Charges filed against Jersey City Freeholder Bill Braker this week hinted at a whole new unimagined level of corruption in Hudson County, where politicians not only ask for money, but Viagra as well.
A federal wiretap recording apparently picked up Braker asking for "cash and Viagra" (although it's not known whether he was joking) as part of a bribe to allow him to use his influence to secure a contract for a county vendor.
If the charges prove true, then bribes to secure the psychiatric services amounted to about 4 percent of the amount of bribes County Executive Robert Janiszewski received - or roughly the equivalent of what Braker might have gotten as a raise if he had not retired from the Jersey City Police Department.
Meanwhile, the request for Viagra suggests there may be trouble in paradise.
Sex and corruption have always been strongly associated. One North Jersey vendor - who has since become a cooperating witness for federal authorities - claims he used to bribe officials during the annual League of Municipalities Convention in Atlantic City by providing prostitutes.
Does this need for Viagra suggest that Hudson County politicians just aren't up to the challenge? Or does it suggest that bribes of every kind have become so frequent that officials here are wearing themselves out with overwork?
Braker's request for so little money - something slightly less than $5,000 - suggests our public officials may not be seeking cash at all. Some of the officials U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie says are yet to be indicted may actually be more interested in the Viagra than they are the cash. With so many macho male public officials in Hudson County, maybe they're too embarrassed to ask for a prescription from their doctors, and would rather face prison for accepting it as a bribe instead.
Schundler people? Where?
Suggestions that County Executive Tom DeGise has hired too many political people connected to former Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler has called for an accounting of just how many such people are in the new administration.
A liberal count of former Schundler people, according to several sources, shows only five such hirings, hardly a takeover by Schundler Republicans.
Those sympathetic to the new administration have pointed out that even the apparently political changes have justifications. Willie Flood - a close associate to Janiszewski with alleged leanings towards Jersey City Mayor Glenn Cunningham - was replaced by former Jersey City Councilwoman Melissa Holloway. While Holloway did run with DeGise in the county wide Democratic primary last June (she nearly beat Bill Braker in Bergen-Lafayette section of Jersey City), she has traditionally been a tough campaigner for people's rights.
"She's a bulldog," one source said. "And who would you want as county advocate, soft-spoken Willie Flood or a dynamic Melissa Holloway? She's not afraid of a fight on any level - local, state or national."
Jersey City Councilman Bill Gaughan, currently DeGise's chief of staff, could be considered a Schundler man, although he tends to be more loyal to DeGise than anyone.
Jodi Drennan and Rev. Tyrone Chess might also be considered Schundler people. Laurie Cotter, who took over as acting county administrator, might also be lumped into this category, although she has more connections with Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner than anyone.
Critics of the DeGise administration have also questioned "political firings" and claim he was doing exactly what Hartnett tried to do earlier this year. Defenders of DeGise said some were political, but most changes were made to provide better services. No one will deny the firing of Jimmy King or Joe Cardwell as political, but it's suggested that both men got their jobs because of their political affiliations.
"You live by the sword, you die by the sword," one unnamed source said. "But how can you blame Tom [DeGise] for wanting his own people in positions so close to him?"
Cardwell served as Bernard Hartnett's chief of staff and King as deputy director of public resourses and aide to the county executive.
Anthony Grazioso was transferred to the Hudson County Juvenile Detention Center in the last few weeks before the Nov. 5 election that made DeGise county executive. Grazioso had served as the spokesperson for Hartnett. County officials pondered why the Juvenile Detention Center needed a public relations man. He was fired in the last two weeks.
Jamie Vazquez, who has declared his candidacy for county executive against DeGise, said he's received numerous calls thanking him for running in the Democratic Party primary next June. Vazquez said the DeGise appointments tend not to reflect the ethnic diversity of the county. He is looking to build a coalition of Independent Democrats and the Hudson County Green Party.
O'Dea asks to cut photographer contract
Freeholder Bill O'Dea - in an apparent attempt to avenge the firing of former Jersey City Councilman Thomas Fricchione from the county payroll - tried to put a stop to the county contract with John Shinnick.
Shinnick, who also serves as the chairman of the Hudson County Improvement Authority, receives a yearly stipend of $53,000 to supply photographic needs for the county. This means someone in his studio is constantly on call to cover various public events. O'Dea suggested anybody with a digital camera could do as much and for much less. O'Dea pointed out that DeGise's new press officer, Jim Kennelly, had frequently taken photographs while he was a journalist for the Jersey City Reporter.
Defenders of Shinnick claim the studio's contract has not increased over 12 years of service to the county, and that someone is always nearly available for county needs.
DeGise is reportedly looking to rescind raises given to non-union employees during the waning days of Hartnett's administration. O'Dea argued that if DeGise is seeking to cut salaries and reduce the payroll, then Shinnick's contract should be eliminated.
"O'Dea is missing the point," one insider said. "DeGise isn't cutting people for the sake of cutting people; he is trying to find people that fit the jobs better."
Reports that Jack Beirne, chief fundraiser for the DeGise campaign for county executive, would eventually replace Betty Spinelli as the head of the Hudson County Economic Development Corporation have been sharply denied.
Spinelli, who is widely acknowledged as a "foundation of respectability" won't be leaving that post any time soon, according to several sources. Beirne did, however, replace Fred Bado in the county's housing element.
Menendez takes on Lott
Democratic Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez got to flex his new-found muscles in responding to an apology by Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott.
Lott, in resent racist-tainted remarks, praised former Senator Strom Thurmond's segregationist presidential bid in 1948.
"Senator Trent Lott's apology comes a day late and a dollar short," Menendez said. "All the apologies in the world will not make up for the sentiments expressed by the senator from Mississippi. His words were clear, unequivocal, and extremely disturbing. The American people expect more from their leaders, especially from the incoming Majority Leader of the United States Senate. Mr. Lott's words were condemnable, and all Americans, especially people of color, will pay close attention to his future actions."