ troubled project One Journal Square in Jersey City. Former attorney general Jeff Chiesa said he identified documents responsive to an open records request by nonprofit MapLight. But here is the glitch: Christie labeled all his office’s electronic records privileged and confidential until someone requests them, when Chiesa then gets to decide whether or not they are public record. And Chiesa has rejected MapLight’s request. Experts on New Jersey’s Open Public Record Act are rightfully aghast at the former governor’s maneuver to keep records secret.
    John Bowden, The Hill, May 25, 2018; Andrew Perez, MapLight and Fast Company, May 24, 2018

  • Gold badges for public officials have a history in New Jersey. In The Soprano State, Chapter 4, you learn how a 5-inch news story by Sandy McClure, picked up 101.5 FM, sparked a tax revolt after Assembly Speaker Joe Doria supplied lawmakers with their own gold badges. Now, after Port Authority Commissioner Caren Turner (now ex-commissioner) flashed her Port Authority badge at a traffic stop where the vehicle of her daughter’s friend was being impounded, the Port Authority is investigating just why its commissioners are given badges. And some New Jersey lawmakers are pondering banning badges for all those who are not law enforcement or corrections officials. In New Jersey, county freeholders, mayors, and town council members sport badges. Passaic Mayor Hector Lora told northjersey.com the badges are not badges of authority, but of “responsibility and accountability.” Others see the opportunity for abuse. Sen. Vin Gopal intends to introduce legislation to end the practice. “If you’re not a law enforcement official, you should not have a badge,” Gopal said.
    Larry Higgs, NJ Advance Media, May 24, 2018; Matt Kadosh, May 2, northjersey.com; Claude Brodesser-Akner, NJ Advance Media, May 1, 2018

  • Paramus school officials allowed a 77-year-old bus driver with a bad driving record to get behind the wheel of a school bus, and now there will be a trial because a student and a teacher are dead. Paramus Schools Superintendent Michele Robinson said she was “shocked, saddened and angry” to learn about the driving record of school bus driver Hudy Muldrow Sr., who is charged with vehicular homicide in a horrific school bus accident that killed a student and a teacher and injured dozens. But reporting by northJersey.com revealed that in December, months before the accident, Robinson was notified by the New Jersey Department of Education that Muldrow’s right to drive school buses had been suspended. His right to drive a school bus was reinstated in January, but the December notice appeared to raise no red flags at the school district. The criminal complaint charges Muldrow with trying to make an illegal U-turn after missing an exit. The bus crashed with a dump truck and was torn apart. Had anyone bothered to check, the school district could have found what Judge Stephen Taylor described as Muldrow’s terrible driving record: eight speeding tickets, tickets for careless driving, improper turns, operating a vehicle while suspended and having no insurance. His personal license was suspended seven times, his commercial license, nine, according to the judge. Muldrow’s lawyer called the record “above average.” We’ll see what a jury has to say about that, and whether the tragedy prompts much needed changes in state rules about monitoring those who get behind the wheel of a school bus carrying innocent children.
    Curtis Tate, northjersey.com, May 31, 2018; Ray Villeda, NBC New York, May 31, 2018; Chris Glorioso and Jen Maxfield, NBC New York, May 23, 2018; Jeff Goldman, NJ Advance Media, May 25, 2018; Peggy Wright, GannettNJ.com, May 30, 2018

  • The New Jersey Turnpike Authority spent $276,119 going after a Florida pizza business that crafted its logo much like the Garden State Parkway emblem. The authority first challenged Jersey Boardwalk Pizza in federal court, and lost. Now, the authority has lost with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The pizza business was founded by two New Jersey natives who said they meant their logo, which replaces the word “parkway” with “pizza,” as a tribute.
    Rob Jennings, NJ Advance Media, May 25, 2018

  • Once again, the feds have stepped in to clean up a New Jersey mess, as the U.S. Department of Justice announced its investigation of the sexual abuse of inmates at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women. State lawmakers, the Hunterdon County prosecutor and the state attorney general have ongoing investigations. Lawmakers have heard chilling testimony, five male guards were indicted and two have been convicted of official misconduct. Obviously, the feds believe more needs to be done. The federal civil rights investigation will focus on “the institution’s ability to protect prisoners from sexual abuse,” according to NJ Advance Media whose reporting has brought public attention to the prison scandal. Here is what the media outlet reported: Some of the minimum-security housing units do not have cameras to record staff behavior. Even knowing there is a connection between sexual abuse and contraband smuggled into the prison, there still is no policy to stop prison staff from smuggling cigarettes, food or drugs into the prison. While other prisons require staff to park off site and go through security, at Edna Mahan, staffers drive their cars into the facility. A former guard, Jason Mays, convicted of abusing two inmates, was often the only guard at a minimum-security cottage housing 40 inmates without surveillance cameras. (If you want to read about another time the feds came into New Jersey to clean things up, check out The Soprano State, Chapter One, to learn how the feds took over the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.)
    S.P Sullivan, NJ Advance Media, May 16, 2018; Editorial, northjersey.com, May 19, 2018; Nick Muscavage, mycentraljersey.com, May 10, 2018; Mike Deak, mycentraljersey.com, May 16, 2018

  • Whether it’s taking a bribe or trying to use their influence at a routine traffic stop, New Jersey pols just can’t seem to learn. South Orange-Maplewood school board member Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad, was caught on a dash cam video using profanity and insults after she was stopped for speeding. (The incident comes in the wake of Port Authority commissioner Caren Turner losing her job over outrageous behavior at a traffic stop.) Both women became agitated and emotional over a traffic stop interrupting their family routine. When a South Orange cop pulled Lawson-Muhammad’s vehicle over and approached her car window, she identified herself as a school board and community member. Lawson-Muhammad, who is black, told the officer, “I am scared of cops because you guys hurt black people.” She then said she intended to contact the police officer’s chief whom she called a “skinhead cop.” Lawson-Muhammad has apologized. Black Parents Workshop, a local advocacy group, is calling for her resignation. (See The Soprano State, Chapter Five, for how Attorney General Zulima Farber lost her job over a traffic stop in 2006.)
    Olivia Rizzo, NJ Advance Media, May 17, 2018; Associated Press, May 17, 2018

