The fallout from the historic arrests of political and religious leaders in New Jersey two weeks ago hit Jersey City hard in all directions.
Sixteen of the 44 people arrested on corruption and money laundering charges were Jersey City-based officials and political consultants. Last week, members of the public demanded the resignation of City Council President Mariano Vega, who was arrested for allegedly accepting $30,000 from federal cooperating witness Solomon Dwek to be funneled into Vega’s campaign fund, allegedly in exchange for Vega’s help getting approvals for a purported development project on Garfield Avenue.
There were also calls for the resignation of Mayor Jerramiah Healy, after he was mentioned as “Jersey City Public Official No. 4” in a criminal complaint against city Deputy Mayor Leona Beldini, political consultant Jack Shaw and county employee Edward Cheatam, all of whom may have been soliciting funds for Healy’s recent reelection campaign.
And to add tragedy to the situation, Shaw, 61, was found dead in his apartment in Portside Towers in downtown Jersey City Tuesday night. His death is still under investigation, and some believe it was a suicide, although he had also suffered from medical issues. Newspaper reports on Thursday said that since his arrest, he had been talking to the FBI about becoming a witness and giving them evidence against others.
Calls for resignation
Vega provided residents with plenty of incentive for protests by announcing at Monday’s council caucus and at Wednesday’s public council meeting that he would not resign.
At Wednesday’s council meeting, 250 people showed up, some of whom criticized Vega for retaining his job. Councilman Steven Fulop called not only for Vega’s resignation but also for a rally against corruption in front of City Hall this coming Wednesday, which happens to be the National Night Out against crime.
Residents held signs up during Wednesday’s council meeting that read “SHAME” and “RESIGN NOW.”
Among the public speakers was Dan Levin, an unsuccessful mayoral candidate in the May election and one of the founders of Civic JC, a local reform organization. Levin organized meetings in the days following the arrests that led for his group to call for the resignation of Vega and Healy, as well as for the city to implement various reform measures.
Resident Dan Gurry and others led a petition drive that collected over 1,000 signatures.
“To restore confidence, we, the public, want [council people] to take action … we need you, the representatives, to do the right thing and represent us,” Levin said.
Although local resident Joe Harkins asked people seeking resignation to show “some sanity” and wait to make any judgments until people are actually found guilty, he also called for Vega to step aside.
At Monday’s council caucus, Fulop spoke about two resolutions he has placed on the council’s agenda: a resolution asking the rest of the council to support a formal request for the resignation of Vega, and a resolution formally requesting Mayor Healy to amend his executive order appointing Vega as chairperson of a closed-door tax abatement negotiation committee.
Council votes against asking Vega to resign
However, the council – by a 7-1 margin that included Vega – voted against requesting Vega’s resignation. The council did vote to strip Vega of his chairmanship of the abatement negotiating committee.
Vega also was suspended by the county executive’s office without pay from his position as the director of the Hudson County Department of Parks, Engineering and Planning, which paid him a salary of $115,000 per year.
Six of the council members in Jersey City also have a county job at the same time.
The council approved legislation creating a Council President Pro Tem position. They named Councilman Peter Brennan to that post. While some felt this legislation was put on the agenda as a result of the scandal, it actually had been introduced at the July 15 meeting as an appeasement to Brennan, who had sought the council president’s seat for some time.
Healy: ‘I have done nothing wrong’
Mayor Healy spoke to the press after Wednesday’s meeting about the aftermath of the July 23 arrests.
Healy repeated some of what he has already said in recent days. He has suspended Jersey City employees who were arrested, and ordered their offices and records secured for the U.S. Attorney’s office.
All last week, there were rumors that he would be arrested by federal authorities. Healy addressed the mentions of him in the criminal complaints and the calls for him to resign.
“I have done nothing wrong and I have been accused of no wrongdoing,” Healy said. “I intend to do the job that the people of Jersey City have elected me to do.”
Healy also reiterated that he cannot suspend Vega, because Vega was elected, and that any decision on Vega’s future will be made if he is found guilty of any charges.
Healy also commented on the late Jack Shaw, saying he was a guy “who always enjoyed a good laugh.” Healy said he was “very sad” for Shaw’s friends and family. Healy said he didn’t see Shaw “too often.”
It’s about elections and development
The criminal complaints by the U.S. Attorney’s office against the Jersey City contingent point to two prevailing and intertwined issues in Jersey City – elections and development.
While most people know that developers donate to political campaigns, and many suspect that those donations help the developers, the complaints offer an inside look into how these deals supposedly happen.
According to the FBI, Dwek allegedly offered $20,000 to Jersey City building inspector John Guarini in July 2007, after Dwek was allegedly introduced to Guarini by his associate, Moshe “Mike” Altman, a Union City developer. The money was allegedly offered to Guarini to help get approvals for purported development projects that Dwek and Altman were working on in Jersey City.
“I have done nothing wrong and I have been accused of no wrongdoing.” – Jerramiah Healy
The meetings Dwek held with various people took place in the early part of this year during the mayoral and council elections. Many of the candidates were offered money by Dwek that exceeded the state’s mandated election donation threshold of $2,600 from individuals to candidates.
Dwek also met with officials in other towns, asking for similar development help. This led to the downfall of officials including Mayor Peter Cammarano in Hoboken, who resigned Friday.
Fall from grace
Several officials were referred to by the moniker of “Public Official No.” like Healy. There was “Public Official No. 1” – said to be Edward Cheatam; “Public Official No. 2” – Maher Khalil, assistant director with the Jersey City Department of Health and Human Services, and “Public Official No. 3” – Carl Czaplicki, the director of the Jersey City Department of Housing, Economic Development and Commerce. Cheatam and Khalil were arrested but Czaplicki was not arrested, and said in a recent interview that he had done “nothing wrong.”
A law enforcement official told news stations last week that if someone is not referred to by name, they either have not done anything wrong, or may still be under investigation.
Cheatam, who also works as an affirmative action officer for Hudson County and serves on the Jersey City school board, submitted his resignation from the Jersey City Housing Authority Board of Commissioners at the beginning of last week.
Ricardo Kaulessar can be reached at email@example.com.