The ironic presence of a framed portrait of Washington crossing the Delaware was not lost on two courtroom artists crouched over their easel with erasers and pastels Thursday. In their rendering, they took some license in centering the framed and famed heroic portrait of 12 men braving the elements over the heads of the 12 men in the docket, who crowded together, resembled another band of ragtag shipmates.
The trouble was they weren’t crossing the Delaware, but stranded this side of the river in handcuffs and leg-irons in Trenton’s Clarkson S. Fisher Federal Building, in the uncomfortable position of fighting off U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie.
Magistrate Judge Tonianne Bongiovanni acknowledged the charges of either conspiracy to extort corrupt payments or attempting to extort corrupt payments that Christie’s office brought against the men – 11 of them elected or former elected officials from Pleasantville to Passaic, among them dual-officeholder Mims Hackett, an Assemblyman and the Mayor of Orange, Assembly Deputy Speaker (and Passaic County Undersheriff Alfred Steele), and Passaic Mayor Sammy Rivera.
According to the U.S. Attorney, "Each of the 11 public officials and one associate accepted payments ranging from $1,500 to $17,500 from companies that offered insurance brokerage or roofing services to school districts and municipalities, in fact a two-headed dummy company set up by the FBI to nail the bribery ring.
The collectively accepted bribes totaled over $150,000, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office. Each man faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a fine of $250,000. Bongiovanni set an unsecured clearance bond for each man in the amount of $200,000. Demurring to the defense team’s arguments, she said she would allow the men to travel, but advised them to be responsive to the court or suffer the consequences.
"Right now, I’m releasing all of you," the judge told the defendants at the conclusion of their initial appearance. "You need to be back here on Sept. 25th."
At a reporter-mobbed, deja vu press conference he convened outside on the steps of the federal building, Christie had particularly strong words for Hackett.
Christie could not believe that the Essex Democrat was Chairman of the Assembly’s Oversight Committee. When offered $5,000 up front and $25,000 once he secured an insurance contract and asked if this worked for him, Hackett replied enthusiastically, "Oh, yeah," according to an incredulous Christie.
The U.S. Attorney said the 11 public menwho were arrestedrepresented just the surface of corruption in New Jersey, and warned other officials to beware.
"If you continue to be brazen enough to break the law," said Christie, "we will gather you in corrupt bunches and send you to jail."
Eyeballed in political circles as a potential gubernatorial candidate for the GOP, the U.S. Attorney denied that there was any political calculation in the timing of the arrests, which coincides with the first week of the general election political season and the first day of the state Democratic Convention in Atlantic City.
"It’s an old song and dance that doesn’t work," Christie said of the political charge. "These cases are ready when they’re ready. We confer with the FBI and are partner, (in this case) the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Officer, and we never consider politics."
The U.S. Attorney lingered a moment in answering.
"It’s an old song and dance by people who are attempting to defend criminals," he said. "They should look in the mirror rather than besmirch the professionals who work in my office."
One of the men — former Passaic City Councilman Jonathan Soto — is a Republican, who according to Christie, made it known to his partners in the scheme that he was "extremely appreciative" about being included. Soto is currently the Passaic Republican Municipal Chairman.
A veteran of over 100 successful indictments during six years in office, Christie frequently tells audiences that his office alone can’t fight political corruption. It’s up to other elected officials "not to turn a blind eye" to the bad behavior of colleagues. Even more fundamentally, the public must play a committed role. "The citizens of New Jersey have to police their public officials," Christie said.
The scene inside the federal building was reminiscent of the June courtroom appearance of former Newark Mayor Sharpe James to answer corruption charges. Same handcuffs and leg-irons. Different day. Different locale. Then there was Christie out in front of the microphones denouncing public corruption and offering stern warning, suggesting there would be more manacle parades in the future.
The dread of who’s next was inescapable, as was the image of bodies being buried, documents burned, and officials somewhere mopping their brows at that very moment in the face of an incensed Christie pawing the ground.
This particular investigation began in mid-2006 amid evidence of corruption in the Pleasantville School District, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. In response, "the FBI established an undercover insurance brokerage company purporting to employ the government’s two cooperating witnesses and undercover agents." The probe went from Pleasantville up north – to Paterson, Passaic, and even into the office of Newark City Council President Mildred Crump, whose chief-of-staff was charged Thursday.
The Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office took the point, and Theodore Housel on Thursday noted with pride as he looked back on an investigation that took 18 months, "The pundits were saying that we were doing nothing," the prosecutor said, "but that was not the case."