Councilman Michael Russo gave a speech at Wednesday night’s Hoboken City Council meeting saying, “What you saw in that tape was an arrogant, boorish, stupid young man, boasting about the power he didn’t have and the influence he could only wish for,” before stepping down from the council vice presidency.
But Russo declined to step down from the council altogether, a week after confidential FBI videotapes were released of his 2009 lunch with a government informant. Russo faces re-election on May 10.
The hubbub began after two journalists released confidential tapes last week that had been used in a 2009 sting operation that brought down dozens and political leaders in the Tri-State area. In these tapes, Councilman Russo had lunch with FBI informant Solomon Dwek, who was posing as a real estate developer who wanted to donate money to campaigns and get preference for zoning decisions.
Russo nodded his head when discussing getting a $5,000 donation from Dwek. But after the lunch, Russo avoided contact with him. Russo was never charged with a crime.
Still, the hour-long tapes reveal him saying that he was responsible for doing favors for various people, and boasting of his power.
At the regular council meeting Wednesday night, Russo said he embarrassed his family and “made the city that [he] loves look terrible.”
Both Russo’s political friends and enemies blasted his comments on the tape at the meeting on Wednesday night. But the friends also pointed out that Russo didn’t end up taking any money, and said Russo’s opponents were being political by seeing the release of the tapes as an opportunity.
“I know I have to regain your trust and respect.” – Councilman Michael Russo
They don’t like Mike
A protest of approximately 50 people formed on Wednesday evening before the meeting, outside of City Hall.
The event also doubled as a “meet and greet” of sorts for council hopefuls looking to unseat Russo and his allies in the May 10 election, when six of the nine council seats will be decided.
During the rally, a blue truck parked across the street from City Hall displayed five televisions playing certain parts of the leaked FBI tape.
For those who wanted to understand every word, Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer – who is often at odds politically with Russo and Russo’s council majority – paid $953 of city funds last week to have transcripts made of the tapes and posted on the city website.
At the beginning of the City Council meeting, Russo stepped down as vice president of the City Council and the chair of the Revenue and Finance Committee.
Russo’s opponents on the council wanted more action to be taken. They also demanded that Council President Beth Mason – also an opponent of Zimmer and a one-time ally of Russo – remove him from his position on the finance committee. Mason had blasted Russo’s actions after the tapes were released, and removed him from his position as chair of the finance committee.
When the meeting began, Councilwoman Carol Marsh tried to present a resolution that would also remove Russo from the Hoboken Housing Authority, where he serves as a commissioner. That body oversees the city’s federally subsidized public housing.
However, that resolution failed by a 5-4 vote. Russo and his allies (including Mason) represent five votes on the council, something that Zimmer’s allies hope to change in May.
The public comments were long and damning.
“It seems like the appearance of the culture of corruption is still in this town,” said Scott Siegel, a Zimmer supporter and a treasurer for one of the council campaigns.
Second Ward council candidate Tom Greaney used the opportunity to not only speak to Russo, but also to chastise his opponent in the upcoming election, Council President Beth Mason.
“Unfortunately, you [Mason] issued a statement with no action and then you waited until our council meeting to read a poorly crafted resolution,” Greaney said to Mason.
In the leaked tapes, Russo describes how he supported Mason in the 2009 mayoral election, calling her the “most qualified” candidate. Russo also said he chose Mason’s three-person council-at-large slate. Mason denied those charges in a statement denouncing Russo’s actions earlier in the week. Russo himself later said he hadn’t picked her candidates.
“Like many residents I am shocked and disturbed by the brazen way Councilman Russo conducted himself,” Mason said in a statement on Tuesday. “Fortunately for the residents of the 3rd Ward, this video was released before the upcoming City Council election. They can now judge Councilman Russo’s actions for themselves and cast their votes according to the totality of his service as 3rd Ward councilman and the issues that their ward and the city as a whole face today.”
Local pro-Zimmer blogger Roman Brice also called for Russo to step down from the council, saying he “betrayed the trust” of the citizens of Hoboken and the integrity of his office.
Resident Forde Prigot called for Russo to step down “not only as vice president but from [the council].”
“We will do the right thing on May 10,” Prigot said, referring to Russo’s race against Greg Lincoln.
Russo’s supporters in the council chamber laughed when Prigot suggested that Russo would be voted out. Russo grew up in the 3rd Ward, where his parents have been involved in politics for his entire life.