  • Port Authority Police Superintendent Michael Fedorko is the latest casualty at the scandal-ridden Port Authority. Fedorko abruptly retired in the wake of a probe into Rush Limbaugh’s claims that the Port Authority superintendent provided “lights and sirens” to guide Limbaugh to a Manhattan speaking engagement at the Marine Corps Law Enforcement Foundation’s Gala. Fedorko is no stranger to controversy. (Chapter Nine of The Soprano State: A former acting state police superintendent, Fedorko also served on the New Jersey Casino Control Commission where he was criticized for having a “see no evil” approach to a high-profile construction company’s contacts with organized crime.) The police escort for Limbaugh is under investigation by the Port Authority’s Office of Inspector General because the authority’s ethics code prohibits the use of resources or vehicles for anything other than Port Authority business, NBC New York reported. Adding to the controversy, NJ Advance Media reported the investigation has expanded to include claims that a rush-hour escort also was provided for buses carrying the United States Marine Corps Band headed to the same Gala. Fedorko, who earned $223,782 a year at the Port Authority, is listed as a VP of the foundation sponsoring the event. Fedorko’s retirement follows the resignation of Port Authority Commissioner Caren Turner who lost her post over her behavior at a traffic stop. Turner was censured after she flashed her Port Authority badge and tried to bully two Tenafly cops with her contacts when she arrived on the scene where her daughter was a passenger in a car impounded for lack of proper registration. The scandals surrounding Fedorko and Turner follow the bribery conviction of former Port Authority chair David Samson and the Port Authority’s involvement in Bridgegate.
    Craig McCarthy and Ted Sherman, NJ Advance Media, April 25, 2018; Ted Sherman, NJ Advance Media, May 7, 2018; Brian Thompson, NBC New York, May 7, 2018; Curtis Tate, northjersey.com, May 7, 2018

  • Sen. Bob Menendez, severely admonished by the Senate Ethics Committee, is still likely to be reelected in New Jersey, unlike Sen. Bob Torricelli who lost his post for the same admonishment for much the same behavior in 2002. The ethics committee said Menendez disregarded ethics rules by using his official position to assist Dr. Salomon Melgen at the same time the senator repeatedly accepted gifts of significant value from Melgen, including travel on private and commercial flights, a luxury hotel stay in Paris and lodging on 19 occasions at a Dominican Republic villa. The senator was ordered to repay Melgen for the gifts and to report the gifts on federal financial disclosure forms. But Menendez does not lose his position as senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and appears positioned to recapture his seat in the Senate in November. Backlash in New Jersey against President Trump leaves it unlikely for any GOP challenger to unseat Menendez. He escaped prosecution for bribery when a federal jury could not reach a decision and the feds decided not to retry the case. Torricelli, however, decided not to seek reelection in 2002 when he was severely admonished by the Senate Ethics Committee for not paying market value for gifts from Korean-American businessman David Chang. Prosecutors found evidence that Torricelli helped Chang’s business while accepting cash, Italian suits and an $8,100 watch, the New York Times reported. (For all the details see The Soprano State, Chapter 5)
    Jonathan D. Salant, NJ Advance Media, April 26 and 27, 2018; U.S. Senate Select Committee on Ethics, April 26, 2018

  • Politicos in New Jersey never seem to learn that interfering with a traffic stop can cost you your job. Caren Turner lost her position as Port Authority commissioner over a traffic stop, just like Attorney General Zulima Farber in 2006. The Port Authority, having suffering a multitude of bad publicity of late including the bribery conviction of its former chair David Samson and its role in Bridgegate, censured Turner, the Port Authority’s ethics chair, for “outrageous and abhorrent conduct” and the “unwelcome attention.” Turner’s conduct was posted on the Internet for all to see after several news organization obtained the police video of her behavior at a traffic stop. Turner flashed her Port Authority badge and tried to bully two Tenafly cops with her contacts when she arrived on the scene where her daughter was a passenger in a car impounded for lack of proper registration. The police stayed calm and professional, but Turner ended the encounter with a profanity. After resigning from her post at the authority, she issued a less than satisfactory apology. The port authority has referred the case to the New Jersey Ethics Commission. In Farber’s case, a special prosecutor was appointed and found she violated state ethics rules when she responded to a traffic stop involving her live-in boyfriend Hamlet Goore. When the cops stopped Goore at a “Click it or Ticket” road stop, he had a suspended driver’s license and an expired registration. When Farber arrived on the scene and the mayor of the Bergen County town showed up, the tickets were discarded and Goore was allowed to drive away. (For more details, see The Soprano State, Chapter Five.)
    Ted Sherman, NJ Advance Media, April 24, 25, 26, 2018; WNYC News, Aug. 16, 2006.

