After four members of the City Council wrote a letter three weeks ago questioning the ethics of Mayor Dawn Zimmer, Zimmer responded with a letter saying that Councilman Michael Russo, one of her critics who signed the letter, has his own ethical dilemmas to answer for.
The war of words started last month when, in a letter to Zimmer, four members of the council said that the mayor’s recent use of Councilman Ravi Bhalla as her personal attorney for a family legal matter might be unethical. The letter was also published in the Hoboken Reporter.
Zimmer is up for re-election in 2013, and four of the nine members of the City Council typically oppose her initiatives. They are said to be discussing who among them will run against Zimmer next year.
Russo said that the “Russo for Hoboken” account was never closed.
Where’s the $18,000?
In 2009, the U.S. Attorney’s Office undertook a sting operation that brought down politicians and political candidates statewide. They directed a Central Jersey developer, Solomon Dwek, who was facing fraud charges, to offer bribes to politicians and candidates in exchange for their promise to help him with future development projects. The now-famous “Operation Bid Rig” resulted in more than 40 arrests of public officials, candidates, and religious leaders, including Hoboken’s newly-elected mayor, Peter Cammarano.
Councilman Russo was not running for office at the time and was never arrested or indicted. However, two years later, during the spring of 2011, at the same time as he was running for re-election to the council, a non-fiction book about the sting operation revealed that Russo had met with Dwek in 2009 and discussed accepting a campaign donation from Dwek.
Russo never met with Dwek after that initial fundraising meeting, according to Russo, and never accepted the money. In the book, the authors theorized that Russo was subsequently warned away from Dwek.
When the book was released in spring of 2011, the Star Ledger also posted a leaked FBI video of Russo’s 2009 lunch with Dwek. In the video, Russo tells Dwek to make a check out to “Russo for Hoboken” and Dwek says he doesn’t want his name on the check. Russo does not explicitly say he will favor Dwek in exchange for a donation, but does boast of his power and talks about how someone might favor an associate.
In Mayor Zimmer’s recent letter to the four council members, she made accusations that give rise to new questions about Russo’s campaign dealings.
“Mr. Russo claims that he never received the money and therefore did nothing wrong, but we have only his unsubstantiated word that he never received the money,” said Zimmer in her letter dated Aug. 30.
Zimmer then charged that Russo never filed the required state reports for his campaign funds after September of 2008. Russo’s lunch with Dwek occurred during the FBI sting in 2009.
Thus, Zimmer noted, there is no way of noting whether campaign funds came into Russo’s coffers in 2009. If Russo directed Dwek to make a check out to “Russo for Hoboken” in 2009, and there are no campaign reports for that account after 2008, what happened to that account?
In 2009, Russo was not running for council (he ran in 2007 and 2011). However, Russo still had a “Russo for Hoboken” fund as of Sept. 30, 2008.
A check of on-line records for the state Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) last week showed that, indeed, while fundraising records were submitted to the state for Sept. 30, 2008 for a new “Russo for Hoboken” fund, nothing appears for that account afterward.
The next state ELEC record for Russo is for the “Russo for Council” fund, which submitted reports for 2009 and 2011.
Zimmer notes in her letter that the last documentation for “Russo for Hoboken” on Sept. 30, 2008 indicates a cash balance of $18,420.81. If the account disappeared, how was the $18,420.81 spent?
When contacted by phone on Wednesday, Russo said that the “Russo for Hoboken” account was never closed, contrary to Zimmer’s statement.
Russo submitted a photo of a bank statement dated last month showing that the “Russo for Hoboken” account remains open with a small balance of $1,190.81.
When asked where the rest of the money is, Russo said it was “used through the years for different things” related to campaigning. Russo said he would talk to his campaign treasurer to find out whether subsequent reports were filed properly. He also said he would provide canceled checks to show where the money went.
However, no further information was provided by press time Friday.
Russo said that the initial “Russo for Hoboken” account was used for his campaign for council in 2007 and was not related to later accounts for when he was considering running for mayor or when he ran in 2011 for re-election to council.
In her letter, Zimmer wrote, “The Russo for Hoboken account seems to have just disappeared, together with the $18,420.81 cash balance. Councilman Russo later formed a brand new account with a zero balance, with no mention of the prior Russo for Hoboken account or the missing $18,420.81.”
Not just the mayor
The mayor is apparently not the only person asking questions about Russo’s election reports. Longtime local campaign finance watchdog Eric Kurta, who ran unsuccessfully for council in 2011, was sent a letter by ELEC in August stating that ELEC is now looking into “the filing requirements of Michael Russo” in response to a request from Kurta in June.
The letter, dated July 20, 2012, says that at its meeting on July 17, ELEC “decided to open a review for compliance with the provisions of the New Jersey Campaign Contributions and Expenditures Reporting Act. Nothing contained in this letter is intended to indicate the outcome of the review or any action to be taken by the Commission.”
Zimmer said in her letter that Russo’s actions with Dwek might be in conflict with the public interest, but “Councilman Bhalla’s minimal representation of my family over a leaky roof insurance claim was not.”
Russo did not return a subsequent phone call and a text on Friday by press time for more information.
A version of Zimmer’s letter appears this week on the Reporter letters page.
Amanda Palasciano may be reached at email@example.com.