Some defend Russo; other issues arise
Resident Lane Bajardi, a close Mason ally and frequent critic of the Zimmer administration, expressed “disgust” with Russo, but called for more information before the public bashed the 3rd Ward councilman.
“I was disgusted with what I saw on the tape, and surprised,” Bajardi said. “This resolution from Occhipinti and Castellano is right on the money.” He was referring to a resolution by two of Russo’s allies, Councilman Tim Occhipinti and Councilwoman Theresa Castellano, to denounce Russo’s actions and remove him as council vice president and chair of the Finance Committee.
Bajardi pointed the finger elsewhere.
He blasted former Councilman Michael Lenz, a close Zimmer ally who lost his seat to Occhipinti this past November. Last year, Lenz had lunch with a local developer who later received a favorable vote from Lenz and donated to Lenz’s campaign. The donation was under the legal maximum of $2,600 for an individual.
Lenz had said earlier on Wednesday that he didn’t discuss a zoning variance with the developer at lunch. But Lenz, a longtime veteran of Hoboken politics, called the lunch “a political mistake.” He said, “of course we didn’t talk about [the variance].”
Other city residents and officials are said to have met with Dwek too, although they have said they did not commit wrongdoing. Mason has said she and her former campaign manager Jake Stuiver met with Dwek, but took no further action. Stuiver, now a Zimmer supporter and critic of Mason’s, has confirmed this.
The mayor’s husband, Stan Grossbard, has said in the past that he took a phone call from the informant and encouraged his wife to meet with him, but that she didn’t want to take money from developers.
Resident Donald Pellicano commended Russo at the meeting for “sitting there and taking a beating.”
He blasted the council colleagues who bashed Russo.
“This is not the time, not the place to be crucifying one of your own,” Pellicano said.
He added: “Anybody that’s going to stand here and grandstand for a position on the council, no way will that person get my vote.”
Perry Belfiore, a candidate for the 5th Ward election, told Russo he deserves everything he gets, but also noted that some of Zimmer’s allies have been allied with Russo in the past.
“I guess you’re not bad when they need you but you’re bad when they don’t,” he noted.
Resident Haney Ahmed said he understands why people are protesting, but urged the council to get to city business.
“You’re not focused on what we elected you to do,” Ahmed said.
Another resident, David Liebler, reminded everyone that in the end, Russo decided not to do any business with Dwek.
“I know in my heart of hearts that you’re a good person,” Liebler said. “You’re sitting here to do the job you were meant to do because you know you want to serve Hoboken. Look at this as a second chance.”
He also said that perhaps when Russo left the lunch, he may have realized he should not do what they’d talked about.
The council passed a resolution later in the meeting to call for the U.S. Attorney’s office to release the tapes of all meetings with Hoboken political figures.
The Russo tapes were not released by official channels, but by the authors of a new book about the sting, who had obtained them from a confidential source. Mayor Dawn Zimmer had pressed for the authors to release them, even though she herself supports a policy in City Hall of not allowing government employees to speak to the media without going through official channels.
After the council passed the resolution, City Attorney Mark Tabakin informed Mason that the council doesn’t have any authority to demand a release of tapes, but they can request something to be done.
Councilman Peter Cunningham also said in response to the revelations, he would reintroduce the anti-wheeling legislation, which would limit funding from outside political action committees and self funded PACs in Hoboken, at the next meeting.
Councilman Nino Giacchi noted that it’s “political season” and he just wished “the city would move forward with city business.”
Castellano, Russo’s cousin, said Russo “said some hurtful things, but he did not commit a crime.”
After being berated for more than an hour and a half, Russo read a long statement to the audience.
He said he embarrassed his family and “made the city that [he] loves look terrible.”
Russo noted that he didn’t act on the proposed donation by Dwek.
“In the end, however, they are just words,” Russo said. “I believe you should be defined by your actions. I walked away from that meeting and never looked back. I never accepted any money and I never met with them again. I don’t expect a medal of honor for that.”
The authors of the “Sting” book said that the FBI speculated that Russo’s father, who served time in prison for bribes, warned him away from Dwek.
Russo continued: “These tapes never resulted in any charges and have been released in the heat of a political campaign by authors promoting a book in Hoboken.”
He quoted Shakespeare in saying his political opponents were taking their “pound of flesh.”
Russo asked the voters of the ward to judge him by his actions.
“I know I have to regain your trust and respect,” Russo said. “But I also know what my job is, and I’m going to continue to do it.”
Ray Smith may be reached at RSmith@hudsonreporter.com