What the investigators found was tax fraud. The principals of Hoboken Auto Body have admitted to maintaining a "double set of books," one set revealing the cash profits and the other not showing them.
According to federal sentencing guidelines, company owner Theresa Pino would have spent more than a year in prison. But because she cooperated with investigators, U.S. District Judge Joel Pisano only sentenced her to two years of probation on Tuesday.
And apparently, her cooperation helped bring down former Mayor Anthony Russo - who is now serving jail time - and attempted to implicate his wife, who is not.
In an effort to gain leniency for Pino, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ricardo Solano had submitted a memo to the court that detailed Pino's cooperation in the investigation.
According to Solano's memo, which was released into the public record Tuesday, Pino informed agents that she allegedly paid Mayor Russo $25,000 a year for the contracts.
But according to that memo, Pino also secretly recorded more than 20 conversations with Michele Russo, the former mayor's wife. At the time, Michele Russo was a commissioner on the Hoboken Parking Authority. (The HPA has since been dissolved, and parking is now handled by a city agency.)
According the memo, Michele Russo allegedly attempted to pocket $5 for every car towed to Pino's yard. "As Theresa Pino disclosed to the FBI (and the FBI has been able to corroborate through other means), in 1998, Michelle Russo attempted to extort [Hoboken Auto Body] of $5 for each vehicle [Hoboken Auto Body] towed under its Hoboken Parking Authority contract with the city," said Solano's memo.
"The whole thing is absolutely absurd," Michele Russo responded Friday morning. She added that all of her actions on the Parking Authority were well documented.
"She [Pino] has to do what she is told to do, but she knows these allegations are a joke," Russo added. Michele Russo, who is currently a real estate agent and does not hold any city positions, has not been charged with a crime. At this late date, it's unlikely that she will be charged in the matter.
A spokesperson for the U.S. attorney's office told a local daily newspaper last week that sometimes, there is not enough evidence to force a conviction, but the testimony is enough to show a judge that the witness is doing her best to cooperate.
Mayor Russo's crimes
According to investigators, Anthony Russo's towing bribes were accepted by an intermediary, former Alcoholic Beverage Control Board Chairman Frank Andreula. During his sentencing, Russo admitted that Andreula was the intermediary for the Pinos' payoffs.
But Russo and Andreula were actually sentenced for other crimes. Several years ago, Andreula was indicted for accepting kickbacks from bar owners in conjunction with his title on the ABC board. He served jail time and has since been released.
Mayor Russo entered into a plea agreement in September 2004 in which he admitted to accepting thousands of dollars in bribes and unlawful cash payments from the principals of the Hoboken-based accounting firm Lisa and Associates.
In addition to holding city and county contracts, the accounting firm had done business with the now-defunct Hoboken Parking Authority and the Hoboken Board of Education, whose elected board was largely filled with Russo-backed members during his eight years as mayor.
The federal government had investigated Russo for 10 years, in the allocution, Russo admitted to taking much more, but his conviction was based only on actions that took place toward the end of his second term, shortly after he was defeated in May, 2001.
The federal counts were technically mail fraud charges associated with the bribes.
Lisa, 47, a politically connected accountant, didn't bribe only Russo. He also admitted in federal court in August of 2003 to paying thousands of dollars in bribes to former Hudson County Executive Robert Janiszewski from 1997 to 2001. He pleaded guilty in front of U.S. District Court Judge Harold A. Ackerman to one count of having made corrupt payments through an unnamed intermediary from 1997 to 2001 to secure the renewal of his firm's auditing contract with Hudson County.
Also sentenced from towing company
Also sentenced to two years probation on Tuesday was Theresa Pino's sister, Yvette Pino. Their brother-in-law, Vincent Tubito, received two years' probation on Wednesday and their brother, William Pino, is expected to get a similar term when he is sentenced later this month.
According to a story in the Newark Star Ledger, at the sentencing, Theresa Pino apologized for her participation in corruption. .
"This is not the example I wish to set," she reportedly said. "This terrible indiscretion is not who I am." The judge, according to the Ledger story, said that Pino was the victim of "a culture of corruption" but that she is not without culpability because she was a willing participant in the corruption.