  • Port Authority Superintendent Michael Fedorko, criticized as a New Jersey Casino Control commissioner for having a “see no evil” approach to a high-profile construction company’s contacts with organized crime, is back in the news with controversial conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh claiming, on the air, that the superintendent of the Port Authority met Limbaugh with “lights and sirens” to guide him to a Manhattan speaking engagement at a Marine Corps Law Enforcement Foundation gala. The escort incident is under investigation by the Port Authority because providing a police escort for a celebrity is improper, NJ Advance Media reported. Fedorko moved to the Port Authority from the Casino Control Commission in 2009. A career state trooper and former acting state police superintendent, he was appointed to the Casino Control Commission (charged with keeping the mob out of Atlantic City) by Gov. Christie Whitman. Fedorko was the CCC hearing officer who recommend the commission grant a license to Interstate and its sister company Interstate Drywall Corporation of Clifton, NJ. at a time when New York was rejecting contracts with the company for its mob contacts. Fedorko labeled the mob ties “innocent,” but state gaming enforcement lawyer Gary Ehrlich accused Fedorko of having a “see no evil” approach to Interstate’s contacts with organized crime and charged that he had ignored conclusions by New York agencies. (For more details on Fedorko see The Soprano State, Chapter 9 “On the Boardwalk: Sand, Sea, Sun and Scandal”.)
    Chris Sheldon and Craig McCarthy, NJ Advance Media, April 21, 2018; Tom Davis, Patch, April 22, 2018

  • Former Gov. Christie’s decision to pay $85,000 (more than the last three governors combined) for the cost of his official portrait gave the national media a chance to contrast the portrait with the famous photo that went around the world: Christie lounging on a beach he closed to the state’s taxpayers. The portrait cost (paid by taxpayers) also resurrected the issue of Christie’s arrogance, because, as the Washington Post pointed out, the artist Christie chose, Paul Newton, is described by the National Portrait Gallery as an artist who imbues his subjects with “a kind of aristocratic nonchalance.” Therefore, it was time to remember what Christie said about the beach lounging: “That’s the way it goes. Run for governor, and you can have the residence.” And on polling numbers that found him to be the least popular governor in history: “When you’re not running for something, they don’t matter a bit, and I don’t care.” The portrait, whose cost was revealed by the Bergen Record after a public records request, also was a reminder of past extravagant spending by U.S. Attorney Christie who was tagged for exceeding the government rate for hotels without adequate justification. And as governor, Christie traveled to Israel on a plane owned by a billionaire casino owner, had a weekend paid for by the king of Jordan, and had his football travel provided by the owner of the Dallas Cowboys. Last but not least, the media reminded readers how Christie’s hopes of a presidential run were ruined after federal prosecutors charged two of his aides with closing the Fort Lee lanes to George Washington Bridge to punish the mayor for not endorsing Christie’s reelection.
    Samantha Schmidt, Washington Post, April 20, 2018; Dustin Racioppi, northjersey.com, April 19, 2018

  • Mercer County prosecutors are cracking down on a gang of a dozen people investigators said moved into vacant or foreclosed properties in the region without permission and then had the utilities turned on by a Trenton Water Works employee. Those involved would break into the homes, change the locks, turn on utilities, create fake leases and then either move in or rent the homes to victims who had no clue that the leases were not valid, investigators said. Michael Wilmore, the Trenton employee, is accused of turning on water to numerous properties. The scam proved lucrative for some when banks were willing to pay the squatters cash for turning over the keys to the homes. Those involved earned hundreds to thousands of dollars because it was cheaper to pay for the keys than to go to court for an eviction, prosecutors said.
    David Foster, The Trentonian, April 6, 2018; Allison Pries, NJ Advance Media, April 6, 2018

  • Former Wall Township schools superintendent James Habel, sentenced to five years in prison for bilking the school district out of $240,000 in vacation and sick pay, will stay in the slammer, appellate judges ruled. Habel was sentenced without parole and stripped of his pension and retirement benefits in 2015 after his conviction of official misconduct. He was charged with taking a retirement payout for more than 100 vacation and sick days when he actually used the time at his second home in Florida. Ever since his conviction, Habel has been trying to get out of jail. The three-judge appellate panel rejected all the points made by Habel’s lawyer, including an argument that the prison term was excessive. When Habel was sentenced, prosecutor Melanie Falco said the case could be boiled down to one word: greed. A jury convicted Habel following a two-month trial, and Falco asked the judge to send the same message she believed the jury did: “Enough with public corruption; enough with greed at the expense of educators and children; enough already.” Habel’s lawyer told NJ Advance Media his client is not giving up and intends an appeal to the state Supreme Court.
    Steve Strunsky, NJ Advance Media, April 12, 2018; Kathleen Hopkins, Asbury Park Press, Dec. 4, 2015; Rob Spahr, NJ Advance Media, Dec. 17, 2015

  • Seventy-six New Jersey teachers lost their teaching licenses last year for everything from having sex with a member of the high school softball team to bank robbery, NJ Advance Media reported. Thirty-three of the teachers lost their licenses for sexual abuse or sex-related allegations, 13 lost their licenses for criminal convictions, eight for drug and alcohol offenses, five for mishandling money, four for physical abuse of students and three for cheating, Kelly Heyboer reported. In Atlantic County, a substitute lost his certificate after being sentenced to four years in prison on charges that he robbed a bank and escaped in an ambulance. In Burlington County, a history teacher lost his certificate after he was accused of stealing money from a student activity fund for gambling. In Camden County, a former business administrator gave up his teaching certificates after he was accused of funneling contracts to a company owned by his family. (He did not admit to the allegations.) In Gloucester County, a former business administrator gave up his teaching certificates after he was accused of authorizing more than $18,000 in questionable payments to himself. (He too did not admit to the allegations.) In Middlesex County, a principal lost her credentials after being accused of encouraging cheating on state tests. In Passaic County, a chief operating officer pleaded guilty to stealing $75,000 from the school and lost her certificate as an administrator.
    Kelly Heyboer, NJ Advance Media, April 10, 2018

