If It's Bribery, This Must Be Hoboken

Thursday, February 06, 2014

The view of New York City from Hoboken's waterfront at sunset. (Sarah Gonzalez/WNYC)

Two-term mayor Anthony Russo is credited by many with changing Hoboken’s reputation as the working-class dockworker town memorialized by the classic 1954 film “On the Waterfront.”

Russo revitalized Hoboken’s waterfront in the 90s, attracting young professionals and laying the foundation for today’s thriving restaurant and bar scene — part of what makes Hoboken so desirable to developers.

But in 2004, after Russo left office, he admitted to accepting thousands of dollars in cash bribes from bar owners and city contractors for nearly his entire tenure as mayor.

He was sentenced to two and a half years in federal prison.

Russo is part of a long history of political corruption in Hoboken involving development, bribery and extortion. And now Hoboken is at the center of a scheme that threatens the career of Governor Chris Christie. 

In 2009, just a month after being sworn in, Hoboken mayor Peter Cammarano was led away in handcuffs as part of Operation Bid Rig. The largest sting in New Jersey history, it resulted in the arrests of 3 mayors, 5 orthodox rabbis and dozens of public servants and political operatives.

Cammarano later admitted to accepting $25,000 from a developer when he was a mayoral candidate in exchange for his future influence.

He was sentenced to two years, and his arrest swept Dawn Zimmer into office.

As a mayoral candidate, Zimmer had been approached by the same undercover investigators posing as developers who had ensnared Cammarano.

Zimmer turned down the meeting.

“I think that action speaks for her integrity,” said Melissa Abernathy, who has lived in Hoboken for 25 years.   

Charges Against Dawn Zimmer                                                                              Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer

In August 2013, Hoboken’s public housing director Carmelo Garcia filled a lawsuit against Zimmer claiming she was trying to force out minorities.

And he alleged Zimmer’s husband and allies bullied him into hiring her political supporters.

A judge dismissed the lawsuit but allowed Garcia to amend his case and re-file.

In December 2013, a Hudson County jury ruled that the city of Hoboken discriminated against a former employee, Angel Alicea.

But the jury voted 7-1 that mayor Zimmer was not responsible and that she did not discriminate against him.

Protecting Hoboken from Flooding

Zimmer has made urban resiliency to flooding the focus of her administration.

She is the only representative from New York and New Jersey on President Obama’s Climate Change Task Force, and she is working to remove Hoboken from the National Flood Insurance Program, which has driven up costs for residents.

In order to get there, Zimmer is taking on the Christie administration.

She alleges top aides to the Governor told her they would withhold federal Sandy recovery aid unless she approved a high-rise development project in Hoboken.

“I think it’s extremely unfair to connect Sandy funds, which the Governor is entrusted by the federal government to distribute fairly,” Zimmer told WNYC. “I don’t think it’s fair that he’s tying Sandy funds to a particular development project.”

The FBI and the U.S. Attorney are investigating her claims.

Christie and his Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno have denied the allegations.

But emails to a Hoboken attorney show the developer, the Rockefeller Group, was employing close allies of Gov. Christie to pressure the city to approve the high-rise.

City Council member Michael Russo, who opposes Zimmer politically, is questioning why the mayor, and the members of the city council in whom she confided, didn’t come forward right away about the alleged threats made by the Christie administration.

“It didn’t rise to the level of criminality that she’s alleging now, even if it was just political, the residents in the city of Hoboken are the ones that are suffering from that,” Russo said.

He thinks her allegations will disadvantage Hoboken in getting future Sandy aid.

Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno. (Sarah Gonzalez/WNYC)

But many people in Hoboken who support the mayor say Zimmer doesn’t have anything to gain by criticizing the governor and challenging the state.

The waterfront town is competing to win a federal grant to protect it from future flooding. Winning the grant rests heavily on whether several state agencies cooperate with Hoboken.


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Comments [11]

Martin from Hoboken

This article mis-characterizes Anthony Russo as the architect of Hoboken's present waterfront development. In fact he at first supported Port Authority's monstrous plan that called for a seventy story tower on Pier A - which instead became a beautiful park. A citizen-sponsored referendum defeated that scheme. Subsequently Russo, and his successor David Roberts, proceeded to "sell the town", with much of the rest of the open space in Hoboken given up to developers with little planning and questionable zoning variances.

Dawn Zimmer is doing a lot to drain several swamps: concretely through post-Sandy initiatives, and politically as well. She is a person of integrity who deserves our support.

Michael Russo, son of the former Mayor, along the Carmelo Garcia, represent vestiges of the Hoboken's corrupt political past. They will do anything to try to hold onto what remains of their power and influence. They are assuredly on the wrong side of history.

