TRENTON – The confluence of politics and business infamously suctioned the state’s most powerful lobbyists, politicians and laywers – and ultimately every New Jersey resident into Encap and its doomed before they started South Jersey partner projects – but a half-forgotten, unnamed operative had the job of greasing the deals in the early stages.
Insiders place Joseph C. Salema of South Jersey on their very short lists as the man most likely to be “the political strategist” in last week’s Bryant/Wisler indictment, juggling the mechanical fine points of brownfields reclamation on the northern and southern ends of the state that all finally went belly up in a multi-million Bergen/Camden conflagration.
At the very least, Salema was operating – on a beat he knew well.
After getting jammed up and serving federal time in the 1990’s on corruption charges, the former Florio Chief of Staff Salema repackaged himself in the new millennium as a political operative with veteran credentials. That role led him to the inner circle of former state Sen. Wayne Bryant (D-Camden), just as Bryant was nosediving into the troubled twilight of his long political career.
Sources in both South and North Jersey point to Salema as a player sufficiently connected to help maneuver the Pennsauken’s Petty Island and Camden Cramer Hill development projects, which along with Encap fell under the power rubric of the Raleigh, North Carolina Investment Company, Cherokee Partners, Inc. The garbage dump to golf course Encap experiment resulted in a $300 million taxpayer killzone.
“He was the operator – that was Wayne’s guy,” said one source with close ties to the African-American Caucus.
Bryant and Salema went back to the Florio era.
”Joe’s genius is that he’s street smart, he incorporates his intellectual abilities and his street smarts together, and that has a calming effect rather than a threatening one to people,” The New York Times in 1990 quoted Bryant, referring to the senator as “a longtime associate of Mr. Salema in Camden who is now majority leader of the Assembly and a leader of the Legislative Black Caucus.”
Last week’s indictment describes the political strategist as someone with “ready access to defendant Wayne R. Bryant and other public officials in Southern New Jersey and elsewhere.”
Already in prison on 2007 corruption charges in connection with his no-show job at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, Bryant absorbed his second round of federal charges last Monday, along with ailing Teaneck lawyer Eric Wisler, an equal opportunity, big money donor to candidates in both parties, who favored power-gridded Democrats as a longtime partner in the DeCotiis law firm. The indictment charges Bryant with taking $192,000 from Wisler in exchange for his Statehouse services to drive Cherokee’s projects, which required eminent domain, state regulation hurdling and infusions of taxpayer cash.
“Joe Salema attended some meetings, and there were others, but Eric Wisler was the main contact for Cherokee,” recalled Ed Grochowski, administrator of Pennsauken. “If there were 50 or 60 meetings, Joe came to maybe ten.
“We were trying to clean up some old brownfields,” the administrator added of Pennsauken’s hopes for a local Cherokee redevelopment project (retail units, golf course, hotel space), which included Petty’s Island and 600 acres of waterfront brownfields property. “This was an old industrial area we wanted to revitalize, but the project’s dead, and there’s no plan right now.
“The economy,” Grochowski said with finality, by way of explanation.
In addition to Salema, sources identify Donald Sico as Cherokee’s “community relations” person in the indictment; Princeton Public Affairs, Inc. as the lobbying firm and Bradley Brewster of Princeton Public Affairs as the lobbyist. None of those people or entities is charged with anything.
Among those team members connected to the Cherokee brownfields to vital development gone bust, the role of the political strategist recurs more than others unnamed in the indictment, and the feds note his presence at one critical juncture: when Wisler and Bryant set into motion their alleged kickback scheme. The political strategist’s presence at the meeting, according to the indictment, and that fact that the feds have not chagred him, lead sources to wonder whether the strategist cooperated with the federal investigation of Wisler and Bryant.
“On or about June 8, 2004, defendants Eric D. Wisler, Wayne R. Bryant, and the political strategist met in Camden regarding the Cramer Hill Project. Defendant Eric D. Wisler described the meeting in billing records as concerning ‘miscellaneous relocation and project issues,'” according to the United States of America versus Wisler and Bryant, issued on Spet. 27th.
“During the June 8, 2004, meeting, defendants Eric D. Wisler and the Teaneck Law Firm would retain defendant Wayne R. Bryant and the Cherry Hill Law Firm. There was no mention during the meeting of a need for legal services on the part of the Client Entities, or of any particular legal services that would be rendered by defendant (Bryant) or the Cherry Hill Law Firm (for which Bryant worked). Nonetheless, defendant (Bryant) stated that he would require a monthly retainer fee of $8,000.”
The feds subpoenaed Salema earlier this year along with Sico, public relations player Anselm Fusco and others.
