It wasn’t exactly a clandestine meeting.
Senate Majority Leader Stephen Sweeney (D-West Deptford) — who could be the next Senate President — was spotted last night at the Liberty House Restaurant in Jersey City dining with state Sen. Sandra B. Cunningham (D-Jersey City) and political operative Joseph Cardwell, who was arrested in July on corruption charges.
While the three ate in the restaurant’s dining room, Freeholder Bill O’Dea held a low-dollar fundraiser in the catering room next door. Two sources who attended the fundraiser reported seeing Cardwell handing out cards for his legal defense fund to guests who trickled into the restaurant’s bar from the O’Dea event.
Reached by phone, Cardwell said he ate with the two senators, but declined to elaborate on what they talked about.
“The Senator was discussing business. I was just there,” he said.
Sweeney has been campaigning hard for the Senate Presidency, and this morning announced that he has the votes needed to topple incumbent Richard Codey (D-Roseland). Cunningham, however, was not among the thirteen Democratic Senators he listed as supporting his bid.
The Liberty House, which sits in Liberty State Park and has a sweeping view of Lower Manhattan, is a favorite spot for New Jersey politicians — not the type of place people would go for a low-key meeting. Then-presidential candidate Barack Obama even visited for a fundraiser in 2007. Entrees range from a $19 “Brick Chicken” to a $36 “Deconstructed Filet of Beef Wellington,” according to the latest available online menu.
Sweeney said that he and Cunningham were merely having an informal dinner and that he was not lobbying her for support. He did not mind that Cardwell was there.
“You’re innocent until proven guilty in this state. Sandra is very close with Joe. Everyone knows that,” said Sweeney. “My dinner plan was with Sandra, and I know Joe from Sandra, so I’m not going to kick somebody out.”
Sweeney said that Cardwell did not ask him to donate to a legal defense fund.
Cardwell denied handing out cards for his fund, although he acknowledged that he is in the process of setting one up.
“Yes, I just started one last week,” he said. “No, I wasn’t passing out any [cards]. I’d tell friends and stuff like that, but why would I be passing out cards?”
PolitickerNJ.com later obtained an electronic scan of one of the cards, which asks donors to mail checks to the fund’s trustee, accountant Gary Stetz.
Cardwell has long been Cunningham’s top political advisor, and he managed to win her good press in his own corruption complaint. In it, he tells FBI informant Solomon Dwek – who posed as a real estate developer under an assumed name — that an unnamed public official “could not be owned” (Cardwell was arrested for allegedly soliciting bribes for other public officials). Politifax later identified that official as Cunningham.
Cunningham could not be reached for comment.