  • Charles Kushner, a Soprano State favorite (Chapters 2,3, 8 and 9) was back in the news with a New York Times story saying he expressed hope to a close family friend that his son’s position with the Trump administration could result in a pardon. Asked if it were true, Charles told the New York Times he would “prefer not to have a pardon” because it would mean more publicity for the family. While the Kushner family may have thought Jared Kushner’s rise to a presidential advisor would boost their fortunes, they instead found increased scrutiny by prosecutors added to their woes. Charles Kushner pleaded guilty in 2004 to witness tampering after he hired a hooker to entice his brother-in-law, had the event filmed and then mailed it to his sister. (Kushner, under investigation by the feds, suspected his brother-in-law was helping with the probe.) Charles was sentenced to two years in prison and served 14 months. Jared, maintaining his father’s prosecution was unfair, visited Charles nearly every weekend, the Washington Post reported. Jared told New York magazine about the tape: “Was it the right thing to do? At the end of the day, it was a function of saying: ‘You’re trying to make my life miserable? Well, I’m doing the same.’” Since heading to D.C., Jared Kushner has had his security clearance diminished at the White House and faces questions related to the special counsel’s probe and to his meetings with foreign officials and whether or not those meetings helped Kushner companies. Jared’s sister came under scrutiny for her pitch to Chinese investors as part of a program that trades investments for visas. The New York Times also reported two major Manhattan properties owned by the Kushners are on the creditors’ watch list. Two other New York projects came under new scrutiny in the wake of an Associated Press story reporting Kushner Companies obtained construction permits after wrongly reporting the projects had no rent-regulated tenants. The company said the mistake, made by a third party, has been corrected, the New York Times reported.
    Sharon LaFraniere and Katie Benner, New York Times, April 1, 2018; Gabriel Sherman, New York Magazine, July 12, 2009; Shawn Boburg, Washington Post, Nov. 27, 2016; Michael Kranish, Washington Post, Jan. 22, 2018; Bernard Condon, Associated Press, March 18, 2018

  • Former NJ Sen. Wayne Bryant, sentenced to four years in prison for bribery and fraud after a jury found (as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee) he steered $10 million in state funding to the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in return for a university low-work job that boosted his pension, served 40 months in jail but was still trying to collect his $81,000 pension. Once again, his efforts failed, as an appellate court shot down his appeal. (You can find Bryant throughout The Soprano State in Chapters 1,3,4,8 and 10, including the time Democratic Assembly leaders ordered Lincoln Town Cars for themselves and Bryant ordered his in red.) The state pension board determined Bryant had to forfeit all of his pension. But not giving up, Bryant asked the appellate court to consider “his sterling qualities and many good deeds” while in office. But the appellate court would have none of it and ruled that “given the severe criminal nature of the lengthy misconduct, total forfeiture of petitioner’s pension was warranted.” The judges added, “A lesser punishment would not sufficiently induce people to continue faithful and diligent (public) employment.”
    Carly Sitrin, NJ Spotlight, March 16, 2018; Peter Sampson, Bergen Record, Feb. 10, 2014; Charles Toutant, New Jersey Law Journal, Feb. 7, 2014

  • Seth Rehfuss of Somerset has been indicted by a federal grand jury and charged with using a nonprofit called The Good Samaritans of America (and offers of free ice cream) to gain access to low-income senior housing where he and others used fear tactics to convince seniors to undergo unnecessary genetic testing. Investigators said Rehfuss told seniors they would be vulnerable to heart attacks, strokes, cancer and suicide without the genetic testing. He used Craigslist to recruit healthcare providers who were paid thousands of dollars a month to authorize testing for patients they never examined, according to the charges. The cost to Medicare for the scheme was more than $1 million. Rehfuss raked in more than $100,000 and paid tens of thousands of dollars in commissions to those who helped, according to the feds.
    U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito, March 16, 2018

  • Two New Jersey women (defense contractor employee Irene Pombo and a civilian employee Nicole Pier at the Picatinny Arsenal) pleaded guilty to trading bribes and other goodies worth between $150,000 and $250,000 for government contracts. For 11 years, Pombo teamed with the defense contractor and its other employees in offering goodies (Apple products, luxury handbags, Beats headphones and tickets to a luxury sky box at professional sporting events) to Picatinny Arsenal employees, including Pier (Pombo’s daughter) in exchange for contracts. To add insult to injury, the feds said Pombo admitted that she filed bogus bills to the federal government, writing off the cost of the bribes as “materials” needed for the government contracts.
    U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito, March 20, 2018

  • A Morris County man pleaded guilty to teaming with a Middlesex fire inspector in Soprano State style threats to extort cash from the owner of a real estate company. Joseph Martinelli admitted conspiring with Billy Donnerstag (then a fire inspector for Middlesex Borough and other New Jersey municipalities) to harm “Individual No. 1” if he did not pay $15,000 in cash. The two believed “Individual No. 1” had not paid enough for the sale of a property a decade ago, investigators said. In November, Donnerstag was indicted and charged with conspiracy to commit extortion. Here is what federal prosecutors charge: In telephone and in conversations, Donnerstag described himself to the victim as a “guy that you don’t want to see” and a collector of debts who operated outside the legal system. At one point he said, “If you were in front of me right now, you’d be on the floor.” Donnerstag told “Individual No. 1” to ask others about his father because he said “that’s what I do” and referred to his father as “Jerry the Jew.” Federal investigators said according to publicly available information in the 1970s, Gerald Donnerstag of Belleville, NJ, a/k/a “Jerry the Jew,” reportedly was connected to organized crime and was convicted of murder in Scranton, PA, and theft in Essex County, NJ. Prosecutors said Martinelli told the victim Donnerstag would “collect the money one way or the other, that’s the way he is.” The victim paid Martinelli and Donnerstag $15,000, money provided by the feds.
    U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito, March 2, 2018; Luke Nozicka, NJ Advance Media, Nov. 9, 2017; Acting U.S. Attorney William Fitzpatrick, June 15, 2017

