Paul Byrne: In his own words (2003)

Excerpts from an interview between legendary Jersey City political insider Paul Byrne and New Jersey Network senior political correspondent Michael Aron on NJN’s On the Record, aired on Sunday, June 15, 2003. Byrne had been indicted on charges that was the bagman for Hudson County Executive Robert Janiszewski, who later went to jail for accepting bribes. He later pleaded guilty to tax evasion and extortion charges and faced 30 to 37 months in a federal prison. Byrne died in May, 2005 at age 59, just days before a federal judge was set to sentence him.

“There are two things that all men want to keep during the course of their lives: those are their sport jackets and their best friends. I’m now reduced to just my sport jackets. I’m very upset about what’s happened to him, but it was foreseeable.”

“Practically five years ago he started losing interest in the government itself. But when we came to the period that everyone in New Jersey calls the Twelve Days of Torricelli, and he was on the losing end, he just gave up. He didn’t want to be in public office anymore and he started drinking heavily.”

“I didn’t know there was $100,00 in his file cabinet. Sadder than that, during the period when he had the $100,000 in his filing cabinet, both his children were in distress and trouble and on welfare and he didn’t help them.”

“We started during the ’77 period. Thomas F.X. Smith was expected to become the Mayor [of Jersey City] and we expected to win on the first round ballot. So what I did was convince Mayor Smith to put Janiszewski on the ballot as an Assembly candidate because we needed a bright Polish guy to fill out the ticket. That’s normal in urban politics. So that’s how he became an Assemblyman. But he became a star real quick. He became an outstanding legislator while in the New Jersey Assembly. I think he was named legislator of the year at one time.”

“During the entire period of our association and friendship — and I admit I was his best friend his entire life — he was great at public policy. He was great at the politics of it, but had the other side to him and the other side was the dark side. I spent most of my career, aside from advising him, cleaning up after him. I felt like the guy with the big broom behind the two elephants. I include [Janiszewski’s wife] Beth in that too. So essentially I would be helping to eliminate the problems that would in any way affect his public personality.”

“He only had two people on his staff he could count on. His executive secretary, Janet Lauro, who’s still on the county [payroll] and she was essentially his younger sister and she tried to keep him from falling off the edge.”

“He should have quit, and we talked about it many times. He would tell me ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.'”

“Hudson is no different than any other county in the state. I was amused by his public comment about the brazen bribers. Picture this, if you will: the county courthouse in Hudson County. Brazen bribers arrive at the county building. They knock down the front door. They evade the Sheriff’s officers. The break into the County Exec’s . They disarm his personal security, and they throw him up against the wall and stuff his pockets with $100 bills. That’s not real.”

“You have to understand that both he and Beth controlled the entire operation. So when he didn’t want to participate, Beth would become the CEO and all the directors would report to her. She would decide what was going on.”

“If you recall the Los Angeles Convention — he called me up and was on the verge of tears and said ‘nobody wants to talk to me, even Ray Lesniak.'”

“He didn’t even fight. He was totally for [James E.] McGreevey until [Robert] Torricelli made it known that he had an interest in running [for Governor]. And by the way, I supported that. Torricelli walks on water. When it came time to fight for the nomination, he and Beth went off sailing in Key West. We couldn’t get him. The didn’t even recharge the battery. It was like ‘OK, we’re going to do this, but it’s not going to work anyhow.'”

“The joke in Hudson County is he had all this money in his file cabinet but he never picked up the tab in his life. If you went to dinner with Bob — and I still care about him even though it’s a weird relationship — but if you went out to dinner with him there was no chance you were going to see his credit card. None. None whatsoever.”

“You can’t do this stuff by yourself. You need helpers. You can’t have any CEO put themselves in a position where they’re going to be able to accept bribes.”

“This incident in Hudson itself has to deal with Bobby Janiszewski, not the county itself. It depends who’s the boss, who’s in charge.”

“I was upset that I spent my entire life with him and he would just throw my name in the hopper. Everybody’s part of the food chain. He’s following in the footsteps of [convicted ex-State Sen.] David Friedland.”

