To say that this was a bad week for Mariano Vega would be an understatement.
On Tuesday, the now-former Jersey City Councilman pleaded guilty to taking $30,000 in bribes in 2009 from government informant Solomon Dwek. He is scheduled to be sentenced in January.
Once the City Council president, Vega submitted his official resignation letter to the city’s Law Department on Monday morning, according to city spokesperson Jennifer Morrill, after e-mailing his resignation Friday evening to Mayor Jerramiah Healy and City Council President Peter Brennan.
Vega, who won reelection to a fourth term in last May’s municipal election, was arrested in a July 2009 corruption sting along with 46 religious and political officials, including former Jersey City Deputy Mayor Leona Beldini and former Hoboken Mayor Peter Cammarano.
Had Vega resigned on or before Sept. 10, there would have been time for a special election this November to replace him. Now his at-large council seat will be filled by mayoral appointment until a special election is held in November 2011, a situation criticized by one of his council colleagues.
Next year’s special election to fill Vega’s seat could be a highly contested one. The Hispanic community wants a say in who replaces Vega, who is Puerto Rican. A number of sources said the candidates under consideration are from the Puerto Rican and Dominican sectors. One of the people touted by local political observers as his replacement is Vega’s aide, Hilario Nunez, a Dominican. Other names mentioned include former City Councilman Junior Maldonado.
Morrill said a date has not been set when a replacement will be appointed to Vega’s council seat. City Council President Peter Brennan said last week that Mayor Jerramiah Healy has 30 days to appoint Vega’s replacement from the date of his resignation.
Why the guilty plea?
Vega is now the ninth person from last year’s 2009 arrests – and the fifth from Jersey City – to plead guilty in federal court. He is the second Jersey City council member to enter a guilty plea, after Phil Kenny last October.
Vega protested his innocence for over a year. So why did he reverse himself?
According to political sources who have known Vega for many years, he is believed to have cut a deal with the Hudson County Democratic Organization, agreeing to time his resignation to allow the HCDO to control who replaces him – which denies the voters a say in the process – in exchange for his wife, Sonia, being given a county job.
Those political sources also suggested that Vega might have run out of money to pay noted criminal lawyer Peter Willis. Vega, an owner of two homes in downtown Jersey City, also owns a bed-and-breakfast in the Catskills Mountains in upstate New York and a property in Brazil, and has been unable to sell either of them. He also saw his oldest child just get married and one of his other children is in college.
Insiders have also suggested Vega decided to resign and plead guilty because his problems were taking a toll on him and his family.
Vega faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. As part of Vega’s guilty plea, he agreed to forfeit $20,000 of the $30,000 he admitted accepting from Dwek.
Councilman no more
Vega had not shown up for a number of City Council meetings in the past year. His most recent appearance was late last month, at a special council meeting that lasted only 15 minutes. Members of the public had called for Vega to step down from his post since his arrest last year, but he refused to do so, saying he would fight the charges to the end. He was scheduled to go to trial next month.
But his resignation did not come as a big shock to his colleagues, although they had different reactions to his move.
City Councilwoman Nidia Lopez, along with her husband, Hudson County Director of Family Services Ben Lopez, was close to Vega. Lopez said Vega called her and her husband, a childhood friend of Vega’s, to tell them that he was resigning from the council.
“It was one of the more difficult phone calls we ever had to take,” Lopez said. “I told him I had him in my prayers; my husband was quiet and started to tear up.”
Lopez also said she has heard from leaders of the Hispanic community about various Hispanic candidates taking Vega’s place on the council.
“I just want to see someone – with a brain,” Lopez said. “This is a demanding job with a lot of issues to tackle.”
City Councilman Steven Fulop took a skeptical stance on Vega stepping down. Fulop called for Vega to leave his seat last year after the arrest. He took issue with Vega’s timing in his resignation.
“He deprived the public the opportunity of a special election this November to vote in his successor by literally manipulating the law,” Fulop said.
Fulop also said whoever replaces Vega should be a “placeholder” who would only serve the time until the special election and not run for the office, since it would mean that person would be the frontrunner.
Councilman Phil Kenny resigned in October after he pleaded guilty to taking $5,000 in bribes from Dwek. David Donnelly, then working in the mayor’s office, was appointed to the Kenny Ward B seat and is now a leading candidate in the special election in November to fill the seat until July 2013.
Ricardo Kaulessar can be reached at email@example.com.