Morning News Digest: February 5, 2010

Prosecution rests case in corruption trial for Jersey City Deputy Mayor Beldini

Federal prosecutors rested their case today in the corruption trial of a Jersey City deputy mayor after six days of testimony anchored by black-and-white videos secretly made by the informant at the center of last year’s massive FBI sting. The government called four witnesses in its case against Leona Beldini. But it was the words and camera work of the informant, Solomon Dwek, that dominated. Dwek spent five days testifying in federal court in Newark, sparring with Beldini’s lawyer and annotating the sometimes grainy videos he shot with a miniature camera while posing as a developer trying to trade cash-stuffed FedEx envelopes for building approvals. Beldini’s lawyer, Brian J. Neary, said he has not yet determined who he will call as defense witnesses. The case could go to the jury early next week. The verdict will be the first major hurdle for last summer’s sprawling money-laundering and corruption sting that led to charges against 46 people, including rabbis, mayors, state legislators and a Brooklyn man accused of conspiring to sell a human kidney. At the center of it all was Dwek, a 37-year-old failed developer who began cooperating with the FBI after being charged with bank fraud in 2006. Dwek remained largely poised during hours of combative questioning, repeatedly asserting that Beldini took $20,000 in illegal campaign contributions for Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy, who has not been charged. The case hinges mostly on Dwek’s videos. They depict meetings held last year at a luncheonette and a diner where authorities say Beldini, a 74-year-old Democrat who was Healy’s campaign treasurer, agreed to help Dwek secure zoning changes in exchange for the money. But Neary said Beldini never promised Dwek favors. Her seemingly incriminating comments on the tapes — like saying she will “flip” the pile so Dwek’s application isn’t on the bottom — were said in jest or taken out of context, Neary said. Beldini never accepted money directly from Dwek. Instead, authorities say, he funneled payments to Healy’s campaign through two consultants also charged in the case: Jack Shaw and Edward Cheatam. Shaw died of a Valium overdose five days after his arrest in July. Cheatam pleaded guilty in September and had been expected to testify against Beldini. Prosecutors, however, never called him to the stand. During testimony today, Shaw’s longtime companion, Catherine A. Chin, said he twice gave her $2,500 in cash and asked her to write checks to Healy’s campaign. Authorities say the cash came from Dwek and that Shaw recruited Chin as a “straw donor.” (Ryan, Star Ledger)

Camden mayor taking some Corzine alums

Camden Mayor Dana Redd is filling her inner circle – including the city attorney, her spokesman, and three aides – with at least five members of the former Corzine administration. For four of those appointees, Redd plans to match or increase the salaries they had in state government. But because of 30 recent retirements and the elimination of those positions, the city payroll would still go down $6,000, the new mayor said yesterday. (Katz/Tamari, Philadelphia Inquirer)

Haines still interested in judgeship, but not sure it will happen

There is a widespread assumption that state Sen. Phil Haines (R-Springfield), who turned down former Gov. Jon Corzine’s nomination to a superior court judgeship in the midst of the appointments fracas with Gov. Christopher Christie, will be nominated to a superior court judgeship in the fall.

Haines, whose refusal was heralded by Republicans at the time as a noble act of self-sacrifice, today said he did not see it that way. 

”I think when you listen to people that assumption is out there, but I give it little attention to because really, this is the kind of business where it might not happen. And that’s a realistic possibility,” said Haines.

Haines said that there has been “no indication, no discussion” with the Christie administration about an appointment.

After Haines’s turned down Corzine’s nomination, members of the Democratic administration said they expected that he would by appointed to the judgeship by Christie sometime after September, allowing Burlington County Republicans to appoint a successor for his state senate seat to fill the remainder of his term (Republicans, according to the sources, feared a strain on their resources by a special election, combined with a competitive congressional race in the 3rd District and the possible opening up of the 7th District state senate seat, where Republican incumbent Diane Allen is battling cancer.

Haines, who acknowledged that he remains interested in a judgeship, said that there were too many unpredictable factors to make the appointment a sure thing.

