The Soprano State The Soprano State
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2020

  • Keeping the Soprano State’s reputation for corruption in the news, former Middlesex Borough mayor Ronald DiMura pleaded guilty to stealing more than $75,000 in local campaign money by funneling it through a charity and then into his own pocket. Attorney General Gurbir Grewal recommended DiMura spend seven years in jail, a recommendation prosecutor Thomas Eicher said was in keeping with a new policy that expects “honesty and integrity” from public officials in New Jersey. The Election Law Enforcement Commission, the state’s election watchdog, brought the case to the attention of Grewal’s new Office of Public Integrity and Accountability. DiMura, also former Middlesex council president and finance chair, was treasurer of the Middlesex Democratic campaign committee and other local campaigns. Investigators said he used that position to steal $190,000 from the campaigns by donating the money to a charitable organization that he ran, and then funneling the money to his personal bank account or business accounts he controlled. Investigators said he also stole more than $75,000 from private investors who were promised the funds would be invested. Instead, the money ended up in his own accounts.
    Attorney General Gurbir Grewal Aug. 13, 2020; Chris Sheldon, NJ Advance Media, Aug. 13, 2020; Katie Kausch, NJ Advance Media, Dec. 19, 2019

  • The New Jersey campaign manager who lost his job over Bridgegate, Bill Stepien, is now running President Trump’s presidential campaign. Trump demoted Brad Parscale and bumped Stepien from deputy to manager. Once again, New Jersey scandal breeds success for those involved. Stepien served as Gov. Christie’s campaign manager and deputy chief of staff before losing a chance to head the NJ GOP after emails surfaced that Christie said showed Stepien’s “callous indifference” to pleas by the Fort Lee mayor to open lanes that had been closed for political reasons on the George Washington Bridge.

    Christie and Stepien were never charged in the case, and those who were charged and convicted, Port Authority executive Bill Baroni and Bridget Anne Kelly, Stepien’s successor as deputy chief of staff to Christie, were cleared by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. But testimony at the trial and reporting by the New York Times revealed activities inside Christie’s office headed by first Stepien and then Kelly (called Intergovernmental Affairs) worked to curry political favor for the governor by rewarding or punishing mayors depending on whether they supported Christie politically.

    The goal was to prove that Christie was a presidential candidate who could draw support from both Democrats and Republicans. Bridgegate, a result of those efforts, ended Christie’s bid for a spot in Washington, but obviously not Stepien’s.
    Courtney Subramanian, USA Today, July 15, 2020; Caroline Kelly, CNN, July 15, 2020; Kate Zernike and David W. Chen, Jan. 29, 2014

  • The Soprano State’s most powerful political boss, George Norcross, and his South Jersey machine this month suffered three surprising blows to his power and influence. Roll Call said the Norcross machine “threw a rod” when its candidate (Brigid Callahan Harrison) lost to Amy Kennedy in the primary race to decide which Democrat will face off against Rep. Jeff Van Drew (Democrat turned Republican and Pres. Trump supporter) in November. It is unheard of for a Norcross candidate to lose on his turf. But several factors were at work, including the Kennedy name (she is the wife of Ted Kennedy’s son), and the mail-in ballots that were sent to all registered voters in New Jersey for the primary. Nevertheless, the defeat belonged to Norcross, who has been in Gov. Murphy’s crosshairs. A taskforce appointed by Murphy announced that a dozen companies winning tax breaks from the state’s economic development authority are now under investigation and their tax credits on hold. The companies under investigation were not identified. Of the $578 million in tax breaks that were frozen, $540 million when to five firms connected to Norcross, the New York Daily News reported. In another blow to Norcross, an appellate court shot down his claim that Murphy had no power to create the task force investigating the New Jersey Economic Development Authority. The judges ruled the governor’s concerns about the tax-incentive program were “legitimate.” For more background on Norcross, you can find him throughout The Soprano State in Chapters 1 to 7. Herb Jackson, Roll Call, July 13, 2020; Daily News Editorial Board, July 13, 2020; Nancy Solomon, WNYC, July 13, 2020; Jim Walsh, Courier-Post, July 6, 2020

  • Leave it to Paterson, NJ, to make the Soprano state another national example of corruption. Charges of voting fraud filed against a Paterson councilman and councilman-elect are expected to provide President Trump with ammunition in his fight against mail-in ballots in the November presidential election. Paterson is infamous for its corruption, and voting fraud allegations started in May when hundreds of mail-in ballots were discovered suspiciously bundled together in three mailboxes. Attorney General Gurbir Grewal now charges Paterson Councilman Michael Jackson, Councilman-elect Alex Mendez and two others with voting fraud related to the May elections when all New Jersey voters used mail-in ballots because of the pandemic. The glitch that opened the system to corruption is the New Jersey rule allowing a “bearer” to collect and deliver ballots for up to three voters. Councilman Jackson is charged with collecting more than three ballots that were not his and with not identifying himself as the bearer. Councilman-elect Mendez is charged with not identifying himself as the bearer of mail-in ballots and of submitting voter registration applications he knew were false. Both men say they are innocent. Attorney general Grewal, however, cited the Paterson case as an example of how those who tamper with ballots will get caught. Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh, a Democrat, told Mike Kelly of NorthJersey.com that he expects Trump to use Paterson in the battle against mail-in ballots. Sayegh bemoaned the case as another round of corruption in his city. “While it’s gravely disappointing to see another episode of potential corruption in Paterson, I remain hopeful that this is the final chapter in what unfortunately has plagued our city for generations,” he told NJ Advance Media. You can check out Chapter 10 of The Soprano State where a Paterson school district facilities director was sentenced to 43 months in prison for taking more than $180,000 in kickbacks. At thesopranostate.com, you can see where former Mayor Joey Torres was sentenced to five years in prison for misuse of city employees. The mayor before him, Marty Barnes, also was jailed on corruption charges. More recently, eight Paterson police officers have been arrested in an FBI corruption probe, as federal and state authorities repeatedly issued subpoenas and search warrants for Paterson records. Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, June 25, 2020; Paul LeBlanc, CNN, June 25, 2020; Mike Kelly, NorthJersey.com, June 26, 2020; Rodrigo Torrejon, NJ Advance Media, June 25, 2020; Joe Malinconico, Paterson Press, May 13, 2020