  • A Margate firefighter became the 16th person to plead guilty in a health benefits fraud scheme that paid $50 million for compounded medications that were mailed to New Jersey residents. Firefighter Michael Sher paid kickbacks to patients, gave cash to a doctor who handled thousands of fraudulent prescriptions and recruited others into the scheme, investigators said. The sad part of the scheme that raked in $7 million for the conspirators: Those convicted in this case include two firefighters, a guidance counselor, a teacher, a medical doctor and several pharmaceutical employees. Sher recruited public employees covered by state health benefits to obtain expensive and medically unnecessary compounded medications from an out-of-state pharmacy. The pharmacy paid a kickback to Sher and others from the money state-funded insurance paid for the compounded medications. Sher’s take in the scheme was $1.7 million. Sher retired from the Margate Fire Department just before the guilty plea.
    U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito, March 1, 2018; Thomas Moriarty, NJ Advance Media, March 1, 2018

  • Janell Robinson, a former Newark cop, has been indicted on extortion and fraud charges in connection with a million-dollar kickback scheme at the Newark Conservation and Development Corp., the now bankrupt watershed agency which the state comptroller said wasted millions in public funds. Linda Watkins Brashear, former director of the watershed agency who is serving eight and a half years in federal prison, helped Robinson’s security-consulting company obtain watershed agency contracts that paid $289,130 for bogus and inflated invoices, the feds charged. In return, Robinson (while she was a Newark cop) paid Brashear kickbacks of $3,000 each time a payment was made by the watershed agency, according to the indictment. Brashear pleaded guilty to accepting $999,000 in bribes and kickbacks from contractors and an employee in return for awarding contracts for work that either was not done or had an inflated price.
    U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito, March 5, 2018; Karen Yi, NJ Advance Media, March 6, 2018

  • The New Jersey Sports & Exposition Authority has long been a golden egg for Soprano State politicians. (See Chapter 7 of The Soprano State). And nothing has changed. Vincent Prieto, ousted from his post as Assembly speaker, has assumed the top post at the authority at a salary of $280,000, a $55,000 boost over past CEO Wayne Hasenbalg. And not to be left out, Hasenbalg will remain at the authority, his position not yet determined, The Record reported. A Record editorial laid the blame at the feet of Gov. Phil Murphy and accused him of not missing a beat when it comes to longstanding politicking at the authority. Prieto will resign his assembly seat and his post as a local code official. A strong supporter of Murphy during the gubernatorial campaign, Prieto drew the blessing of the new governor for the lucrative post. The Record questioned whether he has the “skill set” to lead the authority as it oversees the Meadowlands Sports Complex and development of the American Dream shopping center.
    Brent Johnson, NJ Advance Media, Feb. 15, 2018; Editorial, northjersey.com, Feb. 17, 2018

  • Taxpayers in the Soprano State have long borne the burden of expensive payouts for retired police chiefs. Little has changed there either. Lodi Police Chief Vincent Quatrone retired with $283,000, a combination of unused time and severance pay. He went out with $232,097 for 297.5 days of unused sick, vacation and personal time and holidays, plus $50,714 in severance, The Record learned with an Open Public Records Act request. Quatrone was on the force for 28 years and said the terms of his contract were negotiated. Besides, he told The Record, it is a “misconception” that he gets it all because he owes taxes on the payout. Dan Pagano, president of New Jersey Taxpayers’ Association, said if the payouts continue there will be a day of reckoning. Recently retired Oakland Police Chief Edward Kasper got a $196,000 payout for 240 hours of unused vacation, 1,520 hours of sick time, 24 hours of personal time and 479 hours of comp time. In 2010, New Jersey capped sick leave payouts at $15,000 for new school, county and municipal employees. The burden for those hired before then remains. Large payouts for New Jersey’s police chiefs usually are paid at the chief’s final rate, despite when the time was earned. In Ramsey, officials took a step toward curbing payouts for police, but the reforms did not touch those at the top of the force.
    Kristie Cattafi, northjersey.com, Feb. 27, 2018; Marsha Stoltz, northjersey.com, March 2, 2018; Editorial, northjersey.com, Feb. 20, 2018; Karen Yi, NJ Advance Media, Oct. 15, 2017

  • The Jersey City Municipal Utilities Authority took outrageous advantage of its monopoly on city water supplies when it raised rates on a family of four by $300 a year while sporting an annual surplus of $12.5 million, an audit by the state comptroller revealed. (Again, see Chapter Seven of The Soprano State for a long history of municipal and state authority abuses.) Comptroller Philip Degnan also discovered former authority executive director Dan Becht approved more than $26,000 in salary increases and benefits for himself without board approval. In addition, the comptroller reported three authority vendors were paid $94,000 more than they were authorized. The authority hires a private company to manage the city’s water system, and the comptroller concluded that the authority provided “questionable” oversight of Suez, which, according to the comptroller, failed to collect $575,000 in bulk-water fees from two Suez-related companies. NJ Advance Media reported John Folk, authority finance director, did not largely dispute the comptroller’s findings and said corrections were being made.
    Terrence T. McDonald, Jersey Journal, Feb. 21, 2018; NJ Comptroller Philip Degnan, Feb. 21, 2018

