A two-term member of the North Bergen Board of Commissioners, the head of the township's Parks and Recreation Department and a business administrator for the Hudson County Schools of Technology, the 41-year-old Perez was certain that he was not being implicated in the probe, although other sources said last April that he was.
"I have not been implicated," Perez told the Reporter in April. "There is no truth to it whatsoever. I have no idea where it's coming from."
Perez was equally adamant when asked if his home had been searched by FBI agents.
"It didn't happen," Perez said. "I'm telling you, they didn't search my home."
Wednesday afternoon, Peter Perez walked into U.S. District Court in Newark and pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud, admitting that he accepted home improvements and cash payments worth approximately $26,000 from a contractor who had many municipal contracts within the town.
As part of a plea bargain, where he could have faced more serious charges, Perez pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Joseph A. Greenaway, Jr.
Perez also offered his resignation as a commissioner. He has served since March of 1995.
Perez is still employed by the Hudson County Schools of Technology, earning approximately $92,000 per year. According to spokesman Craig Schmalz, no action will be taken on Perez' status until the HCST's Board of Education can convene. The board is scheduled to convene next week.
As a town commissioner, Perez earned approximately $15,000 per year.
The charge against Perez carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Clark, who has been in charge of the investigation since a raid was conducted on several municipal offices and the homes of North Bergen officials in December of 2001.
According to U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie, Perez admitted to accepting free work at his home, as well as cash payments from a vendor who had several contracts within the township.
Although the vendor has never been mentioned in any release involving the U.S. Attorney's Office, it is believed to be Leonard Farinola, the owner and operator of Fresco Air Systems, who has admitted to cooperating with the FBI in the investigation and has reportedly turned state's evidence, wearing a wire to collect information in the probe.
It is also believed that Farinola's testimony and cooperation led to the indictment of former township administrator Joseph Auriemma and the guilty plea offered by Vincent Zappulla, the former deputy public safety director and Mayor Nicholas Sacco's personal driver.
Farinola had several contracts with the township and the township's Municipal Utilities Authority, totaling $2.7 million since 1993, and was a close personal friend of Auriemma's.
According to Christie, Perez admitted to investigators that he intentionally concealed the receipt of the free work and cash by failing to disclose them on financial disclosure statements. Public officials are required to file these annual statements with the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs each year pursuant to the local government ethics laws.
In the information presented to Judge Greenaway, Perez admitted that in November 1995, the vendor provided a $7,000 bathroom renovation at his North Bergen home.
He further admitted that in 1997, the vendor provided additional renovations to the kitchen, bedrooms, a bathroom, and a hallway, with a total value of approximately $15,700.
Perez also admitted taking cash payments ranging from $500 to $2,000 - for a grand total of approximately $3,300 - on a number of occasions from 1995 through 1998.
In the town's rank and file, Perez had responsibility for the upkeep of town buildings, including maintenance and repairs on heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) equipment in town facilities, which would solidify his association with Farinola.
Perez had authority over which vendors would get certain contracts.
When the probe broke, North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco asked all of his five commissioners whether they had anything to do with the FBI probe. Sacco believed his colleagues to the fullest.
"The mayor asked him [Perez] if he was involved in it and he [Perez] said he wasn't," Mayoral Spokesman Craig Schmalz said at the time. "The mayor believes what he says."
"The investigation does not involve myself or any of the commissioners," Sacco said in December. "The agents didn't go into the mayor's office at all. They didn't go into any of our homes. I'm not concerned for me or any of the commissioners. We'll just have to wait and see what happens."
Now, Sacco is singing a different tune.
"I am deeply disappointed by this latest development in the government's investigation of a corrupt township vendor," Sacco said in a statement. "I want to assure the people of North Bergen that I am doing everything in my power to drive out any remaining traces of corruption from Town Hall. Strengthening the public's confidence in the integrity of this administration is my highest priority."
Added Sacco, "As mayor of the community, I feel the full brunt of the investigation and I take it personally. But we're working as much as possible to make sure that we get rid of this corruption. I want it gone. I want the corruption rooted out and taken care of. That's why we're going to be as open and as helpful as possible."
Clark wouldn't comment if there were other indictments on the horizon, but he did say that the investigation is "active and ongoing," which means that more could follow.
According to a source, "several homes" of North Bergen officials were searched in the FBI probe. There have now been three confirmed - Auriemma, Zappulla and Perez.
As for a replacement for Perez on the Board of Commissioners, the township has 30 days to decide on a suitable candidate. Thursday afternoon, it was expected that the Board of Commissioners would appoint North Bergen High School Vice Principal Allen Pascual. Pascual is a long-time teacher and coach in the district, and was a standout high school wrestler during his athletic career at North Bergen High School.
Perez did not return phone calls to his cellular phone and pager as of press time, nor did his attorney, Andrew Jacobs of Chatham.
Judge Greenway set sentencing Perez for Nov. 18 at 9:30 a.m.