The Soprano State The Soprano State
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Update

2021

  • Things just keep getting worse and worse when it comes to corruption-busting in New Jersey. Now, a judge is saying it’s OK for political candidates to accept bribes in the Soprano State because they have yet to be elected.

    (This comes on the heels of the U.S. Supreme Court saying last year that closing lanes on the busiest bridge in the world for political reasons wasn’t a federal crime.)

    State prosecutors charged former assemblyman Jason O’Donnell, a candidate for Bayonne mayor in 2018, with accepting a paper bag filled with $10,000 in cash from a tax attorney, who was promised a job once O’Donnell was elected mayor.

    The charges stemmed from a sting operation where the tax attorney was undercover and cooperating with prosecutors.

    But Superior Court Judge Mitzy Galis-Menendez said the bribe didn’t count because O’Donnell lost the election.

    State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, through a spokesman, said the ruling “effectively legalizes bribing candidates for public office.”

    Prosecutor John Nicodemo said if the ruling stands “nefarious players can solicit and accept all manner of cash and other things of value for future favors with very little criminal repercussions.” The attorney general will appeal.

    The defense pointed to an old federal case in which bribery charges against Jersey City mayoral candidate Lou Manzo, another former assemblyman, were tossed because federal Judge Jose Linares ruled Manzo was not a public official when he accepted cash and promised approvals for real estate projects. Linares’ ruing was upheld on appeal

    Terrence T. McDonald, NorthJersey.com, June 3, 2021; Ted Sherman, NJ Advance Media, June 3, 2021

  • In the ultimate example of multiple-dipping into New Jersey’s public trough, Roy Riggitano earns $347,970 from nine public jobs in six municipalities, topped off with sick-leave and vacation payouts in the six figures.

    The state comptroller zeroed in on Riggitano’s numerous public pay checks, and northjersey.com completed the picture by reporting he has “amassed more than $170,000 in sick and vacation time buybacks” in Elmwood Park alone. State law allows local employees to cash in their vacation days each year. How much sick leave a public employee can cash out now depends on when you were hired.

    Riggitano receives a salary of $160,406 for his three jobs as Elmwood Park’s CFO, tax collector and purchasing agent, with a sick and vacation time payout of $58,000 in 2020 alone. For five years in a row, his payouts in Elmwood Park have been in five-figures, northjersey.com reported.

    One of the highest-paid public employees in the Soprano State, Riggitano’s other public titles and salaries include: Garfield CFO, $62,816; Palisades Park CFO and purchasing agent, $60,971; Rochelle Park CFO, $41, 008; Cliffside Park fire inspector, $12,000; Fairview fire inspector, $10,768.

    Multiple-dipping in public jobs always raises the question of job performance. Citing mismanagement in Palisades Park earlier this year, the state comptroller said CFO Riggitano was “rarely in the borough’s offices” and the “CFO does not ensure all of the required functions of a municipal CFO are performed.”

    Katie Sobko, northjersey.com, April 23, 2021; Terrence T. McDonald and Katie Sobko, northjersey.com, April 1, 2021

  • The long-standing joke that you can participate in New Jersey politics even after your dead didn’t fare well in court when an administrative judge threw Democratic gubernatorial candidate Lisa McCormick off the Primary ballot after the dead, and the living who never signed, were listed on her election petition.

    Gov. Murphy will likely face no one on the Primary ballot after another administrative judge tossed a second challenger, Roger Bacon, off the ballot by ruling 305 of his signatures were invalid. Bacon’s petition was loaded with Republicans, who can’t vote in the Democratic Primary, the judge ruled. The administrative decisions were forwarded to the Secretary of State.

    The state Democratic Committee challenged McCormick’s Primary bid by accusing her of using a software listing of voters, rather than real signatures, to create her election petition. Administrative law judge Jeffrey Rabin said none of nearly 2,000 signatures was valid. Five voters testified in court that they did not sign. Two others were found to be dead.

    McCormick told nj.com her campaign manager handled the petition, and she would push on with a write-in campaign. The lawyer for the Democratic Committee said the fraudulent petition should be investigated for criminal conduct, northjersey.com reported.

    McCormick ran and lost in a variety of New Jersey elections but managed to surprise pundits in 2018 by capturing 38 percent of the vote in a Primary against U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez who was embroiled that year in a trial on corruption charges.

