If Lou Manzo considers himself a ruined man, he sure doesn’t talk like it. The former insurance businessman, state assemblyman, perennial mayoral candidate, one-time defendant, and nemesis of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Newark talks like a winning quarterback after a Super Bowl victory.
As one of 44 public officials and religious leaders arrested on July 23, 2009, in a massive federal sting operation known as Operation Bid Rig III, Manzo was immediately tagged as another corrupt Hudson County pol. In the weeks and months following the arrests, a public narrative of the sting began to unfold. Several high profile officials pleaded guilty – after months of maintaining their innocence – admitting that they did indeed meet with a federal cooperating witness and took cash in exchange for political favors.
‘There is no individual on the face of the planet that has the ability to withstand a prosecution from the federal government.’ – Lou Manzo
The defense strategy worked. A federal judge ruled that since Manzo was not a public official at the time he allegedly met with the government informant, he had no political favors to sell and charges against him were dismissed.
Even though Manzo won, however, he lost a lot in the process. The victory came with serious personal, professional, and financial sacrifices. But the experience has turned him into something of a crusader for the U.S. Constitution and for the rights of people facing charges from what Manzo calls over zealous federal prosecutors. Because he believes a lazy media and apathetic public helped create the climate that allowed the Bid Rig investigation to ruin the lives of many people – some of whom have been found not guilty – he’s taking his anger directly to the community.
On Tuesday, June 19, Manzo will give a talk titled “A Movement for Justice to Safeguard Civil Rights” at the Miller Branch Library at 489 Bergen Ave. The talk begins at 7 p.m.
A path not chosen
“This isn’t a path I chose. I feel like this is a path that was forced on me,” said Manzo. “Never in my dreams did I think I would be going through something like this. But since this is where I am now, I’m going to call attention to what I think is wrong with our justice system.”
Since his arrest, Manzo said he has been unable to find work and has essentially gone into a kind of forced early retirement. Once the owner of an insurance business, he said it cost him $125,000 to defend himself against the charges.
“This made me open my eyes to the other people that simply pled guilty, not only in this instance, but in other instances, simply to avoid the consequences of a lengthy defense,” said Manzo, admitting that he was fortunate to have an attorney who believed in his case. But to pay for his defense and support himself financially after his arrest, Manzo said he was forced to sell his business and home and also borrowed what money he could.
“I’ll never recover from this financially. I don’t foresee being able to recover.”
In the weeks following the July 2009 arrests, Manzo tried unsuccessfully to convince other defendants to band together and fight the charges against them.
“The U.S. Attorney’s office says, ‘Manzo makes these allegations, but look at all these people that pled guilty.’ But what people don’t realize is the enormous pressure they bring down to bear on an individual,” said Manzo. “There is no individual on the face of the planet that has the ability to withstand a prosecution from the federal government.”
A new direction
With his professional and political life over, Manzo is now turning his attention to educating the public about the alleged dangers of unchecked political power and its impact on the civil rights of ordinary people. Next Tuesday’s appearance at Miller Branch Library is part of his new path. He is also completing a book that he hopes to sell to a major publishing house soon.
In addition to being critical of federal prosecutors, Manzo is also critical of the media, which he maintains ignored many aspects of the Bid Rig III investigation, which, he said, only obscured important details from the public.
“The media not only missed an opportunity to investigate some of this, they missed an obligation,” he said. “This was a complex sting. But when I started to put out the information that we had uncovered from our investigation, and from discovery information, it showed clear corruption in the U.S. Attorney’s office.
“The real eye opener was when I revealed that many of the attorneys who had been working and investigating the case made contributions to Christie’s campaign and they violated their obligations to recuse themselves from the case,” he said. “We dug up a Christie speech in February 2009 where he’s basically saying that he was in constant contact with these same attorneys in the U.S. Attorney’s Office and promising that he would give them jobs in Trenton. These conflicts of interest are not allowed. I spoon fed this information to the media and they ignored this story. They missed the boat.”
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.