The timing was more than ironic. On Wednesday, July 15, just a day after new Hoboken Mayor Peter Cammarano publicly announced that his administration had a “clear-cut zero tolerance policy against any violation of the public trust” and called for a Housing Authority commissioner to step down because of a bribery charge, Cammarano – according to an FBI complaint – allegedly met with a federal informant to arrange for a $10,000 payoff to cover campaign debt.
That day, according to an FBI complaint, Cammarano’s political associate, former Hoboken Councilman Michael Schaffer, allegedly received an envelope with the money from the trunk of the informant’s car in the parking lot of a local diner. When the informant then pressed Cammarano about his support for “expediting my [development] stuff,” according to the FBI, Cammarano allegedly replied, “I’m with you.”
Now Cammarano is charged with conspiracy to commit extortion – but it was the new mayor’s alleged violation of public trust, and his comments about the Hispanic and Italian votes, that had many Hoboken residents reeling last week.
The day after
After being arrested, arraigned, and released on $100,000 bail Thursday afternoon, Cammarano was back in the City Hall corner office on Friday, much to the surprise of observers.
Cammarano will fight the charge against him and will not resign his seat as the chief executive of the city, according his attorney, Joseph Hayden of Roseland. Conspiracy to commit extortion has a maximum statutory penalty of 20 years in a federal prison and a maximum $250,000 fine.
Hayden questioned the charge of extortion. “Bear in mind that the nature of the allegation was that the money was for his campaign and campaign debt, not his personal use,” Hayden said on Friday.
If Cammarano did resign, Council President Dawn Zimmer – his former opponent in the June mayoral runoff election – would take over for the time being. The City Council would then schedule a special election for a new permanent mayor in November, which must be scheduled early September.
However, Cammarano can also appoint someone to serve as acting mayor without resigning.
Cammarano’s presence at City Hall was called “selfish” by one City Hall worker, and a source close to the mayor said, “I don’t see how he can govern.”
The mayor briefly addressed the press at City Hall on Friday at noon to maintain his innocence, reminding the crowd that he is innocent until proven otherwise.
Origin of the investigation
Cammarano’s arrest was part of a 10-year FBI investigation that centered on international money laundering among the Syrian Jewish communities in New York and New Jersey. It eventually extended to campaign donations by that community.
In 2006, a Syrian Jewish leader and young real estate developer from Deal, N.J., Solomon Dwek, was arrested for allegedly trying to deposit a bogus check in a bank. Dwek agreed to become an FBI informant, according to various published reports.
This year, Dwek donated money to various local politicians, apparently in exchange for development favors.
In all, 44 politicians, Jewish leaders, and political consultants were arrested on Thursday, including Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell, Assemblyman L. Harvey Smith, and former Assemblyman Louis Manzo.
Cammarano gets publicity
Yet, despite these high-profile arrests, the news reports seemed to focus on Cammarano, the youngest mayor in the city’s history, who had just celebrated his 32nd birthday the day before his arrest. Cammarano was a powerful election attorney in the state.
Besides Cammarano’s clean-cut visage and status as an election attorney, the interest in the story may also have had to do with Hoboken’s and New Jersey’s reputation for political corruption. It was less than a decade ago that Hoboken Mayor Anthony Russo went to prison for allegedly taking kickbacks from an accounting firm that did business with the city. Numerous other Hudson County officials have been indicted over the last few decades.
In addition, Cammarano also had just won a contentious campaign, first against multiple candidates in May and then in a very close runoff in June against Zimmer. Cammarano barely pulled ahead with the help of several hundred absentee ballots.
He was inaugurated only three weeks ago, with politicians like Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Gov. Jon Corzine appearing at the celebration.
Cammarano first took office as a Hoboken councilman four years ago after running on a ticket with Mayor David Roberts. Cammarano broke with Roberts two years later, criticizing him extensively for being inefficient. Roberts declined to run for re-election this past spring.