”There may not be an opening, something may change in my life. Anything can happen. I’ve been around long enough to know that,” he said. (Friedman, PolitickerNJ)

With more than three years to go until the next scheduled election, Fulop boosts his coffers

Jersey City Councilman Steven Fulop held the biggest fundraiser of his political career tonight, packing donors at $250 a head into Puccini’s Restaurant. 

Fulop said that he expects to gross a little over $70,000 from the event, adding to the $245,000 he has in his election fund for a 2013 mayoral candidacy. 

”Five years ago we couldn’t fill a phone booth,” said political consultant Tom Bertolli, Fulop’s political point man. 

Most candidates don’t open their fundraisers to the press, but Fulop, a reform advocate who is the only one of Jersey City’s nine council members not allied with Mayor Jerramiah Healy, invited reporters. There was a clear message: with Healy making frequent cameos on FBI informant Solomon Dwek’s version of “Candid Camera,” there could be a mayoral race earlier than anticipated, and the smart money was going to Fulop. 

”You can see the shift,” said Bertolli. 

Among the crowd was former Senate Majority Leader Bernard Kenny (D-Hoboken), the predecessor to Healy as Hudson County Democratic chairman. 

”I’m here as a private individual,” said Kenny. “I met him years ago when I was a senator. He impressed me. You develop an eye for political talent when you’ve been in the profession of politics for a long time, and he obviously has it… He seems like a nice guy, so here I am.” 

Fulop seemed to relish the lawsuit and other legal threats being leveled at him by former Mayor Gerry McCann, whose rehiring as an Incinerator Authority inspector drew an angry press release from the councilman. Fulop called the hiring was a quid pro quo to gain the endorsement of police detective Sean Connors, a family friend of McCann’s.

Yesterday, McCann threatened to sue Fulop for defamation. Fulop, apparently unperturbed, tweeted the news to his supporters. Today, McCann changed course: he would have Fulop in handcuffs, charged with extortion under official right.

Fulop’s offense: threatening to withhold his vote from funding the Jersey City Incinerator Authority until they dump the newly re-hired McCann.

”What he’s saying is if you don’t fire him, I’m going to vote against your budget. I’m going to file a criminal complaint. I’m going to have him arrested,” said McCann, who equated Fulop’s threat with the alleged bribe taking of the dozens of public officials who were arrested in the massive July federal corruption sweep.
 (Friedman, PolitickerNJ)

Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission faces more scrutiny over salaries, hiring

Democratic and Republican legislators have been trying for at least 15 years to reform the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission, once again under fire for its high salaries, patronage hires and use of politically connected lobbyists. Now more lawmakers are calling for increased state control of an agency whose political connections are both deep and bipartisan. Assemblyman Scott Rumana (R-Passaic) said today he’s considering introducing legislation that would allow the state to take over the Newark-based commission, which has been singled out by Gov. Chris Christie as the type of government agency in New Jersey that needs to be scrubbed of waste. And state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) introduced a bill that would compel all state authorities — including the sewerage commission — to comply with the state Open Public Meetings Act, and also post minutes, agendas and schedules on the Internet. The commission, which adopted a $164 million budget last month that included some rate increases, employs some of the state’s highest-paid public employees, including 82 staff members with pensionable salaries over more than $100,000. Christie has gone after the commission’s high salaries, including the $313,000 annual pay for executive director Bryan Christiansen, a former four-term Democratic mayor of Edgewater who is due a hefty severance payout even if he’s fired. Christie has called the commission’s salaries “outrageous” and said lawmakers need to pass legislation that would give him more authority over the commission. Rumana said a state takeover would be “the quickest way to tackle this problem.” “A new administration was chosen to eliminate this kind of egregious spending,” he said. He joins Democratic Assembly members Valerie Vainieri Huttle and Gordon Johnson, both of Bergen County, in the latest attempt to reform the commission with legislation. The Democrats’ bill would give Christie the power to veto commission minutes to stop any actions he does not approve of. The bill was referred to the Assembly’s Housing and Local Government Committee last month, but has yet to come up for a vote. Huttle, Johnson and Rumana are the latest lawmakers seeking to reform the commission, an agency that serves 1.3 million people in northern New Jersey, including Newark and Jersey City. State Sen. Ron Rice (D-Essex) introduced legislation in 1996 that would have granted the state Department of Community Affairs the authority to oversee the commission, but his legislation didn’t move out of committee. And in 2003, Weinberg, as a member of the Assembly, sought to give the governor the power to veto commission meeting minutes. That measure also stalled. (Reitmeyer/Young, Star Ledger)

