"My wife and I started talking about 'what if,'" Pascual said last Thursday at a press conference announcing that the North Bergen High School vice-principal had been selected to replace Peter Perez on the Board of Commissioners. "I never had political aspirations before, but it was also never too far from my thoughts. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and a no-brainer for me."
The 38-year-old Pascual is a long-time North Bergen resident, a graduate of North Bergen High who was a standout wrestler in high school, finishing fourth in the state in 1981, and was a two-time All-American (at 150 pounds) during his collegiate days at Rider. He has spent the last 17 years in the North Bergen school district, currently serving as vice-principal, but also served as a wrestling and track coach. He has also been a member of the Planning Board, but will resign from those duties now that he is a member of the Board of Commissioners.
His impressive athletic background led Mayor Nicholas Sacco to believe that Pascual was the perfect choice to replace Perez, who resigned last Wednesday after pleading guilty to federal mail fraud charges for taking payments from a contracted township vendor.
"His background practically made him hand-made for this position," Sacco said. "It speaks for itself. Allen is best suited to serve in recreation. There were a number of people I thought about, perhaps a half dozen, but Allen's background in recreation limited the field. Allen was my very first choice. I believe he's going to be an asset to the community. I have a lot of faith in Allen."
Pascual was sworn in as the new commissioner at a special commissioners' meeting Monday morning. He will serve until a special election is held in November, to complete the unfinished portion of Perez' term through June, 2003. A municipal election for the entire slate of commissioners will take place in May, 2003.
The 38-year-old Pascual said that he had no apprehensions in taking the position, especially with the investigation by FBI and U.S. Attorney's Office still ongoing.
"I have all the faith in the world in Mayor Sacco and the administration," Pascual said. "[The investigation] was never a consideration in my mind. We have a great organization here and I'm thrilled and honored to be a part of it."
Back to Perez
While the press conference was called to introduce Pascual, it was hard not to bring up the guilty plea of Peter Perez in federal court a day earlier. Perez had admitted to accepting work in his home as well as cash payments totaling $3,300 from a vendor who was contracted by the town.
"When the investigation started, I asked every commissioner, including Perez, if they were involved," Sacco said. "He said he was not, so I was obligated to accept that answer. But then, over the last few months, his behavior was not one of someone who did nothing wrong. Something was quite not right about his behavior. So we started thinking about possible replacements. I would have been foolish not to make a contingency plan."
Sacco said that he hadn't spoken to Perez "in a couple of weeks." "I'm very disappointed," said Sacco of Perez, whom he personally appointed to replace former Parks and Recreation Commissioner Michael DiGiovanni in 1995, ironically after DiGiovanni pleaded guilty to accepting work and payments from a township vendor. "He should have been on guard against something like this. A vendor made it his business to befriend members of our government to have some leverage. Peter made some drastic mistakes in judgment."
Added Sacco, "When I asked him directly, he said he wasn't involved. He had a chance to come forward and be honest, but he was not. That disappoints me."
Sacco was asked if he could have known that the corruption was ongoing in his administration.
"How could I know?" Sacco said. "You just don't know. There were no signs of this. It was one vendor taking advantage of the situation and then [he] brought others down with him."
A city vendor allegedly did the work in the private homes of former township administrator Joseph Auriemma and former public safety aide Vincent Zappulla, as well as Perez.
Auriemma has been indicted on six counts of public corruption and awaits trial. Zappulla pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing.
"There is no way that any of this could have been seen or anticipated," Sacco said.
Sacco said that he is not worried about the fact that the U.S Attorney's Office insists that "other indictments will follow."
"I can say from my heart that this is not about wholesale corruption," Sacco said. "This is about one vendor who was beneath our radar screen. You can't sit around and worry about what they might do. We'll come across that when it happens. This government has to function, and Allen has a lot of work to do. The government will function. It's not in jeopardy. We're not focusing on [the probe]. It's senseless to do so. We will focus on the tax rate. That's more important."
Added Sacco, "If there is a problem, we'll move quickly to correct it. As cold as it may seem, those people will be replaced quickly."
Much like Peter Perez was replaced last week, less than 24 hours after making the guilty plea.
"The town has to move on," Sacco said. "We're going to push this cloud away and move forward." There was evidence that they already had moved ahead. The park benches outside Town Hall were freshly painted to remove Perez's name.
When asked if there was a coincidence that the last two recreation heads both pleaded guilty to the same crime, Pascual had the simple answer.
"There won't be a third," he said.