As the second anniversary of the notorious 2009 federal sting operation into statewide political corruption approaches, it’s debatable whether the 46 arrests have had a lasting effect on Hudson County politics.
Charges were brought, pay-to-play laws have been passed, several political careers were destroyed, the Hudson County Democratic Organization is still reeling, and the man who was U.S. attorney during the investigation went on to be elected governor.
But beneath the surface, some would argue, it’s still business as usual.
Perhaps a big lesson learned is that political corruption goes down better with a good meal. Preferably at an old fashioned Jersey diner.
Of the officials who were found (or pleaded) guilty to either getting a payment or conspiring to get payments in the scandal – Mariano Vega, Guy Catrillo, Leona Beldini, Ronald Manzo, Peter Cammarano, Edward Cheatam, Jimmy King, Dennis Elwell – perhaps the real winners were the handful of restaurants selected for cooperating government witness Solomon Dwek to meet his targets.
Appetite for corruption
Born into a pious Jewish family in Israel, Monmouth County businessman Solomon Dwek was arrested in 2006 for a $50 million bank fraud charge, for which he has still not been sentenced. The FBI recruited him as an informant.
His task was to meet with public officials and mayors, usually those running for office, and offer them money in exchange for favoritism on development deals. He used an alias during these meetings.
He ultimately lost his family, his friends, and his community – but not his appetite.
In honor of the sting’s upcoming anniversary, here is a look at the losers in the scandal (the officials) and winners (the restaurants).
A diner town
Since a Bayonne man, Jerry O’Mahony, is credited as one of the creators of the classic roadside diner, it stands to reason that Bayonne would have its fair share of diners today.
And since federal authorities decided to use local diners throughout Hudson County in their successful corruption sting, it would also make sense that diners in Bayonne would be among those the feds picked when using Solomon Dwek as an informant to attempt to bribe public officials.
Of the many diners and other eateries selected for these meetings, Dwek met with his intended targets in two of the most prominent: The Broadway Diner near 55th Street and the Light House Diner near 31st Street.
Ironically, some diners feel slighted by the feds for failing to set up bribe attempts in their establishments, since the well-publicized arrests brought notoriety to the businesses.
By accident, former Assemblyman Anthony Chiappone – whose office shared the parking lot with the Light House – stumbled into the middle of a meeting between Dwek, political operative Ron Manzo, and political consultant Jack Shaw on April 23, 2009. It was in this parking lot that Manzo took a $10,000 bribe from Dwek.
Located at the corner of 31st Street and Broadway, the Light House is a classic diner, which means that you can get almost anything for a reasonable price. But it is best known for its homemade soups, and it is a popular place for lunch, partly because of its location near Bayonne Medical Center and the central shopping district.
Although boasting sandwiches and burgers, the Light House has a solid dinner menu, and people can eat well for $20 or less.
While also providing similarly priced menu items, The Broadway Diner has a menu as thick as a book.
“We call it the Bible,” said one of the waitresses during a recent visit.
The Broadway Diner is often called The Chandelier because the catering hall is physically connected to the diner and has the same owner. It was here that Dwek unsuccessfully tried to lure in current Assemblyman and Bayonne Democratic party leader Jason O’Donnell, who was then working as the director of municipal services for the city of Bayonne.
O’Donnell later said Dwek didn’t seem legitimate to him, but agreed to a second meeting at the Chart House in Weehawken.
Because of its location, the Broadway Diner serves a large commuter crowd and is a popular meeting place for lawyers and politicians. It’s rare that an hour of the day goes by when some prominent citizen isn’t seated in one of its booths.
The restaurant offers a number of specials, including meatless breakfast specials that include coffee or tea, for about $5. But it is most famous for its pancakes, which its menu not-so-modestly calls the world’s best.
In the end, it might have been better for the politicians if they had simply ordered up a slice of humble pie. – Al Sullivan
Powder to the people! And no, not powdered sugar
Motorists entering uptown Hoboken often pass by the Malibu Diner on 14th Street, a cozy spot with comfort food where Dwek held meetings with former Hoboken Mayor Peter Cammarano and former Hoboken Councilman Michael Schaffer, among others, in the spring of 2009.
Cammarano, a councilman, was running for mayor against councilwomen Beth Mason and Dawn Zimmer.
The now notorious meetings have made the Malibu a legend, for it was at this diner that Cammarano – already becoming known for his perceived arrogance – told Dwek that those who didn’t support him would be “ground into powder.”