Budget expert: N.J. economy depends more on people with high income, not net worth

New Jersey lawmakers are gearing up for a fight over whether to extend a tax increase on the rich as the state’s budget problems grow by the week. Top Democrats are saying that with the state’s budget problems — a $2.17 billion budget gap this year, and up to $11 billion for the fiscal year that begins July 1 — the tax increase originally thought to be temporary should be back on the table. Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, has repeatedly said he would not reinstate the tax. “Although I was not originally supportive of it, everything at this point in time should be on the table and open for discussion,” said Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), the new chair of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, which will hold hearings on the budget Christie will propose March 16. The one-year tax increase on people making more than $400,000 passed last year and expired on Jan. 1. It was expected to bring in $1 billion, but it’s unclear whether collections will hit that target. High earners’ incomes took a hit as the economy tanked, and a similar tax increase by New York would eat into taxes paid by New Jersey residents who work in the city. Republican lawmakers are pointing to a Boston College study released earlier this week as more evidence that the state’s tax system is forcing wealthy people to flee the state. “It makes the case for what we all know anecdotally,” said Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R-Monmouth). “If we want to drive more high income people away, we’ll put [the tax] on the table.” The study, commissioned to determine the effect on charities of rich people moving out of New Jersey, said families worth about $70 billion moved out of the state from 2004 to 2008. But when figuring out the effect on the state budget, it’s more important to look at residents’ income, said David Rosen, budget and finance officer for the Office of Legislative Services, a nonpartisan office. “We don’t tax wealth, we tax income,” Rosen told the budget committee meeting yesterday. “So the income part of this strikes me as more significant.” Rosen, who made clear he was not advocating for any policy, said the state could see $300 million in the first half of this year if it extended the tax increase retroactively on richer residents. Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said the tax extension makes sense, but it will be up to the governor to come to that conclusion. (Fleisher, The Record)

Lesniak says Lonegan sounds like segregationist

State Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Elizabeth) accused conservative activist Steve Lonegan of supporting segregation after Lonegan said Lesniak’ s bill to “gut” the state Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) would expand the power of the New Jersey’s “low income housing bureaucracy.”

”Lonegan must have slept through the civil rights movement. He couches his language in big government terms, but when it come down to it, he’s simply opposed to the New Jersey Constitution’s requirement that all municipalities provide a reasonable opportunity for low and moderate income households to have affordable housing within their boundaries,” Lesniak said in an e-mail to “He believes municipalities should be able to segregate themselves from low and moderate income families, which are mostly minorities or the handicapped.”

In a statement released yesterday, Lonegan, the state director of Americans for Prosperity (AFP), called Lesniak’s COAH bill “a hybrid super bureaucracy that combines the State Planning Commission, the Economic Development Authority, the Home Mortgage Finance Association and the Commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs into a super bureaucracy that puts COAH on steroids”. Lonegan said AFP will run radio ads opposing the bill.

Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll (R-Morris Twp.) contends that Mount Laurel is a “constitutional fairy tale.”