  • The Soprano State’s reputation took another hit when New Jersey’s Mendham Township Deputy Mayor Rick Blood made national news. Blood sent out a Facebook post (he said was copied from a friend without a careful read) that likened undocumented immigrants to raccoons in a basement and praised President Trump as their exterminator. Publications from USA Today to the Washington Post reported the Facebook post. Blood apologized for “fanning the flames.” Editorial editor Alfred Doblin of The Record said Blood’s post “didn’t fan racist flames, it lit the cross.” After the public had its say at a Mendham Township meeting, Blood resigned as deputy mayor. He still has his government job as director of public works in Roxbury where he earns $114,000 a year and where township manager John Shepherd said Blood has a First Amendment right to his opinions. Karol Ruiz, of a Morristown immigrant advocacy group told NJ Advance Media, “This was about dehumanizing undocumented immigrants who live in both Roxbury and Mendham and every corner of New Jersey.”
    Rob Jennings, NJ Advance Media, Feb. 14, 2018; Alfred P. Doblin, northjersey.com, Feb. 12, 2018

  • A former New Jersey hospital executive now Veterans Affairs Secretary for President Trump is feeling heat even from the President over a $122,334 trip to Europe which a watchdog said misused taxpayers’ money. A report by the inspector general of Veteran Affairs accused David Shulkin of turning an aide into a “personal travel concierge,” of improperly accepting tickets to Wimbledon, and of misrepresentations that were used to include his wife on the trip to Europe. Shulkin was president of the Morristown Medical Center and vice president of Atlantic Health System before becoming a member of Trump’s Cabinet. Shulkin said he was not involved in sending an email, allegedly altered by his chief of staff, that made it appear he was getting an award during the trip, thereby justifying a taxpayer funded flight for his wife. He said he regrets the mistakes he and others made and will repay the $4,312 cost of her flight. U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, a Republican member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, called for Shulkin to resign. “He’s really part of the culture of corruption that too often defines this organization,” Coffman said. Shulkin said he does not intend to resign. His chief of staff, however, did. Shulkin said her resignation was a “personal decision” and suggested her email was hacked.
    John Bowden, The Hill, Feb. 17, 2018; CBS News, Feb. 15, 2018; Donovan Slack, USA Today, Feb. 14, 2018; Jonathan D. Salant, NJ Advance Media, Feb. 14, 2018

  • An “I Love Paterson” video was intended to boost the city’s image. (Here’s why it was needed: Former Paterson Mayor Joey Torres recently was sentenced to five years in prison for having city employees do work on city time at a property leased by his daughter. The mayor before him, Marty Barnes, also was jailed on corruption charges. Six times during the past 16 months federal or state authorities have issued subpoenas and search warrants for Paterson records, northjersey.com reported. In chapter 10 of The Soprano State, a federal judge declared corruption in the state was rampant after a Paterson school official was sentenced to 43 months in prison for taking $180,000 in kickbacks. In The Soprano State updates for 2017, Paterson is mentioned 25 times.) But the video promotion ran into big trouble when it was discovered at the film’s debut that one of the co-hosts, appearing five times, was Ehab Abdelaziz, a former Jersey City cop, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery. (Investigators said Abdelaziz gave another cop $11,825 in bribes in exchange for bogus vouchers allowing him to get paid for off-duty work he never did. His arrest was part of a federal probe into law enforcement corruption.) Abdelaziz attended the image-boosting video debut along with other dignitaries and told northjersey.com he saw no reason why he should not be in the video. “Something that happened in Jersey City has nothing to do with this,” he said. “I was just an actor in the video.” But Marcia Julian Sottorrio, Paterson’s cultural affairs director and creator of the video, said Abdelaziz will be edited out.
    Joe Malinconico, Paterson Press, Feb. 12 and 16, 2018 and Oct. 3, 2017; Terrence T. McDonald, Oct. 4, 2017

  • New Jersey’s decision to try to kill the mob-busting Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor was the perfect Soprano State maneuver. The 65-year-old commission was created to combat the mob’s decades of influence on the ports of New York City and New Jersey. The International Longshoremen’s Association and the New York Shipping Association are no friends of the commission. No wonder. In recent years the commission has helped prosecute high-ranking union officials who teamed with the Genovese crime family to extort their own union members. (Federal investigators said Genovese crime family associates and high-ranking members of the International Longshoremen’s Association conspired to collect tribute payments from New Jersey port workers every year at Christmas.) Former state Sen. Ray Lesniak has been pushing since 2010 for New Jersey to pull out of the commission, comprised of New York and New Jersey and authorized by Congress. He said it’s no longer needed. The NJ legislature passed a bill to pull out of the commission in 2015, but Gov. Christie vetoed the bill saying it was unconstitutional. But just before departing office last month, Christie signed a bill for the withdrawal. The commission quickly sued incoming Gov. Phil Murphy, and New Jersey, for now, agreed to halt the efforts to break up the commission. In challenging the New Jersey maneuver, the commission told the court that the shipping industry in and around New York City “has been chronically plagued, historically and currently, by organized crime and labor racketeering.”
    Patrick McGeehan, New York Times, Jan. 17, 2018; Ted Sherman, NJ Advance Media, Jan. 23, 2018

  • U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez will not see another bribery trial, but he is expected to face an investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee. After an 11-week trial in which the jury couldn’t come to a decision, a federal judge dismissed four of the 12 charges against the senator, and federal prosecutors asked the federal court to drop the remaining charges. Menendez escaped charges of bribery, corruption and fraud accusing him of using his official position to help a Florida doctor who gave him lavish gifts and campaign contributions. Now, he must weather an ethics probe in a year when he is seeking reelection. (U.S. Sen. Bob Torricelli faced a similar situation in 2002 and dropped out of the Senate race after being “severely admonished” by the Senate Ethics Committee which said he accepted and failed to disclose lavish gifts from a businessman he helped. The Soprano State, Chapter Five.) A Rutgers-Eagleton Poll after the hung jury showed 51 percent of New Jersey residents think Menendez does not deserve to be reelected. Jennifer Duffy of Cook Political Report told northjersey.com that what might save Democrat Menendez’ chance of reelection is New Jersey’s distaste for Republican President Donald Trump and the effect that could have on any Republican candidate.
    Charles Stile, northjersey.com, Feb. 1, 2018; Rutgers-Eagleton Poll, Nov. 30, 2018

