If It's Bribery, This Must Be Hoboken

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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.