The young mayor wasn’t even in office a month when he was arrested on July 23, 2009 – prompting a new slew of jokes about the depths of New Jersey corruption.
In the days following his arrest, when Cammarano resisted calls to resign from office, residents shouted “powder to the people!” at protests outside of City Hall.
Maybe the comment was influenced by the powdered sugar toppings on Malibu’s cakes, which were recently nominated as “Best Cakes and Pies” in a statewide restaurant contest.
Cammarano, Dwek, and Schaffer are rumored to have sat in a corner booth just east of the diner’s bar area, directly under a surveillance camera but out of its sights. However, the FBI frequently wired Dwek so that he could capture video and audio recordings of meetings with officials.
Part of the conversation cited in the FBI complaint against Cammarano involved Dwek speaking about a fictitious apartment building he claimed to own on Hudson Street.
“Maybe there’s an opportunity to go higher, add some density, go wider,” Dwek said to Cammarano, according to the complaint. “I’ll give the, uh, uh, Mike [Schaffer], the, the ten thousand, uh, you know, green.”
In this case, Dwek wasn’t referring to the Malibu’s generous array of salads (which run between $8.50 and $13.75). But salads were often Dwek’s meal of choice at his meetings with Hudson County public officials, possibly because he had several such meetings a day. Or maybe just because he was eating on an FBI budget.
His FBI handlers probably would not have liked him to order the diner’s Broiled Seafood Combination (priced at $23.95).
Cammarano ultimately resigned under pressure. The former rising star of the Democratic party pleaded guilty to accepting $25,000 in “illicit cash campaign contributions” in April 2010, and was sentenced to two years in prison last July. His official charge was for conspiracy to commit extortion.
Cammarano recently had his sentence reduced, and will be released on March 11, 2012 from Lewisburg Federal Prison in Pennsylvania.
Schaffer, who acted as the middleman between Dwek and Cammarano, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit extortion. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison and is serving his time in a federal medical center in Massachusetts.
Meanwhile, Dwek deviated from his salad and ordered a chocolate bread pudding at the Lighthorse Tavern in Jersey City when he met with another Hoboken councilman who ultimately did not take any money.
And what of the Malibu? Jersey City politicos Ronald Manzo, Edward Cheatam, and Jack Shaw also met Dwek at the diner. It was there that Dwek was recorded by the FBI asking Manzo, while squeezing a lemon into his water, “So how was good old Dennis,” referring to Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell. “Was he happy with the green?”
Earlier this month, the tape was showed to a jury during Elwell’s corruption trial. – Ray Smith
I’ll have the two-way street, paved road, no speed bumps
“I smooth out the speed bumps, if there are speed bumps,” Dwek told Dennis Elwell at a meeting at La Reggia, an Italian restaurant located in Secaucus.
Luckily, the road outside La Reggia doesn’t have any speed bumps. Instead, it’s a paved, two-way street, two characteristics Dwek appreciated when negotiating his fake real estate deals with politicians.
During his corruption trial earlier this month, Elwell testified that he accepted $10,000 in cash from his friend, political associate Ronald Manzo, who had received the money from Dwek in La Reggia’s parking lot and passed it to Elwell at the bar.
Tucked away on a remote side road near a fork in Route 3, La Reggia offers a warm and casual gathering space inside the Meadowlands Hotel. Perhaps Manzo was drawn to the large neon red “M” that can be seen from a distance, or maybe he chose the spot for its $8.95 daily buffet lunch special.
Then again, for a man who had already received $27,500 from Dwek in corrupt payments, he could afford to go for the higher-priced Farfalle con Gamberi e Zucchini ($17) or the Bistecca alla Fiorentina with creamy spinach and crispy onions ($30).
At the eatery, Italian opera music plays in the background, which sets the mood for a romantic dinner, but adds a different flavor when heard on the FBI videotapes.
“I’m here. You’re here. We’ll help each other,” said Dwek to Elwell at their lunch meeting. Speaking through mouthfuls of food, the men can be heard on the videotape discussing a hotel Dwek said he wanted to build in Secaucus.
The Secaucus mayor told Dwek the project wouldn’t be a heavy lift – much like the shrimp salad one of the men ordered.
“I’m no Democrat. I’m no Republican. No independent. My party is the green party,” said Dwek, amid laughter.
On July 6, a federal jury acquitted Elwell of conspiracy to commit extortion and attempted extortion, but convicted him on bribery.