A criminal complaint filed by Special FBI agent Robert J. Cooke against Cammarano and Schaffer, who sits on the county’s sewerage authority board, explained the alleged deals that got Cammarano in trouble.
The 10-page complaint says that starting in late April, Schaffer allegedly accepted various payments of $5,000 cash at a Hoboken diner to use for Cammarano’s campaign, and that the new mayor allegedly knew about them.
The complaint quotes conversations at a diner and on the phone between Schaffer and a “cooperating witness” who is not identified (but is believed to be Dwek).
In meetings at the Malibu Diner, Cammarano allegedly told the cooperating witness, according to the document, that “I run the election law department at the, at the biggest election law firm in the state of New Jersey.” He also supposedly said, “[T]o the extent there’s a pro-development person in this race, that’s me.”
The witness asked Cammarano about the process and whether Cammarano could expedite zoning decisions on his behalf, or whether he’d have to wait “six months, eight months or a year?” Cammarano allegedly replied that he could sponsor it to put it on the council agenda.
According to the document, Cammarano said, “I promise you...you’re gonna be treated like a friend.”
The group agreed that the witness would “do my business with Mike [Schaffer.]”
The witness also said, “I’m going to give [Schaffer], uh, five thousand to start, and then after the election I’ll do another five thousand” to which Cammarano allegedly responded “Okay. Beautiful,” according to the FBI document.
In subsequent conversations between the witness and Schaffer, Schaffer told the witness that Cammarano appreciated the first donation after it was given, according to the FBI document. Schaffer reportedly said “Oh, loved it. Loved it. Loved him.”
The FBI quoted Cammarano as saying that anyone who did not support him would be “ground into powder.”
Around May 19, the report says, Cammarano and Schaffer again met with a Jersey City official, the consultant, and the witness at a Hoboken diner to discuss contributions in advance of the June runoff election against Zimmer.
According to the FBI report, Cammarano said, “The Italians, the Hispanics, the seniors are locked down. Nothing can change that now...I could be, uh, indicted, and I’m still gonna win 85 to 95 percent of those populations.”
Cammarano has also received criticism for allegedly saying that those who did not support him in the election would be “ground into powder.”
Others approached during campaign
Dwek also approached at least one of the other Hoboken mayoral candidates, according to Jake Stuiver, mayoral candidate Beth Mason’s campaign manager.
Stuiver said a third party set up a meeting between Dwek and Mason that Stuiver attended. Stuiver declined to say whom the third party was.
On Saturday, May 9, the week before the May 12 election, Mason and Stuiver met with Dwek at a diner in north Hudson County to discuss a possible campaign contribution, Stuiver said.
Stuiver said Dwek laid out two tracks of conversation, but never connected the two explicitly. Dwek discussed his interest in supporting Mason’s campaign and also conveyed that he was a developer who had a business interest in Hoboken.
“He made clear right up front that this was the type of guy he was and this was the kind of deal he was looking for,” Stuiver said. “He was very frank.”
And Mason’s response?
“She was very quick and firm in her assertion that we have very clear standards” for the process of development in Hoboken, Stuiver said. He said they told Dwek “how to get in the back of the line for that process.”
He said the meeting ended quickly “as soon as he picked up the vibe she clearly wasn’t interested.”
Stuiver added, “It was hands-down the most impressive instance I’ve ever seen of a public official getting offered something untoward and completely telling the person where to go.”
Stuiver said Dwek never contacted the campaign again.
Stan Grossbard, whose wife Dawn Zimmer was running her own campaign at the time, said he fielded a call from someone whom he believes was a middle-man consultant for Dwek.
Grossbard said Zimmer was against taking campaign money from developers in general, but that he took the call just to see what was being offered.
“Assuming I was talking to the consultant [named in the complaint], we never told them what they wanted to hear,” Grossbard said. As far as how much the contribution would be, he said, “my conversation never went that far.”
He called the incident a “blip on the radar” during the heated election.
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