    Mike Catalini, Associated Press, April 14, 2021; Terrence T. McDonald and Charles Stile, northjersey.com, April 12, 2021; Ted Sherman and Matt Arco, nj.com, April 12, 2021

  • Republican candidate for governor, Phil Rizzo, pastor of a Hoboken Baptist church, is facing media scrutiny over the Morris County tax-free, luxury parsonage he lives in after his church bought it from him for $1.6 million.

    A long-shot for governor and facing two other GOP candidates in the Primary, Rizzo is a staunch supporter of former President Donald Trump. The Republican candidate for governor also has the support of former Ocean County GOP chair George Gilmore, convicted on federal tax charges and pardoned by Trump.

    Politico reporter Matt Friedman took a close look at how Rizzo ended up in a tax-exempt, five-bedroom, seven-bath home with three fireplaces, a pond and a heated swimming pool. Rizzo purchased the home in 2015 for $1.55 million and then sold the house to City Baptist Church in 2017 for $1.65 million. Afterward, the home, 45 minutes from the church on six secluded acres, underwent luxury improvements.

    A former real estate developer turned preacher, Rizzo told Politico the church purchased the home for him when it could not offer a salary. He said it provides a peaceful setting for church events. Politico could not determine whether Rizzo currently has a salary. The church has a Hoboken post office box and a storefront in North Bergen, Politico reported.

    A critic of Gov. Murphy and the governor’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, Rizzo has called for the opening of schools and businesses. Praising Trump, he said the former president “stood up for our values.”

    Matt Friedman, Politico, April 6, 2021

  • In typical Soprano State style, suspended Saddle Brook police chief Robert Kugler isn’t letting charges of official misconduct interfere with his campaign for Bergen County sheriff.

    Attorney General Gurbir Grewal charged Kugler with illegally ordering on-duty police officers to provide funeral procession escorts for Kugler’s funeral home. According to the charges, for a year and a half, Kugler helped himself to the funeral escorts to cemeteries inside and outside town limits, without reimbursing the township.

    Kugler, whose family has owned the funeral home since 1963, also is charged with conspiracy and corruption of public resources. Chief of police since 1963, he has been suspended.

    Undaunted by the alleged crime, Bergen County Republicans endorsed Kugler as their candidate for sheriff against Democratic incumbent Anthony Cureton.

    Kugler’s lawyer, John Bruno, told northjersey.com Kugler was “shocked and outraged” by the charges. Bergen County GOP chair Jack Zisa added that the chief’s supporters have a “different view” from prosecutors on whether a crime was committed.

    Reporter Terrence McDonald pointed out that Kugler is not alone in seeking office after being charged. Paterson Mayor Marty Barnes tried but failed to win reelection after he was indicted for accepting illegal gifts. After sentencing for racketeering, Union City Mayor Bill Musto was reelected, but the courts wouldn’t let him serve. He joins Guttenberg Mayor Nicholas Cicco who also was reelected after a conviction for public corruption.

    Terrence T. McDonald, northjersey.com, April 1, 2021; Steve Janoski, northjersey.com, March 8 and 11, 2021

  • In a perfect example of Soprano State style, the small borough of Palisades Park across from New York City ignored state law and paid borough employees hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars for unused sick leave. The borough continued the payouts for years after state law ended the practice in 2007 and 2010, Acting state Comptroller Kevin Walsh said.

    In 2018, the borough paid $109,000 to 27 employees who should not have received the sick leave payments, and did the same in 2019 by paying $95,000 to 22 employees, the comptroller said.

    The comptroller also found the borough approved a business administrator’s $68,000 reimbursement request for expenses, including $16,600 in accounting services for his private business, $10,500 in legal fees for his wife and $5,200 for a cancelled vacation deposit. In addition to unlawful sick leave payments he already received, business administrator David Lorenzo’s contract calls for another $360,000 payout if he retired today, the comptroller said.

    As if that wasn’t enough, the comptroller found the borough handed out fuel cards to employees without any oversight, allowing employees to enjoy taxpayer-funded gas for their personal use. In one year alone, the borough of 1.25 square miles spent $120,000 on gas.

    Borough Attorney John Schettino told NorthJersey.com that Palisades Park is reviewing its policies. He said the policies have been in place for decades and offered what appeared to be an excuse, that the policies are followed by other New Jersey municipalities.