  • This local judge could fall into two chapters in The Soprano State: Court Jesters and The Run for the Roses Starts in the Boondocks. Richard Thompson, who worked as a local judge in nine Monmouth County towns, pleaded guilty to falsifying 4,000 court records sending $500,000 that was supposed to flow into the Monmouth County treasury into local municipalities where Thompson sat on the municipal bench. Thompson admitted that from 2010 to 2015 he suspended fines for motor vehicle tickets, converting the charges to “contempt of court.” Money from motor vehicle tickets are split between the county and the municipality. Fines for “contempt of court” belong to the local municipality. “Thompson’s conduct was likely to curry favor with the municipalities that continued to employ him as a judge, allowing him to retain his seat on the various municipal courts for many years,” the Monmouth County prosecutor’s office explained. Thompson sat on the bench in Bradley Beach, Colts Neck, Eatontown, Middletown, Neptune City, Oceanport, Rumson, Tinton Falls and Union Beach. The prosecutor said Thompson would make the change in the charge after others left the courtroom. Under a plea agreement Thompson is likely to get probation. His defense attorney, Charles Uliano told NJ Advance Media, “It is regrettable that such a distinguished career should end this way.”
    Allison Pries, NJ Advance Media, Feb. 2, 2018; Office of the Monmouth County Prosecutor, Feb. 2, 2018

  • U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez is headed to another trial. The feds have charged the veteran senator with 12 counts of bribery, corruption and fraud accusing him of using his official position to help a Florida doctor who gave him lavish gifts and campaign contributions. In the first trial, which lasted 11 weeks, the jury couldn’t come to a decision. The feds intend to find out if another jury can convict. Menendez says he fully intends to be vindicated and plans to run for reelection this year. He said gifts that came from Salomon Melgen, the doctor convicted of Medicare fraud in Florida, were all about friendship. Prosecutors want some new rules for the new trial. They complain that the jury could often see Menendez in the hallway in prayer circles with clergy and that jurors on their way to the jury room had to daily “walk a gauntlet” composed of Menendez, his family, attorneys, employees and supporters. Clearly, Judge William Walls could set a new, upgraded tone to the court proceedings. Just before the last trial ended in a hung jury, Walls allowed a juror to leave on vacation. As if the Menendez trial isn’t Soprano State enough, news reports say, if Menendez decides not to run for reelection, former Senator Bob Torricelli wants to take his place. How does that make any sense? Torricelli decided not to seek reelection to the Senate, dropping out of the race at the last minute in 2002, after a Senate Ethics Committee “severely admonished” him saying he violated Senate rules by accepting and failing to disclose lavish gifts from a businessman he helped. Sound familiar? (You can read it all in The Soprano State, Chapter Five.) The admonishment of Torricelli followed an investigation by the feds, who never charged him.
    Dustin Racioppi, Herb Jackson and Charles Stile, northjersey.com, Jan. 19, 2018; Ted Sherman, NJ Advance Media, Jan. 19, 2018; Matt Arco and Brent Johnson, NJ Advance Media, Jan. 20, 2018; Alfred P. Doblin, northjersey.com, Jan. 19, 2018; David Kocieniewski, Tim Golden and Carl Hulse, New York Times, July 31, 2002

  • Gov. Christie departs his office with a new record low in popularity. Northjersey.com reported bobblehead dolls of the governor were being offered at a clearance sale of $13 after a Rutgers-Eagleton poll showed only 13 percent of Soprano State residents thought he was doing a good job, the lowest rating for a governor since the polling began. When Christie took the governor’s seat in 2010, he came in as a popular federal prosecutor who nailed politicians on both sides of the political aisle. Much like the last elected GOP governor, Christie Whitman, he kept the previous Democratic governor (Jon Corzine) to one term. It’s not hard to figure out what happened to Christie’s popularity, and news organizations ranked his woes (and his good times). There is little doubt Bridgegate ranks at the top, followed by Beachgate. And then there was endorsing Donald Trump for president after basically leaving the state to run for president himself. But not insignificant are what nj.com labeled the “public spats,” or Christie’s behavior toward everyday people in New Jersey. The touch-of-arrogance personality that worked as a prosecutor blossomed into something obviously distasteful to most of New Jersey. The closing of Fort Lee lanes to the George Washington Bridge to punish the mayor for not endorsing Christie will forever taint the Christie administration, even though the governor was not caught up in the federal prosecution. And beach memes of Christie lounging with his family on a state beach he closed to others ahead of the Fourth of July weekend will forever float on social media: Christie’s contributions to the Soprano State legacy.
    Mike Kelly, The Record, Jan. 12, 2018; Claude Brodesser-Akner, NJ Advance Media, Jan. 13, 2018; Matt Arco, NJ Advance Media, Jan. 11, 2018; NJ Advance Media, Jan. 10, 2018

  • Whenever the Soprano State legislature turns over after an election, there is that shameful lame-duck time when the outgoing legislature unabashedly pushes through a multitude of legislation that would never otherwise see the light of day. This year was no different. The day before the turnover, lawmakers passed 200 bills and resolutions. “It’s not the best way to approach legislation,” Assemblyman John Wisniewski told northjersey.com. “But it is how we do things here.” And there you have it. Lawmakers passed a bill that would offer up to $5 billion in tax breaks to Amazon should the company decide to bring its second headquarters to Newark. The tax break would amount to $100,000 for each full-time job created by the move. And lawmakers passed a bill that would boost the pension of former Camden Mayor Dana Redd and several other elected officials by allowing them to move into the lucrative Public Employees Retirement System after being disqualified because they changed from one elected office to another.
    Nicholas Pugliese, northjersey.com, Jan. 8, 2018; Samantha Marcus, NJ Advance Media, Jan. 9, 2018

