Bergen County Democrats knew this day would come sooner or later, and today they responded to the indictment of former state Sen. Joe Coniglio not with an outright defense, but with pleas withhold judgment.
Republicans, on the other hand, pointed to the indictment as another sign of what they see as endemic corruption in the Democratic Party.
“Senator Coniglio accomplished a great deal for the working families of the 38th District during his career,” said Bergen County Democratic Organization Chairman Joe Ferriero. “Our legal system is founded upon the presumption of innocence and it is my sincere hope that Joe's upcoming trial is an opportunity for him to reclaim the good reputation that he built through his years of public service.”
State Sen. Bob Gordon spent two terms in the Assembly beneath Coniglio, ascending to the Senate after Coniglio decided not to run again after being pressured by Democratic Party leaders. During the investigation, Gordon saw his own office’s records subpoenaed, although he was not a target of the investigation.
“This is a sad day for the family and friends of former Sen. Joe Coniglio,” said Gordon.
“The Coniglio family is in my thoughts and prayers during this difficult time. Joe Coniglio deserves his day in court to defend himself against the allegations and clear his name.”
Assemblywoman Joan Voss also served two terms as Coniglio’s running mate, and also had records subpoenaed. She last saw him at the Bergen County Democratic Organization’s winter gala a few weeks ago, where he appeared to be having a good time.
“It’s very difficult, because you never want things like this to happen. That’s all I can say. I feel terrible for them, and I hope things work out well,” said Voss.
On the other end of the political spectrum, GOP State Chairman Tom Wilson said that this was more than an indictment of one Senator, but rather the entire party’s leadership. While the legislature has passed a lot of ethics reform measures lately, Wilson said, they’ve been watered down .
“It’s an indictment of the Democratic leadership in the legislature,” he said. “They do as little as they can, then make it look like they are really angry and as offended as the average citizen is.”
Republican consultant Thom Ammirato took the condemnation a step further, insisting that Coniglio could not have acted alone in his alleged scheme and suggesting complicity on the parts of Bob Gordon, Joan Voss, State Sen. Paul Sarlo and other Democratic officials.
Gordon and Voss, Ammirato noted, signed a letter with Coniglio advocating for grants to the hospital from the Department of Health and Human Services in September, 2004. Sarlo, he said, works for HUMC trustee Joseph Sanzari.
“I think this guy is taking the fall for other people. To me it’s just so obvious that he was a dupe in a larger plot here,” said Ammirato.
State Sen. Gerald Cardinale, who represents Bergen County in the 39th district, had tried and failed to get the Joint Legislative Ethics Committee reopen a complaint that former Bogota mayor and conservative activist Steve Lonegan made about Coniglio lobbying for Hackensack University Medical Center – which had been dropped (Sarlo made the motion to stop the inquiry).
“I do not think all Democrats are crooks. They don’t have a monopoly on crooks, but they seem to have a superabundance of crooks, most of whom will never be indicted,” said Cardinale.
But Cardinale, who’s served in the legislature since 1981, said he’s seen too many public officials in trouble – and at least in part blames the Attorney General’s office for not doing enough to fight public corruption.
Cardinale said that he doesn’t personally blame current Attorney General Anne Milgram or her predecessor, Stuart Rabner, for the lack of public corruption prosecutions. But he said the office needs to focus more on that type of case.
“I find it stressing that our own office of the Attorney General seems to be occupying itself with other things than policing, and we have to rely on federal authorities to do this.”