The Soprano State The Soprano State
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Update

2020

  • New Jersey’s public employees are still raking in retirement bonanzas despite decades of warnings from the state’s top watchdog. “It is simply absurd that, more than 20 years after the commission first sounded the alarm about excessive compensation and questionable perks for public employees, these practices remain the norm in many areas,” a report by the State Commission of Investigation said. In Chapter 6 of The Soprano State, you can find a half-million-dollar severance for a Camden police chief. And little has changed. While the state moved to cap payments for unused sick time at $15,000, loopholes abound. Some local governments are allowing employees to cash in unused sick leave on an annual basis. Others allow “longevity pay” to boost pensions. Payouts for what is called “terminal leave” for retiring employees last year in Jersey City, cost $8.1 million dollars, an expense that forced the city to issue millions in bonds, NJ Advance Media reported. Tens of millions of dollars in “terminal leave” payments meant Paterson had to cancel plans for new vehicles and a park cleanup, NJ.com also reported. Once again, SCI called on the state legislature to adopt reforms.
    State Commission of Investigation, Feb. 19, 2020; Blake Nelson, NJ Advance Media, Feb. 19, 2020

  • When President Trump pardoned Bernie Kerik, the pardon was felt all the way back to New Jersey. The disgraced New York police commissioner has a home in New Jersey and his conviction stemmed from lies Kerik told about apartment renovations by a New Jersey contractor. In 2009, Kerik pleaded guilty to cheating on his taxes, lying about the apartment renovations and failing to put that information on his 2004 application for federal homeland security director. The firm that renovated Kerik’s apartment was banned from doing business in New York by the city’s integrity commission, which cited the firm’s association with organized crime, something the company denies. You can find Kerik in Chapter 9 of The Soprano State, and in 2009 and 2010 updates at thesopranostate.com. The judge who sentenced Kerik slapped him with four years in prison for betraying the public trust. But the former police commissioner has friends in the conservative media and in former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, once his boss and now Trump’s personal lawyer. Thus, the pardon.
    Dan Barry and J. David Goodman, The New York Times, Feb. 26 and 27, 2020; Robert Gearty and Greg B. Smith, New York Daily News, Oct. 20, 2009; Associated Press, Feb. 18, 2010

  • If you think envelopes stuffed with cash and passed to public officials no longer happens in New Jersey, think again. Former Newark cop Janell Robinson was found guilty of extortion conspiracy and other charges in a scheme of kickbacks at the now defunct Newark Watershed Conservation and Development Corporation. The watershed corporation was supposed to treat and deliver water to New Jersey communities. Instead, it was a hotbed of crime. Linda Watkins Brashear, the former director of the watershed corporation, was brought in from federal prison to testify against Robinson. (After pleading guilty to the scheme that solicited $1 million in bribes, Brashear was sentenced to eight and a half years in prison.) Investigators said Robinson’s security company was paid $289,000 for a no-work contract, and in turn, Robinson paid Brashear $50,000 in kickbacks. Brashear testified that Robinson stuffed cash in envelopes and handed them to her outside the Newark police station, NJ Advance Media reported.
    U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito, Feb. 24, 2020; Joe Atmonavage, NJ Advance Media, Feb. 14, 2020;

  • Judge John Russo Jr., who asked a rape victim if she did not know to close her legs, should be kicked off the bench, a judicial appellate panel recommended. Russo, a former mayor of Toms River whose comments drew national attention and outrage, clearly fits The Soprano State’s Chapter 5 on Court Jesters. The judge’s father, the late former Senate President John Russo, already made Chapter 4. When taxpayers were footing the bill for legislative leaders to have luxury cars, Russo ended up with two. A state Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct only wanted to slap Russo Jr. with a three-month suspension, but the state Supreme Court stepped in, recommending ouster. Russo has been fighting the ouster, but the appellate panel agreed with the high court and recommended removal for “multiple acts of severe misconduct.” The panel said he failed to recuse himself in a case involving a couple he knew in high school and wrongfully used his position in his own case in family court. Besides, the panel said, he “lacked candor, fabricated after-the-fact explanations for events and displayed a lack of integrity.” After legal briefs and oral arguments, the high court will make a final decision.
    Joe Brandt, nj.com, Jan. 28, 2020; Associated Press, Jan. 28, 2020

  • Once powerful South Jersey Republican political boss George Gilmore was sentenced to federal prison for a year and a day. A jury convicted Gilmore, former Ocean County GOP chair, of filing a false $1.5 million loan application and of failing to turn over taxes collected from his law firm employees. Without disclosing outstanding taxes and debts, Gilmore obtained the loan and used the money for lavish spending on artwork, antiques, home renovations and Colorado vacations. The spending included an $82,000 woolly mammoth tusk, a $80,000 Lionel model train and a $33,000 bronze statue of George Washington, prosecutors said. As GOP chief, Gilmore ran Ocean County, the county every Republican candidate needed to win statewide. (See The Soprano State, Chapter 3, where we label him a boss who operates behind the scenes.) His lawyer, white collar crime defense attorney Kevin Marino, blamed Gilmore’s downfall on a hoarding disorder. Marino told Judge Anne Thompson that his client is mentally ill and argued for probati on. “He is one of the most influential political consultants in the country, and he stands before you, completely debased,” Marino said. But Thompson ruled Gilmore had “all the advantages to know better and to do better” and sentenced him to jail time, the Asbury Park Press reported. Marino promised an appeal.
    First Assistant U.S. Attorney Rachael Honig, Jan. 22, 2020; Jean Mikle, Asbury Park Press, Jan. 22, 2020