  • Governors are not immune to the temptation of last minute maneuvers. Christie sent 83 direct appointments to the Secretary of State in the week before his departure. Among those appointed were dozens of allies and cabinet members appointed to 41 boards and committees, northjersey.com reported. And the Christie administration sold $375 million in bonds for two Trenton office buildings and two youth correctional facilities. Critics called the bond sale an end run around the constitutional requirement for voters to approve state debt. But a legal challenge to the sale failed because a judge ruled the bonds were not general debt because the state Economic Development Authority will repay the bonds with rental income from the buildings. Bruce Afran, lawyer for Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, didn’t buy it. “This amounts to a type of secret government by public corporation, of which the people have lost all control,” Afran told northjersey.com.
    Catherine Carrera, northjersey.com, Jan. 10, 2018; James Nash, northjersey.com, Jan. 8, 2018

  • Senator Kristin Corrado found a way around the state law that forbids officials from holding more than one elected office. Corrado resigned from the elected post of Passaic County clerk and less than three weeks later assumed the unpaid job of “special deputy clerk,” northjersey.com reported. Walter Davison, her interim replacement as clerk, said she oversees the main offices while he runs a satellite office. Corrado said county freeholders approved the appointment. Critics call it a way around the law. Corrado called it an “unpaid, part-time volunteer position.”
    Richard Cowen and Joe Malinconico, The Record and Paterson Press, Jan. 9, 2018

  • Characters in The Soprano State like Charles Kushner and Chris Christie made headlines with their appearance in Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, Inside the Trump White House. Publications ranging from The New Yorker to the British tabloid Daily Mail reported the book says New Jersey native Charles Kushner (Chapters 2, 3, 8 and 9) was concerned that the probe into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia was embroiling the Kushner family finances, and those fears were “channeled” through his son Jared Kushner and daughter-in-law Ivanka Trump to President Trump as he was deciding on the firing of FBI Director James Comey. In another part of the book, Wolff contends Trump decided to run for president only after Christie was tainted by Bridgegate. And the book blames Ivanka for Christie’s ouster from Trump’s circle: “Ivanka told her father that Christie’s appointment as chief of staff or to any other high position would be extremely difficult for her and her family, and it would be best that Christie be removed from the Trump orbit altogether.” As a U.S. attorney, Christie prosecuted Charles Kushner for witness tampering after he hired a hooker to entice his brother-in-law, filmed the event, and then mailed it to his sister, who was cooperating with a federal investigation into Kushner. (Again, read it all in The Soprano State.) In an interview with reporter Matt Arco, Christie now blames Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus and Jared Kushner for executing his ouster from the Trump transition.
    John Cassidy, The New Yorker, Jan. 4, 2018; Geoff Earle, Dailymail.com, Jan. 5, 2018; Ted Sherman, NJ Advance Media, Jan. 5, 2018; Matt Arco, NJ Advance Media, Jan. 7, 2018

  • Former Gov. Brendan Byrne died at age 93 with obituaries noting he brought income taxes and gambling to New Jersey. First running for governor in 1973, he was touted as “the man the mob couldn’t buy” after federal surveillance caught mobsters on tape complaining about how he couldn’t be bribed as a county prosecutor. The Soprano State (Chapter 9) tells how three years later Byrne and others successfully pushed for legalized gaming in Atlantic City, and critics warned it would attract the mob. To quell those critics, Byrne made a production of telling organized crime to keep its filthy hands off Atlantic City. The problem was, the mob was already there. “When the governor issued that warning to the mob to keep the hell out of Atlantic City, they were already laying the groundwork,” Frank Lentino, the link between the Philadelphia mob and organized labor, told reporter Sandy McClure.
    CBS News, Jan. 5, 2018; Bob Ingle and Sandy McClure, The Soprano State, 2008.

  • Gov. Christie used his final weeks in office to pardon 10 people, including one of his campaign donors, a Morristown businessman who pleaded guilty to four counts of tampering with public records and information. Joseph M. Longo admitted falsifying payroll records related to two public projects Longo Electrical-Mechanical did for Montclair Township and the Middlesex County Utilities Authority. He was sentenced to two years probation and fined $300,000. According to campaign records, Longo donated $500 to the governor’s campaign in 2009 and $1,050 for other campaigns and inaugural events, according to northjersey.com. Longo’s Facebook page posts a picture with the governor at Drumthwacket after the 2014 inauguration and describes Christie as the best governor in the country, Observer reported. Longo’s lawyer during the criminal case was former U.S. senator Jeffrey Chiesa, Christie’s former attorney general who now heads the state takeover of Atlantic City. Longo was not barred from doing future business in the state and after his guilty plea continued contracting numerous government projects throughout the state.
    James Nash, northjersey.com, Dec. 26, 2017; Christian Hetrick, Observer, Dec. 22, 2017

  • In what appears to be another Soprano State-style scheme, a former clerk for the state Motor Vehicle Commission at Lodi was indicted and charged with taking thousands of dollars in return for handing 220 people permits or licenses without the need to take an exam. Those buying the bogus licenses without the required written or driving exam paid an average of more than $700, state investigators said. The former clerk, Rodman Lora, was charged along with nine others, including four customers, three runners used to recruit customers, and a clerk and security guard who worked at the Lodi MVC.
    Attorney General Christopher Porrino, Dec. 20, 2017

 

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