The backflow of sewerage money

By TIMOTHY J. CARROLL and MAX PIZARRO

Gov. Chris Christie flushed out individual Passaic Valley Sewerage Commissioners this week, but the authority has long been known as an entrenched patronage mill built on the confluences of money, political loyalty and influence.  

“The PVSC Commissioners in question seem to have no remorse for, or desire to fix, the blatantly unethical hiring and contracting practices that occurred on their watches,” said Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Westfield) today. “This behavior fleeced the ratepayers the Commission is supposed to serve.”

According to a Star Ledger expose that burst the damn at the PVSC: “Its $46.4 million payroll includes spouses and children of commissioners, mayors, friends of mayors, and the brother-in-law of a mayor who is also a commissioner, the documents show. The median salary there has jumped by nearly 30 percent over the past five years.”

But these commissioners are governor-appointed and Senate approved, so they didn’t just fall into the seats. The commissioners need some support at the state level to attain their seats. Local senators could block a nominee by invoking senatorial courtesy for appointments in their county.

“At the top of the food chain is the senators,” said one North Jersey legislator with an understanding of the patronage routine. “First, the commissioners pay a tribute to the boss, (the senator).”

Underlings are required to pay tributes as well or sell fundraiser tickets, the source said. “Then they hit up their vendors.”

PolitickerNJ took a look at the contribution tracks of the axed commissioners, as well as an overall look at who PVSC employees are donating to in the political realm.

A review of $87,800 in state political contributions – some dating back over a decade – included more than $42,000 in contributions from PVSC workers and management and over $45,000 in contributions from the six exiting commissioners alone.

One name that jumps out is Commissioner Bill Flynn, whose reply letter to the governor this week rapidly deflated the captains of the already substantially banged-up PVSC dinghy.

“When I am forwarded…an apology for the unprofessional tone of this correspondence I will immediately reply to your request,” he wrote the governor in reply to a state request for information.

Flynn and his wife have donated over $25,000 to various political campaigns over the years, more than the other six commissioners combined.

A top personal recipient of Flynn’s generosity has been Flynn’s sponsor for the commissioner seat, state Sen. John Girgenti (D-Hawthorne), clearing nearly $8,000. Flynn is a former Paterson firefighter who lives in Girgenti’s county.

An insider at the PVSC said Girgenti also requires a certain amount of fundraiser ticket sales from employees at the commission every year as well. The source said the general response after the beefsteak dinner is: “The guy didn’t even have the decency to come around and shake our hands.”

“The contributions in question were completely appropriate and properly reported,” said Girgenti spokesman Phillip Swibinski. “These were active Democrats attending a very popular annual fundraiser over the course of many years. To suggest that anyone was coerced into buying a $50 ticket to a steak dinner is silly and completely false.”

The matter worries Jeff Gardner, Hawthorne Democratic Party chairman and 35th District primary opponent of Girgenti, who said, “The issues identified (at the PVSC) are a serious problem.

“If someone is standing in the way of getting to the bottom of it, that’s an even bigger problem. If Sen. (Loretta) Weinberg (D-Teaneck) and Sen. (Kevin) O’Toole (R-Cedar Grove) are looking for co-sponsors to their reform legislation, I’ll try to get to the senate as soon as possible. Step one is to stop it…. I suspect we haven’t heard the last of wrongdoing (at the PVSC).”

Another biggest benefactor of the fired board members is, ironically, Christie, who has taken in over $4,000 from two commissioners, Frank Calandriello, the mayor of Garfield – who was defiant today in resisting the governor’s calls for him to step down; and Carl Czaplicki, director of the Jersey City Department of Housing, Economic Development & Commerce.

Calandriello’s two cousins, his cousin’s wife, and his brother-in-law work for the commission, as do Czaplicki’s wife and brother.

In 2009, Czaplicki contributed $500 to Christie’s Inaugural Committee.  Today, he submitted his letter of resignation.

The backflow of sewerage money