For the third time in two years, the eyes of Hoboken turned to federal court in Newark last week, where a city official once again sat at the defendant’s table across from the U.S. Attorney.
Hoboken’s political rivalries are often perplexing and even entertaining to the residents, but in this case, the desire for information may have led Patrick Ricciardi, the city’s former information technology specialist, to commit federal crimes.
Ricciardi, 45, surrendered on Wednesday to Federal Bureau of Investigation agents, facing allegations that he improperly obtained confidential e-mails meant for the mayor and other top officials, then allegedly passed them to at least one present city official and one former city official. He allegedly set up an archived folder to collect mayoral and other e-mails.
The complaint mentions Hoboken’s divided political factions, and rumors around town suggest that the e-mails were given to Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s political opponents.
The FBI raided Ricciardi’s office in May. They say in their complaint that Ricciardi confessed to them the day before his office was raided. However, they waited six months to arrest him.
Patrick Ricciardi, 45, surrendered on Wednesday to Federal Bureau of Investigation agents.
This wasn’t the first time the FBI was lured to City Hall because of Hoboken politics. Two of the last four mayors have gone to federal prison for allegedly accepting bribes or kickbacks.
Ricciardi’s role in City Hall
Ricciardi served as a management information specialist, according to the complaint, and his duties included managing and maintaining the servers and computers used by the mayor’s office. He also maintained the telephone and e-mail systems used by the mayor and her office, the complaint states.
His “administrative privileges” allowed him enhanced access to the network, computers, and servers from the mayor’s office, according to the complaint.
According to documents obtained as a result of an Open Public Records Act filed by the Reporter, Ricciardi and a co-worker in the IT department stopped working on May 18 and May 17, respectively. Before that, Ricciardi had earned approximately $73,000 annually, not counting overtime.
Ricciardi worked for the city since 1992, and was a regular sight at council meetings operating the video feed.
In 2009, Ricciardi organized a City Hall Christmas party for employees through Facebook, inviting Zimmer, council people, and other employees.
Appearance in court
Ricciardi made his first appearance in U.S. Federal Court in Newark before U.S. Magistrate Judge Cathy Waldor on Wednesday afternoon. His hands and legs were shackled as he entered the courtroom.
Ricciardi was represented by Assistant Federal Public Defender Donald J. McCauley. The government is represented by Assistant U.S. Attorney Zach Intrater. Intrater did not take questions on Wednesday in court.
Ricciardi did not enter a plea. He was released on $100,000 bond, and he was ordered by the judge not to speak with other city employees.
According to the complaint, Ricciardi allegedly created the archive file of intercepted e-mails in early 2010 (see sidebar for timeline). The complaint states that he allegedly did it “so that he could spy on the mayor and mayor’s office employees, and determine whether his job was secure.”
Another employee, who has since been terminated, falsely confessed to the crime in May, the complaint said. The complaint said that he did so because he was close friends with Ricciardi.
Hoboken’s political culture
While Hoboken is well-known for its party nightspots at night and stroller moms, the city is also famous for having a strong and contentious political culture.
Recent elections show only a 10 percent turnout in the most recent school board race and a 22 percent voter turnout in the municipal elections in May. However, several political blogs are devoted to happenings at City Hall. The comments on those blogs often turn personal.
The local blogosphere was mentioned by the FBI in the criminal complaint unsealed on Wednesday.
“As part of the investigation, law enforcement learned that the city’s political culture is currently divided into two main factions,” it said. “The investigation has also revealed that many of the elected and appointed officials in the city retain strong ties to the previous administration or are otherwise politically opposed to [Zimmer], and have sparred with [Zimmer] on a variety of municipal issues, large and small.”
The complaint also said that “evidence of this schism in the city is apparent through the posting of articles and comments on city-related issues to different [blogs].”
The complaint refers to two unnamed city officials who saw Ricciardi’s intercepted e-mails.
All four of the council members who are publicly critical of Zimmer denied their involvement in the alleged e-mail theft scheme last week, according to newspaper reports. One of Zimmer’s most visible critics, Councilwoman Beth Mason, sent an e-mail to her constituents on Wednesday demanding that the names of the officials who received the e-mails be released.
It is unknown whether the officials who allegedly saw the e-mails will be named or face charges.
Who are the unnamed individuals?
“The names of these individuals should be released immediately,” Mason wrote. “The people of Hoboken have a right to know how their trust was violated.”
The explanation in the complaint about Hoboken political culture notes that “many of the elected and appointed officials” in the city are opposed to Zimmer and have sparred with her on city issues. Curiously, the complaint names three departments as examples: The Department of Public Safety, the Fire Department, and the Office of Emergency Management. It also refers to the City Council.
After the arrest, Zimmer released a statement through her office.
Zimmer said when her office suspected wrongdoing, she contacted the proper authorities.
“We provided them with all evidence and have been working with the FBI since,” Zimmer said in a statement. “I thank the U.S. Attorney’s office and the special agents in the FBI Newark field office for their assistance and for taking this matter seriously. This is a good example of our city working with the authorities and demonstrates the justice system at work.”
In an interview on Wednesday, she declined to speculate about who might have received the e-mails or where the investigation might go next. On local pro-Zimmer blogs and on the hudsonreporter.com web page, anonymous commenters are gleefully guessing who might have received the e-mails and whether they will face arrest.
Ray Smith may be reached at RSmith@hudsonreporter.com
Timeline of events, according to the FBI complaint:
Early 2010 – Information Technology specialist Patrick Ricciardi allegedly creates “archive file” to intercept e-mails to and from Mayor Dawn Zimmer.
Feb. 1, 2011 – “Individual 3,” a city municipal employee, allegedly receives a Feb. 1 e-mail from Ricciardi that both Ricciardi and the employee were not privy to.
April 2011 – Mayor’s office employees become suspicious that the subject matter of e-mails exchanged among themselves is somehow being leaked to outside parties.
May 16, 2011 – Mayor’s office hires private company to perform security audit; security firm says they discover “archive file.”
May 17, 2011 – One of Ricciardi’s coworkers falsely confesses to mayor’s office.
May 18, 2011 – “Individual 3” goes to mayor’s office and provides a hard copy of the Feb. 1 e-mail.
Between May 18 and May 25 – City contacts FBI
May 25, 2011 – Special agents interview Ricciardi, who allegedly confesses to the crime; coworker was apparently covering for him
May 26, 2011 – FBI agents seen removing computers from City Hall third floor IT office
Nov. 9, 2011 – Ricciardi charged; appears in court.