”Have him cite me the language in the New Jersey Constitution which requires municipalities to zone for low and moderate income housing,” Carroll said. “A simple reference to the article and paragraph will do.”
(Editor, PolitickerNJ)

Ingle: School construction shenanigans

New Jersey’s Office of the Inspector General has a report out documenting how a state worker — they don’t name him — at the old Schools Construction Corp. negotiated a $600,000-plus change order for a project management firm, then left for a job with that company, then lobbied the state to pay the change order. Management at the Schools Development Authority, as it’s now called, expressed concern that it was overpaying the company — and maybe others — as part of the worker’s efforts to score a new job. Another example of how all that money was burned through with little to show for it. The case was sent to the State Ethics Commission, since such contacts are forbidden, and the Attorney General’s Office. In years past, that’s where too many investigations have gone to die, so now we’ll have a test of how the new crew performs. The news here might be that the Office of the Inspector General put out a report. After more than a year without a peep, Mary Jane Cooper’s outfit put out a report in December alleging pension abuses by Gloucester County Democratic Chairman Michael Angelini, a municipal attorney whose situation sounded a lot like what got Wayne Bryant into trouble. And now this one — which apparently was more than a year and a half in the making. Seems like someone’s trying to impress the new governor. (Ingle, Gannett)

Stile: Caliguire may mount GOP primary challenge in executive’s race

Former Bergen County freeholder Todd Caliguire said Thursday that he’s seriously considering a campaign for county executive, a move that could shatter the county GOP’s new unity with a primary battle. Caliguire, 54, who lost to Democrat Dennis McNerney in the 2006 county executive contest, said he has had discussions with other possible candidates to form a slate, but declined to name them. If he does enter the race, the Ridgewood resident and businessman would likely challenge Bergen County Clerk Kathleen Donovan in the June primary in an off-the-line contest for the party’s nomination. Donovan is expected to win the endorsement of the Bergen County Republican Organization at its convention next month. Caliguire, a staunch conservative, says lowering property taxes is a top priority for voters and that a key way of achieving that goal is to cut unneeded county government services that duplicate what is already delivered at the local level. He suggested that Donovan, the county clerk for more than 20 years, is too entrenched to make deep, systemic changes. “It is really important that the next county executive not just be a Republican but a Republican who fundamentally changes the way government operates and not just maintain the status quo,’’ Caliguire said. Donovan could not be immediately reached for comment. If there is a primary, it would be a reversal of roles for both Donovan and Caliguire from the 2006 race. That year, Caliguire was the BCRO-backed candidate, defeating Donovan, who waged her own off-the-line candidacy. But this year, Donovan’s past intraparty foes, such as BCRO Chairman Bob Yudin, have rallied behind her candidacy in a rare expression of unity. Yudin, who ran for freeholder on Caliguire’s ticket in 2006, said Caliguire would lose if he faced McNerney again in the fall contest. McNerney captured 60 percent of the vote in 2006. “Todd Caliguire is a friend, regardless of whether he does this or not,’’ Yudin said. “He did show that, when he ran, he was not competitive. I believe he is not the answer in taking back control of Bergen County. I believe if he is our candidate, just like last time, he would lose by tens of thousands of votes.” (Stile, The Record)

Albright: Shadow or no shadow, Christie’s got bleak times ahead

Vince Zarate, my friend and golfing mentor who retired from the Star-Ledger paragraph factory, has always been blessed with a sense of humor. On a Feb. 2 Groundhog Day in the 1980s, when Thomas H. Kean was governor, Vince mused, “If Kean sees his shadow, he will get six more weeks of budget surplus.” He did, and he got it. Now more than ever, Gov. Christopher J. Christie needs such a beneficial prediction. There is no evidence, however, that he will get it. On Jan. 20, Christie complained that the Corzine administration left him with a $1.2 billion budget deficit in the fiscal year ending June 30. Corzine’s office argued he left a $490 million surplus. But on Jan. 25, David Rosen, chief budget analyst with the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services, testifying before the Assembly Budget Committee, said Christie’s assessment “was not unreasonable.” Christie revealed he has ordered department heads to come up with 15 to 25 percent budget reductions this fiscal year. He said he has not ruled out more unpaid furlough days and state employee layoffs. Even worse, Christie suggested the budget deficit could be $11 billion in the fiscal year starting July 1. Perhaps the Statehouse should be renamed Bleak House. (Albright, Jersey Journal)

Morning News Digest: February 5, 2010