Jersey City Council President Mariano Vega won a council-at-large seat in the May 12 municipal election, running with seven other candidates on Mayor Jerremiah Healy’s election slate. But that victory seems fleeting in light of his arrest on July 23 as one of the 44 religious and political leaders in New Jersey and New York who’ve been tagged with public corruption or money laundering charges.
Vega has not resigned his council post, although Councilman Steven Fulop and some members of the public have called for him to step down.
But Vega’s arrest has raised suspicions that other council members either met with the federal government’s “cooperating witness” Solomon Dwek, or were approached indirectly, even though they were not accused of crime.
Dwek (employing the first name David with varying last names) allegedly went to various local officials with FBI-provided bribe money, saying he wanted approval for a purported condo project on Garfield Avenue.
At least two City Council members told the Jersey City Reporter in recent weeks that they had contact with Dwek, directly or indirectly, but did not take the bait.
Three other council members said they did not meet Dwek, while another three were not available for comment.
‘Testing people’s greed’
Councilman Bill Gaughan is the city’s longest serving council member, first elected in 1993 to serve Ward D, which covers most of the Jersey City Heights. Gaughan is also chief of staff for Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise, making him a powerful figure in local politics and a potentially big fish for the FBI’s corruption bait.
Gaughan said after the Aug. 12 council meeting that he had been approached by Dwek about the purported development project on Garfield Avenue that would call for a condo tower.
Gaughan was not named in any of the complaints pertaining to the 44 arrested.
Gaughan did not reveal the date of the meeting, although it is believed they met during the election season. He remembered that Dwek offered no paperwork or details about his project, which made Gaughan suspicious.
“It was very obvious,” he said. “I asked for plans; I asked for site control; [Dwek] had nothing,” Gaughan said. “All he had was a good line of [expletive].”
Gaughan also blasted Dwek as a “con man entrapping people into a situation” who was “testing people’s greed.”
Viola Richardson was recently reelected to a third term to represent Ward D, encompassing most of the city’s Bergen-Lafayette section. Richardson last week said Dwek allegedly approached an “intermediary” (whom she did not name) before and after the May 12 election to set up a meeting with her, although no name was given other than a “rich Jewish developer.”
“All I could say was ‘Thank you, heavenly father.’ ” – Viola Richardson
“No one mentioned cash, but it just didn’t feel good in my spirit,” Richardson said. “It sounded like someone rich who wanted to invest in my ward, and that just gets a bit scary for me. [He] wants to invest in my ward, and wants to give sizable contributions to my campaign.”
How much Dwek would have given was not revealed. However, the meeting never came about. When she saw the news on July 23 of the arrests, Richardson said she felt relief.
“All I could say was ‘Thank you, heavenly father’,” Richardson said.
No, No, No
Councilman Fulop, who represents Downtown Jersey City, has been at the forefront of calling for reform in government and stronger ethics. In addition to calling for Vega’s resignation, he has also proposed ethics legislation such as the redeveloper pay-to-play ordinance scheduled for public comment and a vote at the next council meeting on Sept. 9.
Fulop said he was not approached by Dwek. He noted that he raised around $250,000 for his campaign and didn’t have to worry about getting donations.
He also thinks the FBI sting using Dwek would not have been necessary, and the arrests would not have occurred, if the electorate did its part.
“It’s about putting the right people in office,” Fulop said. “Elected officials who know it is wrong to take $30,000 according to our election laws will still take it.”
Michael Sottolano represents the Greenville section of the city, and was elected to a second term after winning a runoff election in June. He also was not approached by Dwek, to the “best of his knowledge.”
“I think I am one of the tough guys, and I don’t think Dwek would have had much of a chance getting through to me,” Sottolano said.
Councilman-at-Large (representing the entire city) Peter Brennan said he never met or saw Dwek.
Council members Willie Flood, Phil Kenny, and Nidia Lopez could not be reached for comment by press time.
Ricardo Kaulessar can be reached at email@example.com.