Feb. 07 2014 07:36 PM
Michael from New Jersey

I was born in Newark, NJ way back in 1945. So I can say, I have seen all this before. But what is so refreshing to see is the kind of high quality honest broadcast journalism that people like Sarah Gonzales deliver. I expect that Governor Christie now regrets selling off the old New Jersey Network to WNYC because they have certainly stepped up to the plate and given the folks in New Jersey a great chance to look at their governments state and local as well as themselves as voters. Time for some changes!

Feb. 06 2014 05:57 PM

Spreading NYC Gentrification is the No. 1 factor for Hoboken’s revitalization. The pivotal moment in modern Hoboken history was in 1990-92 when citizens and The Coalition For A Better Waterfront voted in a referendum and successfully thwarted a grandiose Port Authority plan. Exchanging it for a public waterfront and development that integrated with the city, not turning its back on it. Now Hoboken has the only continuous public promenade on this side of the river. It’s among the top places to live and visit in the region.

We should reframe the conversation. Hoboken is a desirable place in spite of its politicians, not because of them. Dawn Zimmer is a material change from the past mayors, but it’s about having public voices that can push back against cronyism and get good people into office.

Christie’s admin and the Rockefeller Group seem to be a throwback to the bad old days of grandiose plans and autocratic agendas. We need a towering office park between blocks of landmark brownstones and the opening of the Lincoln Tunnel in a region with a huge glut of office space? Sunlight is the best disinfectant to checking shortsighted development and corruption. Thanks WNYC

Feb. 06 2014 12:28 PM
Mia from Manhattan

For anyone curious to know about the period of gentrification in Hoboken, there was this book that came out in the late '80s called "Yuppies Invade My House at Dinnertime"

It's a collection of letters to the editor at a Hoboken newspaper.

Feb. 06 2014 12:19 PM

Ms. Gonzalez, you should be attending the trial that is currently going on in JC where a group of Hoboken developers, professional landlords and the real estate industrial complex of Hoboken are fighting to overturn the voters decision to maintain rent control. This is the second year in a row Hoboken residents have voted to keep rent control and this is the second year in a row that this fake, astro-turfed "property owners" group has done everything they can - including indulging in the longtime Hoboken practice of purchasing votes ($50 a vote) in the federally funded Hoboken Housing Authority (aka: the projects). The tenants group, Hoboken Fair Housing Assn, has been fighting these one-percenters and exploiters of Hoboken's underclass by themselves for the past 5 years with no help from any politicians - including any who have been identified as crusaders who stand up monied developers.

And it's not just Hoboken. It's all over NJ. They've succeeded in Bayonne. They succeeded in Morristown. And they are trying in Neptune. But I think they got caught with their hand in the cookie jar there. Do a search on Ron Simoncini Neptune NJ.

Feb. 06 2014 11:14 AM
Michael Turner

Wasn't On The Waterfront set in Red Hook?

Feb. 06 2014 10:46 AM
Cathy from Hoboken, NJ

Councilman Michael Russo is the son of disgraced former Mayor Anthony Russo. FYI.

Feb. 06 2014 10:10 AM
QJ201 from Hoboken.

"City Council member Michael Russo, who opposes Zimmer politically" whose is the SON of convicted former mayor Anthony Russo...who was given the "gift" of a 1 million dollar beach house from his Dad just before Russo Sr. was indicted...and who also somehow managed to "jump the line" and get into affordable housing...although he owns 1 million dollar beach house. Let's not forget that Russo Sr. also managed to keep getting his health insurance from the city YEARS after he was convicted.

Also missing is Terry Castellano's, Michael Russo's Aunt and Anthony's cousin who was on city council when Russo Sr. was taking bribes.

It's sick really, the Russo's are the Sopranos of Hoboken

Feb. 06 2014 09:54 AM

So what else is new? Have you people never seen the movie "On the Waterfront"? The telling phrase "long history" should have been the clue. This is not news, this is information, this is history. My father worked on the waterfront in the 1950's and it was going strong then. The only difference that I can see is that names have been changed (though they still end in vowels).
No offense, Ms. Gonzalez, but you're from the West Coast and far too young to remember those times, but your supervisors should have suggested that you read the NY Times and the Daily News from those days. It might be very educational for you. I'm interested in news, not history.

Feb. 06 2014 09:27 AM

Hoboken used to be known for real estate corruption and arson, apparently as as tool used both by developers and vengeful tenants. This was especially so in the 70s and 80s.

Google for "Hoboken arson" and read the first NYT article you find, from 1981.

Feb. 06 2014 08:43 AM
HALLERON from Hoboken, NJ

"But in 2004, after Russo left office, he admitted to accepting thousands of dollars in cash bribes from bar owners and city contractors for nearly his entire tenure as mayor."

Since when is a "shakedown" considered a bribe? This makes it sound like bar owners were tempting poor Russo with their big, fat stuffed envelopes, rather than the reality that if you wanted to be left alone to run your business, you had pockets to line first.

Feb. 06 2014 08:24 AM

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