Former Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell’s testimony dominated his corruption trial last week as he took the stand in his own defense. Federal prosecutors allege that he took a $10,000 cash bribe from government witness Solomon Dwek, an FBI informant posing as a developer in an attempt to snare dozens of politicians running for office in 2009. Dwek supposedly wanted to build a hotel in Secaucus.
Ronald Manzo, a friend of Elwell, testified at the beginning of the trial two weeks ago that he gave Elwell $10,000 cash at the bar of La Reggia’s restaurant in Secaucus after receiving it from Dwek. Manzo pleaded guilty last month to receiving money to facilitate a payment to Elwell.
“ I didn’t think it was smart thing to do but I trusted him.” – Dennis Elwell
Issues of authority
Elwell’s testimony last week boiled down to this defense: He did not take the cash in exchange for any possible help with Dwek’s projects, so it was not a bribe.
In his trial last week, Elwell noted that he would not have been able to approve zoning for a hotel because the state’s Meadowlands Commission oversees zoning for 88 percent of the town.
Elwell testified, “In 10 years I’ve been mayor, I’ve never been able to get them [the Meadowlands Commission] to do what they don’t want to do. I couldn’t help [Dwek].”
But Robert Ceberio, former head of the Meadowlands Commission, testified that Elwell was the chairman of the Hackensack Meadowlands Municipal Committee made up of 14 mayors within the area, which can veto a development plan. He said a developer would want a mayor on his or her side, and that mayors could influence the process in various ways. Ceberio said there were times he would try to accommodate Mayor Elwell.
Understanding Dwek’s expressions
Throughout the trial, videotapes have been played of conversations among Dwek, Manzo, and Elwell. In the tapes, Dwek made metaphorical statements such as, “I smooth out the speed bumps if there are speed bumps.” Elwell repeatedly stated that at times he didn’t know what Dwek was referring to when Dwek said things like, “Don’t treat me like the enemy,” “I just don’t want any conflicts,” or “Manzo is my partner.”
When asked what he thought Dwek meant when he said, “expedite my applications,” Elwell testified, “I kept telling him there was nothing the town could do. I didn’t think it was appropriate to answer.”
When asked by the Defense Attorney Thomas Cammarata if Dwek indicated that he wanted any approvals, expediting, or preferential treatment, Elwell replied no. Elwell testified that he was trying to lead Dwek to development sites where he could have a possibility of establishing a hotel.
During a heated cross-examination and many objections by the defense, Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Kanefsky asked Elwell the same questions repeatedly – almost shouting. Kanefsky constantly referred to the $10,000 as 10K “green,” implying cash. Elwell testified that he never heard Dwek say the word “green” when referring to the $10,000.
Regret over taking the money
As their final witness, the government called Thomas Coyle, the FBI agent who arrested Elwell in his home on July 23, 2009. Coyle testified that after being read his rights, Elwell, sitting in his kitchen, said, “I should have never taken the money.” Coyle said that later, at the processing center, Elwell allegedly said, “I should have never taken the f----n' money.”
Coyle said Elwell would say, “that f-----g money” as he sat adjacent to him in a waiting room before going to the U.S. marshal.
Elwell testified that he made those statements out of regret because he realized that morning that the money was being thought of as a bribe, whereas he thought he was holding money for his friend, Ronald Manzo.
Handling the $10,000
Elwell told the defense that when Manzo approached him after their meeting with Dwek at the La Reggia bar, he told Manzo that he could not take cash. “I first asked, why do I have to hold it? Why don’t you hold it?” he said. He said that Manzo had a way to make it acceptable – that he was forming a corporation with Dwek, where they could deposit the cash and issue checks.
Elwell said the conversation moved on to how the money could be used to support electoral candidates and contribute to his civic organization, which had a picnic scheduled for August.
Elwell stated that he put the money in his home safe that same day. Then one week after his arrest on July 29, 2009, he moved it to his father’s safe.
Drumeler: ‘Give it back’
Later on May 28, 2009, Elwell went to Town Administrator David Drumeler and told him Manzo had given him a $10,000 campaign contribution, he testified. According to Elwell, Drumeler replied, “ ‘You can’t take cash. Give it back. You can only accept checks.’ ”
Days later, Elwell told Manzo on the phone that he had to return the money, describing the conversation he had had with Drumeler. Manzo told him to hold onto the money until he formed the corporation with Dwek, Elwell testified.
The prosecution stressed that it would be another 56 days that Elwell kept the cash before being arrested. Kanefsky asked, “What changed after you talked to Drumeler?”
Elwell testified, “Nothing. He [Manzo] asked me to hold it for him.”
At one point, Kanefski told Elwell, “You’ve been in politics for 17 years. You weren’t concerned about taking cash from a middle man?”
Elwell said, “I didn’t think it was smart thing to do but I trusted him. He was a friend. I was holding money for a friend of mine.”
Even if Elwell says he didn’t consider the money a bribe, it could theoretically violate individual campaign donation limits. However, the defense established with Elwell that he could take up to $2,600 in individual contributions and up to $7,800 combined through the Secaucus Democratic Organization for the candidates represented by it. Because Manzo was forming a corporation through which the money would be funneled, it would not exceed the limit, and some money might have been used for Elwell’s civic organization.
The trial continued throughout the rest of the week. The judge anticipates the case will wrap up this week.
Adriana Rambay Fernández may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.