Manzo had pleaded guilty in May to conspiracy to commit extortion, and then testified against his former friend. – Adriana Rambay Fernández
City for sale
It’s possible that Leona Beldini saw dollar signs when the quirky Dwek approached Jersey City officials with a plan to build a condo development on Garfield Avenue.
A real estate agent by profession and one of the city’s deputy mayors, the then 73-year-old Beldini was a confidant to Mayor Jerramiah Healy and served as the treasurer for his 2009 re-election campaign.
In at least one phone conversation that was taped by the FBI, Beldini told political consultant Jack Shaw that she wanted to be the real estate broker for Dwek’s Garfield Avenue project. She added that she’d be willing to talk to a high level city zoning official about the project on Dwek’s behalf. Three days after this phone conversation Shaw would pass along these comments to Dwek over a lunch at Jersey City’s Brownstone Diner.
Beldini met personally with Dwek at least four times in Jersey City, mostly at the Brownstone, a restaurant known for its silver dollar buttermilk pancakes. According to the diner’s menu, “there are no rules when it comes to pancakes.”
Similarly, Beldini apparently thought there were no rules when it came to campaign finance law.
In her 2009 indictment prosecutors stated that, “Beldini…confirmed that she…had received the $10,000 that [Dwek] previously provided and explained that it had gone into a joint election committee fund, but the money would be ‘funneled back into’ Healy’s re-election committee.”
“I can definitely help you get through a lot of red tape,” Beldini told Dwek at one of their Brownstone get-togethers, according to the indictment.
At another meeting Dwek told Beldini that he would give another $10,000 before the mayoral election and make a third $10,000 contribution after Election Day.
In April 2009, and then again in May, Shaw and Jersey City Housing Authority Commissioner Edward Cheatam allegedly gave Beldini – or had other people give her – checks in the amounts of $2,500 to Healy’s re-election campaign. (Cheatam pleaded guilty to accepting bribes in September 2009.)
In February 2010 a federal jury acquitted Beldini of one count of bribery, conspiracy to commit extortion under color of official right, and extortion. She was found guilty of two counts of bribery. In June of last year Beldini was sentenced to 36 months in prison and ordered to pay a $30,000 fine. She is currently appealing her conviction.
Shaw was found dead in his Jersey City apartment days after his July 23, 2009 arrest. His death was ruled a suicide. – E. Assata Wright
Off the charts
FBI videos show Solomon Dwek buttering a roll at the Chart House, an upscale restaurant on the Weehawken waterfront. The government informant was nothing if not adept at buttering up – City Council hopefuls, mayoral candidates, political operatives…and rolls.
He buttered the roll during a meeting with Beldini, who perhaps was hankering for a lobster dinner after all of those pancake breakfasts.
The pair had a lot of items to choose from, but considering Dwek was surfing for some turf in Jersey City, they might have ordered New Wave Surf and Turf. It contains tender short ribs with a Cabernet demi-glace, paired with a choice of seared scallops in ginger soy sauce or grilled citrus salmon and served with Yukon Gold mashed potatoes.
The signature dessert of Hot Chocolate Lava Cake, a rich chocolate cake with molten center, is made with Godiva liqueur. Served warm, topped with chocolate sauce, Heath bar crunch, and vanilla ice cream, it might have been ideal for Dwek, whose volcanic eruption of odd behavior may have sent some of the politicians rushing for some fresh air, which the Chart House also provides. – Santo Sanabria
Pork rolls and cash bribes
The setting: North Bergen’s Coach House restaurant, a landmark diner that opened in the late 1930s.
The players: Dwek – posing as developer David Esenbach, who hoped to build a condominium complex on a Garfield Avenue site in Jersey City – and Jimmy King and Michael Manzo, two Jersey City Council candidates.
At the Coach House Dwek offered both King and Manzo cash bribes that would supposedly go toward their campaigns.
“What I want to do is, maybe, I’ll give you $5,000 to start,” Dwek said to King, according to a book about the scandal, “The Jersey Sting.”
Shortly thereafter, Dwek offered Manzo the same proposition. “So, you know, if it’s okay with you, you know, maybe I’ll do $5,000 and another five after the election,” said Dwek.
The Coach House is not a place known for its kosher menu. In fact, it’s a place where one can get a pork roll and a cup of coffee for under $10. But the large menu also includes a $17.95 prime rib, a $21.95 seafood platter with baby lobster tails, flounder, scallops, and shrimp and eggs. It’s located near Jersey City and Union City and has plenty of private spots to hold a conversation.
Ultimately, Manzo and King each pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit extortion. – Stephen LaMarca
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