  • New Jersey cannot strip cops of their licenses for misconduct. That’s because, as The New York Times pointed out, the Soprano state is one of only five states in the nation that fails to license police officers. The Times also reported New Jersey has no central database for tracking police misconduct. The newspaper profiled a 31-year-old cop in Woodlynne who worked for nine New Jersey police departments, moving from one to the other, after injuries to suspects and other incidents should have “raised red flags,” police experts said. With police disciplinary violations long kept secret and no central cataloguing that can be checked by police departments hiring cops in the state, progress was made in the wake of national calls for police reform when state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced that by Dec. 31 state, county and municipal police must publicly identify officers who commit serious disciplinary violations. State police will release 20 years of infractions. The list will include officers who were fired, demoted or suspended for more than five days. In the past, the information was not made public unless the officer was criminally charged. Stringent rules even prevented the disclosure of disciplinary records to police agencies hiring officers, The Times reported.
    Rukmini Callimachi, The New York Times, June 24, 2020; Allison Steele, The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 15, 2020; Terrence T. McDonald, NorthJersey.com, June 15, 2020

  • The state’s highest court kicked Judge John Russo Jr., former mayor of Toms River, off the bench for asking a rape victim about closing her legs. The Russo comment drew national attention and outrage. But the state Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct only wanted to give Russo a three month’s suspension, which is why you need to read Chapter 5 of The Soprano State about New Jersey’s court jesters and their lax discipline. Russo asked an alleged rape victim if she knew how to stop intercourse: “Block your body parts?” he asked. “Close your legs?” Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote the opinion booting Russo. Rabner cited “flagrant and serious acts of misconduct” and “lack of candor on multiple occasions.” The high court ruling cited three other occasions of misconduct. Russo threatened a mother in a paternity case who would not give her address. He used his position to try to move his own guardianship case to another county. And he decreased the amount of back child support for a man he knew in high school. Rabner said Russo’s behavior undermined the integrity of the cases and the judiciary itself. Russo joins his father in Soprano State history. His father, the late former Senate President John Russo is in Chapter 4 where you can read about him ending up with two luxury cars paid for by New Jersey taxpayers.
    Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, Mary 26, 2020; Joe Atmonavage, NJ.com, May 26, 2020

  • The U.S. Supreme Court threw out the Bridgegate convictions, damaging federal prosecutors’ ability to fight corruption in the Soprano state and elsewhere in the country. The highest court in the land said “not every corrupt act by state or local officials is a federal crime” and unanimously ruled that closing the Fort Lee lanes to the George Washington Bridge did not “aim to obtain money or property” and therefore was not a federal crime. What that means is former aides to Gov. Christie, Bill Baroni and Bridget Anne Kelly, who were convicted of closing the Fort Lee lanes to the bridge to punish the mayor for not supporting Christie’s reelection, will go free. Ironically, a federal appellate court earlier upheld the convictions for federal wire fraud, wire fraud conspiracy and misapplying property of an organization (the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey) receiving federal funds. The appellate court said the pair used federal funds “to execute their scheme” and that placed it within “the ambit of the federal criminal law.” Upon sentencing Baroni and Kelly to prison, a federal judge called it an “outrageous display of an abuse of power.” A jury had found the two guilty of conspiring to close the lanes on the world’s busiest bridge on the first day of school, leaving school buses, commuters, ambulances and fire trucks stuck in a traffic jam that lasted for days while Port Authority officials ignored the pleas of the mayor. The highest court in the land left federal prosecutors toothless when it comes to the corrupt use of federal property, thereby further prying open the floodgate to corruption in New Jersey and beyond.
    Ted Sherman, NJ Advance Media, May 7, 2020

  • New Jersey has failed to stop the sexual abuse of women inmates at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility where the chilling abuse has gone on for decades. The U.S. Attorney and Justice Department filed notice that the abuse continues at the only prison for women in the state and it violates the inmates’ constitutional right to be safe from harm. The feds outlined a dozen things that must be done, or the state faces a federal lawsuit. The notice of abuse is nothing new. There have been 70 investigations of abuse. A handful of guards have been arrested and prosecuted. Civil suits have been filed. Chilling testimony by inmates has been heard by a legislative committee. Federal investigators stepped in to investigate two years ago. But the abuse continues. Here is the blunt wording of the federal report: “Long-standing problems with staff sexual abuse at Edna Mahan have been documented for decades. Despite being on notice of this sexual abuse, the New Jersey Department of Corrections and Edna Mahan failed to take timely action to remedy the systemic problems that enabled correction officers and other staff to continue to sexually abuse Edna Mahan prisoners. Women have suffered actual harm from sexual abuse and are at substantial risk of serious harm because the systems in place at Edna Mahan discourage prisoners from reporting sexual abuse and allow sexual abuse to occur undetected and undeterred.” It is a shameful stain on New Jersey. Gov. Murphy needs to stop the abuse. Today.
    U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito, April 13, 2020; S.P. Sullivan, NJ Advance Media, April 13, 2020, Feb. 22, 2018; Mike Deak, Bridgewater Courier News, April 13, 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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