Russo, 56, was charged Thursday with allegedly taking money from city vendors including a waterfront parking operator, towing contractor, accounting firm, and a Board of Education attorney, in exchange for action on municipal contracts. He was also charged with taking money from bar owners.
Russo's attorney, Dennis McAlevy of Union City, said that his client is "absolutely contesting all of the allegations brought against him."
With his hands in cuffs and his feet in leg irons, his head shaved clean because of recent treatments for adrenal cancer, the normally colorful Russo was reduced to a solemn figure as he sat in a Newark courtroom Thursday. His quiet demeanor and slumped shoulders were a far cry from the powerful personality who for more than a decade ruled the city with a mix of affability, charm, anger, and outbursts at critics.
U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie, whose short reign has seen the indictments of several Hudson County officials, said Thursday that the Russo indictment was unsealed late Wednesday night. Russo surrendered to the FBI early Thursday morning and was held in custody until his 2:30 p.m. pre-trial hearing before U.S. district Magistrate Ronald J. Hedges.
Russo has been charged in a seven-count indictment that states that he "den[ied] honest services to the citizens of Hoboken." Christie said Russo allegedly accepted tens of thousands of dollars from local contractors.
The seven counts include six counts of mail fraud (those counts are said to pertain to bribery) and one count of extortion. Most of the charges pertain to activities that allegedly took place between 1994 and 1997.
The U.S. Attorney's office would not give specifics last week on who the vendors or bar owners may have been in the alleged cases of extortion.
After his court appearance Thursday, Russo was released on $100,000 bail. The judge ordered Russo to keep his travel to within New Jersey and New York and to surrender any passports and travel documents. He also was ordered not to have any contact with the unidentified vendors or individuals who are the subject of the charges.
To cover his bail, Russo put up his shore house in Belmar, N.J. Russo lives in moderate-income housing in the Church Towers complex on Willow Avenue, where he moved more than 30 years ago when he was a special education teacher in the Hoboken schools. He also runs the Russo Civic Association on Adams Street, a club that does some local charity work.
He is currently a supervisor in the public schools.
Thursday, Christie said Russo is "number 30 on the hit parade" of New Jersey politicians indicted for corruption since he took office. Several of those investigations began before Christie was appointed.
Among the politicos indicted are former Hudson County Executive Robert Janiszewski, who pleaded guilty to bribery; former Freeholder Nidia Dávila-Colón, awaiting sentencing for aiding extortion; and Freeholder William Braker, who stands trial next month on extortion charges.
It was not known last week if Janiszewski gave the federal government information on Russo. However, last month, local accountant Gerard Lisa, who runs a Hoboken-based firm that has done business with both the county and the city of Hoboken, testified in the Janiszewski case and also said that he had given money to an unnamed high-ranking Hoboken elected official.
Attorney Dennis McAlevy said Thursday that his client will plead not guilty.
McAlevy added that the fact that charges were brought against Russo did not come as a shock. "After being investigated for 10 years, we had to assume that something was eventually going to happen," said McAlevy, "but we just didn't know what or when."
So why did the FBI take so long to charge Russo - who also won a Hoboken City Council seat this past May but then resigned because of his health - if the charges pertain to activities in the mid-1990s?
Michael Drewniak, spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's Office, said given the large number of investigations into government corruption and the high percentage of resulting convictions, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's office has been acting with due diligence.
"In the past several years, there have been many overlapping investigations into numerous individuals in different part of the state that have resulted in a great number of successes," he said.
Christie said Thursday that when he came into office several years ago, there were seven full-time employees dealing with corruption. Now, he said, there are 14 expediting the information and pursuing indictments.
Rumors swirled about local investigations for years, but it became public in 1997 that the FBI was targeting Russo when the city's former zoning officer, James Bender, told newspapers that he had been interviewed by the FBI and that the FBI told him they were targeting Russo. At the time, Bender told the Reporter, "Neither the mayor nor any other official has ever asked me to do anything illegal in my position."
Bender said that federal agents asked him about an occupancy increase he approved for a bar near the PATH station. He said that one agent told him, regarding possible corruption, "If you are involved, this is your chance to get out."
The next year, one of Russo's closest friends, Alcoholic Beverage Control Board Chairman Frank Andreula, was indicted for allegedly accepting kickbacks in conjunction with his title. He served jail time and was released this year. Russo said at the time that he had no knowledge of Andreula's activities.
At the time, Russo said, "The [FBI] can come and look all they want. They've been looking for four years now."
One other Russo friend was indicted in connection with local bars. Patrick Cecala, a former Board of Education member who got a City Hall job as liquor board secretary, was caught in the 1990s allegedly asking a bar owner to pay him to expedite a liquor license transfer. He served time for the charge and said that Russo knew nothing about his one-time act. Frank Andreula's wife, Roseanne, was once a close ally of Russo but distanced herself from him after Frank went to jail. This past May, she ran against Russo for the 3rd Ward council seat and lost. She has also filed her petitions to fill Russo's vacant council seat. A special election is scheduled for Nov. 7. Russo's son Michael also will vie for the seat.
More worried about his health
McAlevy said Russo, who is scheduled to have surgery when he finishes his chemotherapy treatments, is more worried about his health than he is about the feds.
A trial date for Russo has not yet been scheduled.
From the six counts of mail fraud, all of which allegedly involve taking bribes, he could receive up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine per count. On the extortion charge, he could face a maximum of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Russo and his wife Michele declined to comment on the charges as they left the courthouse.
In an interesting side note, as they left the courtroom Thursday, a cameraman tripped over a curb and banged his head and camera on the sidewalk. Russo was the first person to help the cameraman up, ask if he was alright and brush him off.
Christie said that Russo's indictment is another example of a New Jersey public official who chose to serve himself instead of his constituents.
"Today is another step in our efforts to free government from corruption," said Christie. "Under Russo, this is the way he demanded that business should be done. He put Hoboken up for sale."
Christie added that more arrests and indictments in Hudson County will be coming in the next couple of months.
"We are not nearly through with Hudson County," said the U.S. attorney. "I would like to stand here and tell you today that we are near the end of the road, but the truth is that we are not."
Russo inspired strong emotions during his time in office.
He was seen as a hard-working leader who very rarely left town. New parks and development flourished under his reign. But he also got into loud fights with critics, and his opponents claimed there was an atmosphere in town that made some people afraid to publicly criticize him. Russo was accused by one council candidate of smashing her husband's camera during a heated council race. He was acquitted of the charge.
Current Mayor David Roberts, through his spokesperson Bill Campbell, said Friday that as the current mayor of the city, Roberts had no comment on Russo's indictment.
But when asked whether Roberts saw any wrongdoing when he was a close ally of Russo during Russo's first term, former Sixth Ward Councilman Roberts denied knowing about anything illegal.
"[Roberts] had no knowledge of any wrongdoing or illegality [while he sat on the council]," said Campbell.
At the time, Roberts was a peacemaker on the council and frequently launched into long speeches in support of the mayor. But toward the end of the decade, Roberts publicly broke with Russo and criticized his governing style.
For every resident and former student who had great love for Russo in Hoboken, there was a critic or political opponent who wanted desperately to see the hard-charging mayor topple.
In one case, a group of eight Russo detractors created an "indictment pool" in 1993 when he got elected mayor, each putting in $50 on whichever six-month period of his term Russo would be indicted in.
At the end of the 1997 fiscal year, they had no choice but to donate the money to charity.