“I’m one of his closest friends and advisors, but when I talk about helpers, I’m talking about the structure of the government. No County Executive or leader can do anything unless he has people in place that will follow his lead without him having to issue an order.”

On whether he was a conduit for bribes:

“He said I gave him $2,000. He used to live with me at one point. During the course of our fifty-year relationship, I’ve given him money. We’ve gone on vacations together. I helped his children out. These are standard things that friends do.”

“The defense counsel [for Freeholder Nidia Davila-Colon], Mr. Pete Willis, he through me under the bus. That’s a political expression. He took some comments, made some charges. Not just me, but other people, and I understand why he did it and I’m not real upset about it.”

On Janiszewski’s accusation that he gave Byrne half of a $300K+ bribe from developer Joe Barry:

“I’m not going to talk about that. I’m here to talk about the difference between friends who were together for fifty years and what’s happened at this date going forward.”

“With Bobby and Beth, they’re the equivalent of the cashier’s cage at an Atlantic City casino. They would decide what vendors were successful, who would in fact win the awards, and the kind of activities he’s on trial for now of that he’s pleaded guilty to. These things are decided by the boss himself and he has to have people in place to that.”

On whether Byrne handled any of the cash from the cashiers:

“No. I had no relationship at all with Beth. She hated my guts. She would run the meetings in the conference room of the County Exec’s office and Bobby would be sitting in his private office while all the department heads were there.”

On Oscar Sandoval:

“If you’ve ever been to the Prado in Madrid, there’s the Velasquez Room where they have the Dark Prince — the guy with the goatee, the mustache, the black hair. Well, that’s Dr. Oscar Sandoval. He’s a sex therapist and surgeon. He’s a hell of a character. He arrives in Jersey City with a mink coat and a Lamborghini and he’s wining and dining Nidia Colon.”

“Nobody has any idea what he’s doing. No one in the county, the city or the state. He was a great raconteur but he was a problem.”

On whether Byrne expects to be indicted:

“I can’t speak to that. I’m sure Bob Janiszewski’s not about to rat out anyone who can throw him in the river. That’s my answer. I expect to finish this interview and go have a nice meal.”

On the revelation that federal agents tapped his telephone:

“I don’t like it. This is 1999-2000. I had no way of actually knowing — they don’t call you up and say they’re doing it. I imagine if it was tapped there would be a lot of politics and a lot of phone sex and you won’t be able to tell the difference between the two.”

On U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie:

“I have the utmost respect for him. I don’t want to say anything. Politics 101 in New Jersey: don’t tick off the U.S. Attorney. I’m sure he’s an honorable guy.”

On attempts to dump Byrne’s sister from the Democratic line:

“One of the things that was very upsetting — there came a point where Bobby and Beth tried to change the political ticket. My sister, Barbara Donnelly, was running for re-election. Beth made the decision that my sister would be replaced by Nidia Colon, the woman who is on trial now, and we had a real brawl, Bobby and I did, and that was the first time we ever had anything.”

On Janiszewski’s bid for another term as County Chairman in 2001:

“Donald Scarinci — he is essentially [Congressman Bob] Menendez’s best friend — there came a time when Donald and I would get together and say: ‘OK, we’ve got to put the ticket together” — meaning the organization ticket and how we would do that. I’m the only one who could talk to Janiszewski. Nobody else can and at that point, nobody wanted to. Everybody was in rebellion. So Bobby started insisting that he would do anything, and he met in my apartment with me and Donald — and I’m sure it’s all taped, that’s why I’m going on the record with it — and he said: “Listen, I don’t care who runs for office, I want to be the County Chairman again. I don’t care who’s the Sheriff. I don’t care who the Register is.'”

“We had a number of meetings. We had one at Lantana’s in Secaucus with Donald, Janiszewski and myself. Then we left. Bobby was driving the car — by then I started to lose my sight, now I’m totally blind — and we parked under the Turnpike and I said to him: ‘Why are you pushing this thing with Menendez? What’s wrong with you, you hate this guy.’ He said: ‘Just get this done for me.’ I said: “But Bobby, you don’t even want to be County Exec, why do you want to be County Chair?'”