  • The contractors President Trump stiffed years ago, when the Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City went bankrupt, won’t be among those rolling out the red carpet when he stumps in Wildwood for U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, a Democrat who voted against impeachment, turned Republican and now pledges loyalty to Trump. The Record columnist Mike Kelly interviewed some of the contractors, who were paid a fraction of what they were owed three decades ago, and the wounds are still there. Steve Jenkins, of Triad Building Specialties, a company with a $300,000 contract for work at the Taj, called the president a snake oil salesman. Triad only got 40 cents on the dollar for its work, The Record reported. Trump rolled into Atlantic City pledging not to use junk bonds, and used them anyway. The Taj went bankrupt in 1991, followed by the Trump Plaza and the Trump Castle. Atlantic City Mayor Marty Small said those whose businesses were hurt are still angry. “It’s still a horror story for all of these people,” he told the Berg en Record. One of the mayor’s goals for 2020 is to see the vacant Trump Plaza demolished. He called it an “embarrassment” and “the biggest eyesore in town,” Associated Press reported.
    Mike Kelly, NorthJersey.com, Jan. 24, 2020; Associated Press, Jan. 20, 2020

  • Making everything seem crazier than ever in New Jersey, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that just three weeks before Rep. Jeff Van Drew switched to the GOP and pledged “undying support” for Trump, the congressman left a voicemail for a voter saying this about Trump, “I haven’t voted for him. I didn’t support him. I will not vote for him.” Asked about the voicemail, Van Drew simply renewed his pledge of support for Trump. Gwen Meade, the voter who received the voicemail, said of Van Drew, “I think that this is a man who may not know his own mind.”
    Pranshu Verman, Philadelphia Inquirer, Jan. 24, 2020

  • New Jersey’s dirty laundry was hung out for all the nation to see. The problem is, the U.S. Supreme Court justices don’t seem to think it’s all that dirty. Two aides to Gov. Chris Christie, who were convicted of misusing federal funds when they closed down Fort Lee lanes to the George Washington Bridge to punish the mayor for not supporting Christie’s reelection, found sympathy in the high court.
    A New Jersey federal jury found Bill Baroni and Bridget Anne Kelly guilty. U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton called it an “outrageous display of an abuse of power.” A federal appellate court said the pair used federal funds “to execute their scheme” and that placed it within “the ambit of the federal criminal law.”
    But as headlines said, the Supreme Court justices were “skeptical” of the case and “sympathetic” to the Christie aides. Unlike the appellate court, the justices just couldn’t figure out how federal law was applied. Justice Stephen Breyer said, “I don’t see how this case works.”
    But school kids and ambulance drivers did. The four-day lane closure scheme on the world’s busiest bridge was planned to start on the first day of school, meaning school buses, commuters, ambulances and fire trucks were stuck in the traffic jam. The conspirators agreed to disregard the pleas from the mayor and others about the risk to public safety.
    Christie sat in the front row at the Supreme Court hearing, and well he should. New York Times reporting showed how Bridgegate was just one example of a system inside the governor’s office and the Port Authority (where Baroni was Christie’s top staff appointee) that rewarded those who supported Christie and punished those who didn’t. The group inside Christie’s office, called intergovernmental affairs, was first led by Bill Stepien (a top political and campaign aide to President Trump) and later by Kelly.
    The highest judges in the country appear to have lost touch with everyday working people. Breyer said the two Christie aides did not stop the public from using the bridge. “It was just a problem getting there.”
    In 1987, the high court overturned the conviction of Kentucky officials skimming money from insurance companies. In 2016, the justices vacated the bribery conviction of Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell. The high court is expected to announce its decision on the Bridgegate case by June.
    The U.S. Supreme Court decisions set the parameters for corruption in this country. By giving public officials a wide berth on corrupt conduct, the justices unleash more corruption. Public officials are protected, instead of the public. There is no just mercy for common folk, like the school kids and the emergency crews caught in the traffic jam.
    Ariane de Vogue, CNN, Jan. 14, 2020; Ted Sherman, NJ Advance Media, Jan. 14, 2020; Richard Wolf, USA Today, Jan. 14, 2020; Ryan Hutchins, Politico, Jan. 14, 2020; Kate Zernike and David W. Chen, New York Times, Jan. 29, 2014; Kate Zernike and Matt Flegenheimer, New York Times, March 11, 2014


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