    Acting state Comptroller Kevin Walsh, March 2, 2021; Samantha Marcus, NJ Advance Media, March 2, 2021; Terrence McDonald, NorthJersey.com, March 4, 2021

  • Bridget Anne Kelly is another example of how Soprano State officials can be resurrected despite indictments and convictions.

    Kelly, whose federal conviction for Bridgegate was thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court, is now running for clerk of Bergen County on the GOP ticket. Kelly and Bill Baroni were convicted of closing the Fort Lee lanes to the George Washington Bridge to punish the mayor for not supporting Gov. Christie. A federal appellate court upheld the convictions before the high court threw them out. Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, is best known for an email titled, “Time for some Traffic Problems in Fort Lee.” The New York Times reported a culture inside Christie’s office that rewarded allies and punished those not willing to support the governor’s reelection.

    Kelly’s opponent for county clerk, incumbent Democrat John Hogan, told the New York Post, “You can’t take the email away. Maybe the Supreme Court decided that she didn’t break any laws but it was certainly unethical.”

    Convicted politicians running for office, and even winning, are nothing new to New Jersey. Union City Mayor William Musto was reelected in 1982 the day after he was sentenced to prison for racketeering. Ironically, the aide who testified against Musto, U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, also was reelected in 2018 after his federal trial on charges of bribery and fraud ended in a hung jury. In 2019, a review by state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal found four cases of convicted public officials with new government jobs in New Jersey. The review was prompted when Gov. Murphy hired convicted former Passaic councilman Marcellus Jackson (who admitted taking bribes) for a job in the state Department of Education. New York Post, Carl Campanile, Jan. 25, 2021; Colleen O’Dea, njspotlight.com, March 10, 2014; Time, Nov. 7, 2018; Mike Catalini, Associated Press, April 10, 2019

  • Former President Trump pardoned and commuted the sentences of Soprano State criminals in what the New York Times described as a list of pardons showing “distain for a justice system that seeks to hold public officials to account for violations of the public trust.” Citing the support of Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, Trump commuted the sentence of Florida Dr. Salomon Melgen, convicted of bilking Medicare out of $73 million by convincing old folks to get eye treatments they didn’t need. Menendez, who was indicted (but never convicted) and suffered a severe Senate admonishment for his ties to Melgen, said he played a small role in lobbying Trump for the commutation. Menendez was admonished by the Senate for using his position to help Melgen with his business interests while accepting luxury gifts from the doctor, whom he called a friend. Citing more than a dozen supporters for the pardon including former governors Chris Christie, Jim McGreevey and Jim Florio, Trump pardoned former Ocean County GOP chairman George Gilmore who was convicted of filing a false $1.5 million loan application and of failing to turn over taxes collected from his law firm employees. (His lawyer blamed Gilmore’s downfall on a hoarding disorder.) For years, Gilmore was the political chief of the county every Republican candidate in New Jersey needed to win statewide election. Trump pardoned Somers Point surgeon Frederick Nahas, who pleaded guilty to obstructing justice after he only produced files for 45 of his 2,000 patients during a federal investigation of his Medicare billing. U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, who earned Trump’s support by changing parties last year, supported the pardon. The Courier-Post reported Nahas made contributions of $3,000 to Van Drew’s congressional campaign last year. Also with the support of Van Drew, Trump commuted the sentence of Eliyahu Weinstein, the man northJersey.com identified as “one of the most notorious Ponzi-scheme swindlers in New Jersey history.” In 2014, Weinstein was sentenced to 24 years in federal prison after he was convicted of running a scheme costing investors $200 million. Weinstein started the scheme by targeting victims in his Orthodox Jewish community. NJ Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, a former assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted Weinstein, said he was disgusted but not surprised by the pardon. “It’s one huckster commuting the sentence of another,” Grewal told NJ Advance Media.
    Eric Lipton and Kenneth P. Vogel, New York Times, Jan. 20, 2021; Dustin Racioppi, northjersey.com, Jan. 20, 2021; Jim Walsh, Cherry Hill Courier-Post, Jan. 20, 2021; Ted Sherman, NJ Advance Media, Jan. 20, 2021; Charles Style, northjersey.com, Dec. 11, 2020


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