“He wanted another term. Everybody wanted him out. All the Mayors, everybody. Nobody wanted him to stay there. So we had this meeting under the Turnpike and he said: ‘Set up another meeting with Donald, but at his law office.’ So I did. In the next couple of days, I call Donald up. Then I bring Janiszewski, we go to sit down with Donald Scarinci at his law office, and here he goes again: ‘I don’t care who the Sheriff is. I don’t care who the County Register is, and I don’t care anything about this government. I want to be the County Chairman.'”

“I’m listening and all of the sudden it was like getting hit in the head with a baseball bat. Janiszewski went to the bathroom. I turned to Donald Scarinci and I said: ‘Listen to me carefully. I don’t vouch for this guy. You hear me? I don’t vouch for this guy.'”

On when Byrne suspected Janiszewski was wearing a wire:

“He was so obsessive about having a one-on-one with Menendez. Now at this point, I don’t have a relationship with Menendez. I have one with Scarinci. But Menendez was very helpful at making sure my sister was on the line, so I wasn’t about to do anything that would hurt him. But all of the sudden, it was like ‘why does he want to sit down with the guy he despises?’ And that’s when I turned to Scarinci and said I don’t vouch for this guy.”

“What I didn’t understand — and I still don’t to this day because they don’t have press conferences to tell you — but I listed to him, and you know I’ve been with him my whole life, and all of the sudden I heard hysteria. ‘I need to have this done. You guys can have the government.'”

On whether Janiszewski was trying to set up Menendez:

“I tell you this day, absolutely. I think he wanted to sting the number three member of the House of Representatives. Yes, that’s what I think. In fact, Donald looked at me — and again, we have an excellent relationship — and I looked at Donald and I just started to share my head: this guy, he’s having a nervous breakdown or something. So Donald arranged for the Congressman and the County Exec to have dinner — at Ruth’s Chris in Weehawken.”

On why Janiszewski wore a wire:

“I don’t even understand this mentality. If you get caught doing something — you do the crime, you pay the time.”

“He tried to sting Senator Ray Lesniak, who’s been our friend — we had summer homes together.”

On how Byrne knew Janiszewski tried to sting Lesniak:

“Trust me, I know. There are some things you know.”

On close friends:

“You trust them completely. I never even thought for a second Bobby was capable of taping someone. But he didn’t do it by himself.”

“I’m the last one to find out. I’ve got to be the dumbest son of a bitch in the county. I got people calling me — prominent political people — and do you know what the expression is in NJ: Radio Shack? That is when you think someone is wired.”

“I’m like ‘that’s not possible.’ He figured Beth was leaving him and he’s trying to hide the money. I said to him: ‘give her half, get out from under.'”

About when Janiszewski started taking bribes:

“I would just simply tell you what Bobby told me. During the Friedland time, everybody in the world was subpoenaed before the grand jury and Bobby had told me that he had gotten a gift from David. David didn’t tell me that. But David and Bobby had a relationship — now they were both superstars in the legislature. One was the Outstanding Senator, the other the Outstanding Assembly member. That’s what he told me.”

About Janiszewski’s claim that Byrne received a $1 million payment from Progressive Health Care for Hudson County nursing home contracts:

“Not true, but let me tell you what we did do. Dennis Enright, who was the financial advisor for the county, and I met with the County Exec at the Cafe Newport and we advised him strongly to cancel those contracts because the vendors were bouncing checks, not paying their employees — and I’m sure that’s on tape too. We both said: ‘Bobby, you’ve got to act now. People are at risk, people in the nursing homes are at risk’ and he never acted. Never said anything, never did anything. And now, if you look back at the dates, it was obvious he was in the program. I mean, why else wouldn’t he act?”

On Byrne’s reflections about corruption in politics:

“If you’re going to get involved in politics, try to pick someone with less phobias and idiosyncrasies. If you look at politics in New Jersey today, it’s no different than it’s ever been. It’s just that I had the wrong horse. My horse stumbled before the finish line. Maybe we should have put him to sleep earlier.”

Paul Byrne: In his own words (2003)