“I feel like a weight has been taken off of me.”
Guy Catrillo uttered those words to the Jersey City Reporter after walking out of the chambers of U.S. District Court Judge Jose Linares in U.S. District Court in Newark on Wednesday.
Catrillo, a former employee in the Jersey City Mayor’s “Action Bureau,” pleaded guilty to charges of accepting $15,000 cash in three payments from the federal government’s “cooperating witness.” He allegedly accepted the money from Solomon Dwek from February to May of this year in exchange for helping Dwek to get approvals on Dwek’s purported development project on Garfield Avenue in Jersey City.
Before Catrillo’s appearance, Maher Khalil, a former employee in Jersey City’s Health and Human Services Department, appeared in Linares’ courtroom to plead guilty to accepting a total of $72,500 in cash payments from Dwek to help him with development in Jersey City by connecting him with other local officials such as Mariano Vega and Edward Cheatam from March 2008 up to July 9 of this year.
Both men were among the 44 political and religious leaders arrested in July as part of the federal government’s probe into money laundering and political corruption in New Jersey and New York, and the first to plead guilty.
“I feel like a weight has been taken off of me.” – Guy Catrillo
Catrillo’s attorney, Michael Koribanics, also spoke outside the courthouse after his client’s appearance, saying his client “looks forward to putting this behind him and take responsibility for the things he has done.”
Catrillo and Khalil are scheduled to return to court on Dec. 15 for sentencing.
According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the sentencing period guidelines for Catrillo are 18 to 24 months while for Khalil it is 70 to 87 months.
How it all went so wrong
Both men were also terminated from their jobs as of Wednesday.
Catrillo had worked for the city since November 2003 and was earning a salary of $41,893, and Khalil had been employed since April 2002 and earning a salary of $51,425.
What led to the pair being jobless and closer to jail?
Catrillo had, according to transcripts of recordings by federal agents, first received a $5,000 payment from Dwek in February at an unnamed Jersey City restaurant and then two more $5,000 payments in March and April respectively, both at a unnamed Weehawken restaurant. Those payments were allegedly in exchange for Catrillo’s influence as initially an aide working in the city’s Planning Division before he was transferred to the Mayor’s Action Bureau. Catrillo allegedly accepted campaign money to help him win of the Ward E City Council seat, an election he eventually lost. Dwek told the men he wanted approval for a development somewhere on Garfield Avenue.
While Catrillo lost handily to incumbent Steven Fulop, Catrillo was still able to make a meeting between the city’s Planning Director, Bob Cotter, and “an individual acting on [Dwek’s] behalf.” Cotter has not been charged with any wrongdoing.
Catrillo’s attorney, Koribanics, said in court on Wednesday that Catrillo returned $10,000 of the $15,000 back to the government and will return remaining money in the near future.
As for Khalil, he owes $72,500 back to the government for his actions that were more serious and in some ways more complex than what Catrillo admitted to doing.
Khalil admitted to being involved with Vega and Cheatam in accepting cash from Dwek. Khalil allegedly accepted cash on Vega’s behalf in exchange for Vega using his position as City Council President to get approvals for Dwek’s purported project, and arranging a meeting between Cheatam and Dwek so Cheatam could accept cash from Dwek in exchange for Cheatam’s influence as a powerful official.
Vega also has been charged in the investigation, but has not stepped down from his role as City Council president.
Cheatam was earlier this year a commissioner for the Jersey City Housing Authority, a member of the Jersey City school board, and employed as an affirmative action officer for Hudson County.
Cheatam has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial. Vega has not given a plea as of last week.
Ricardo Kaulessar can be reached at email@example.com.