Manzo suit gets first hearing tomorrow

The Jersey City political scene has been pretty quiet over the past month, with several potential mayoral candidates quietly positioning themselves for the election in May. But that could change tomorrow, when former Assemblyman Lou Manzo’s lawsuit that seeks to throw Mayor Jerramiah Healy out of office gets its first hearing in Monmouth County Superior Court.

Assignment Judge Lawrence M. Lawson will hear a petitions brought by Mayor Healy and Monmouth County Prosecutor Luis Valentin to dismiss Manzo’s suit, which claims that Healy touched on his office to try to stop Bradley Beach police officers from arresting him for disorderly conduct in 2006.

“If Jerry Healy was the mayor of some small town in New Jersey, he would have forfeited his office and the Monmouth County prosecutor would have gone after him,” said Manzo, who’s mulling his sixth bid for mayor of New Jersey’s second largest city.

There are three possible scenarios: Judge Lawson could dismiss the case, he could reserve judgment and ask for more briefing or discovery, or he could agree with Manzo that Healy should forfeit his office.

But whatever happens tomorrow, it’s not likely to be the end of the case. Manzo said that he’ll appeal if the judge dismisses it. Healy, of course, will appeal if the judge rules against him.

Manzo filed the suit last month, basing his argument on grand jury testimony by police officers that Healy tried to use his political clout to warn them against processing his disorderly conduct arrest.

That testimony was briefed by Valentin in May, 2007 in a memo to Judge Lawson, who was presiding over that case as well. In it, Healy is quoted telling the officers that “You don’t know who I am. I’m the Mayor of Jersey City,” telling the officers that he’s friends with the local police chief and asking if they could “sweep” the arrest “under the rug.”

That testimony was never brought up during any of Healy’s appeals. And now Valentin finds himself on Healy’s side of the argument. In a brief from early this month, Valentin argued that he did weigh whether to seek Healy’s forfeiture from office, and decided against it. Manzo, he said, has no standing to force Healy out.

Healy, for his part, denied that he ever made those statements.

“The way the prosecutor presented evidence to the same judge with the officer and never brings it into the case itself, obviously some type of arrangement was made outside the courtroom that I believe the public has a right to know,” said Manzo.

Manzo decided to file his lawsuit after watching a judge order that Newark Councilwoman Dana Rone forfeit her seat for invoking her position while trying to dissuade Rutgers-Newark police from issuing her nephew a traffic ticket.

Healy allies, however, note what they say is an important difference between the two cases: Rone not only invoked her office to dissuade the officer, but did so in the same city where she held elected office. Even conditionally granting that Healy did try to intimidate the police by invoking his office, he was in Bradley Beach, not Jersey City.

“I’m not a lawyer, but I’ve got a lot of friends who are, and they seem to honestly think that there isn’t much of a chance of the mayor being thrown out on that. It’s way different than the Rone one in that she was acting within her jurisdiction and he was acting outside of it,” said Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise, a key Healy political ally. “Quite frankly I don’t think it’s an uncommon thing for somebody arguing with a cop to say ‘You’re going to be sorry.’ You can say you’re the king of England, but you’re not the king of England.”

DeGise said that the atmosphere in Jersey City hasn’t been noticeably any more tense than normal in the run-up to tomorrow’s case, and that even Mayor Healy doesn’t seem to be sweating it.

“It’s not the most pressing thing on my mind. I’ve been with the mayor two different nights this week, running into him at different affairs. He’s not biting his fingernails over it either,” he said.

DeGise acknowledged that Manzo did successfully sue to keep former Mayor Gerry McCann out of the race in 2001 because of his federal fraud conviction in 1992.

“Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s not like Louis Manzo suing Healy to get him out of office is man-bites-dog in Jersey City,” he said. “Louis has a well-earned gadfly reputation…. everybody knows he and Jerry are the boa constrictor and the mongoose. They don’t like each other too much, so he’s out there throwing mud at the wall.”

Another prospective mayoral candidate sees things differently, however. Ward E Councilman Steve Fulop said that Healy realizes that there’s going to be a $30 million budget gap this year, and that he’ll be forced to raise property taxes for the third time in four years.

Manzo has also been positioning himself against Healy, running ads for his public advocacy office that are critical of City Hall. Tonight, he plans a town hall style forum at the Bergen Avenue Salvation Army to address the city’s crime rate and gang violence.

Healy could not be reached for comment, although some insiders close to him denied the budget gap contention.

Still, Fulop said that if Healy is forced to raise taxes again, anything other than an outright dismissal tomorrow will be bad news for the Mayor.

“I think a big win for Louis would be if the judge doesn’t throw it out, and that would be a big problem for Jerry,” he said. “You’d like to come into an election year and not deliver a tax increase. He’s delivering one.”

Manzo suit gets first hearing tomorrow