Once heralded as a Florio ironman who served as the Democratic governor’s chief of staff from 1990 to 1993, Salema cracked up during his earlier political incarnation when he pleaded guilty to sharing more than $200,000 in kickbacks in exchange for influencing state bond deals.
Connected down South, he didn’t donate money to candidates with the panache Wisler showed, but backed several known quantities in his region, including Assemblyman Lou Greenwald with a $500 gift in 2005 and the Camden County Democratic Committee with $1,000 in 2006. State Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) records also show that in 2004 Salema donated $500 to then-Assemblywoman Nilsa Cruz-Perez (D-Camden), who was at the time a fledgling candidate for mayor of Camden.
In June of the same year, the indictment describes Wisler tasking the political strategist to derail a Cruz-Perez bill attempting to increase relocation compensation for mostly poor Cramer Hill residents from $15,000 to $67,500. As proposed, the Wisler-Bryant championed Cramer Hill project contained $1.2 billion of 6,000 housing units, 500,000 square feet of retail space, and the conversion of a landfill into an 18-hole golf course.
Cruz-Perez said Cherokee Partners couldn’t convince Cramer Hill residents that their redevelopment plan would be beneficial to the chronically impoverished South Jersey port city.
“The amount that people are supposed to receive in relocation compensation hadn’t been changed in 35 years,” Cruz-Perez told PolitickerNJ.com in an interview this week. “I thought that was outrageous. The amount was not increasing with the cost of living.”
When the assemblywoman tried to do some public interest advocacy with Assembly Bill 3634, her efforts fizzled fast at the Statehouse.
The indictment describes Wisler as adamantly opposed to Cruz-Perez’s legislation and leaning on the strategist to help him gauge the bill’s prospect of success.
“It is a campaign initiative to support her run for Mayor of Camden,” Wisler wrote in an email to the political strategist. “Raising the relocation assistance payment… would cost (the Raleigh Investment Firm) significant dollars and would cost the city even more, given the current relocation plan. Please touch base with (Bryant) and (then-Assembly Majority Leader Joe Roberts) to see if it has any traction.”
“My point of contact was Randy Primus (then Camden Operating Officer and the former mayor),” Roberts added. “He was trying to pull all the pieces together. My position all along was I was supportive of this project. This project was not flawed, the way it was implemented was flawed.”
The assemblywoman said she could not remember if anyone she would consider a political strategist approached her concerning the bill.
“The bill passed the housing committee, then stalled,” Cruz-Perez said. “It wasn’t unusual for a bill like that not to pass. But it died, and I kept re-introducing it. I re-introduced it up until the time I left the legislature (last year). There wasn’t much hope for it once we hit the recession, but I hope someone else picks it up.”
Politicians picked up plenty of other bills at the time that Wisler and Cherokee favored – and the indictment places the political strategist at the heart of the action.
According to the indictment, “On or about November 20, 2004, defendant Eric D. Wisler wrote an email to the political strategist, the lobbyist and others, which stated: ‘We would like to make amendments to (Senate Bill 277). This will be the vehicle for the 75-25% brownfield splits for the South Jersey projects and (the Meadowlands LLC’s) Phase 2. How should we proceed? I think (defendant Wayne R. Bryant) and (certain other legislators) will be helpful.”
State Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Wood-Ridge) served as prime sponsor for many of the bills enabling the failed Cherokee Partners projects, including the senate bill that created the redevelopment area bond financing law.
“I had no interaction with Wayne Bryant on any Meadowlands projects, and hopefully they get to the bottom of this and hopefully the future of the region will prosper,” Sarlo told PolitickerNJ.com. “The funding bill was a standard routine bill sponsored by leadership.”
Cleared of any ethical breach by an Inspector General’s report last year that assessed Sarlo’s role on Encap as legitimate work related to enhancing his legislative district, the South Bergen senator did not receive a federal subpoena in connection with Cherokee, he said. The senator received $2,500 from Wisler in 2005, but Wisler donated heavily to many politicians – in both parties, according to ELEC.
Now in the re-election race of a lifetime in the volatile 3rd Congressional District, then-state Senator and now-Congressman John Adler (D-Cherry Hill) served as primary sponsor of Senate Bill 277.
“I have not been subpoenaed,” said Adler. “The U.S. attorneys did not speak with me. The FBI did not speak with me. (former Republican Senator) Hank McNamara introduced the bill for the economy and the environment. I don’t know what this indicted lawyer was referring to.”
And while the feds presumably spoke to Salema, the onetime inner circle power player from South Jersey and lifelong political operative – some say “strategist” – did not return calls for comment.