'This feels like hell' Janiszewski testifies against Davila-Colon - but his administration is what's really on trial
by Al Sullivan Reporter senior staff writer
Jun 06, 2003 | 752 views | 0 0 comments | 2 2 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Former Hudson County Executive Robert Janiszewski stood alone outside the witness box, his hands folded before him like a dutiful student awaiting his next assignment. His hair and mustache had grown whiter since his last official public appearance as Hudson County executive in August, 2001. His position as the U.S. Attorney's star witness left him open to questions about his 14-year reign - particularly his self-admitted corruption that included numerous instances of bribe-taking.

While to many observers, Janiszewski looked calm, up close the cool demeanor evaporated.

During a brief intermission, he admitted the impact of the questioning.

"This feels like hell," he said, and later added, "But I can only tell the truth."

He's been telling a lot over the past week and a half.

Janiszewski has been a witness in the extortion trial of current County Freeholder Nidia Davila-Colon, claiming Davila-Colon helped pass bribes to him from psychiatrist Dr. Oscar Sandoval, who presumably got $2 million in county contracts with Janiszewski's help. In trying to ascertain whether Janiszewski is telling the truth, Davila-Colon's defense attorneys have asked him about other possible instances of corruption during his reign as the county's chief executive - and he has been naming names in an alleged system of corruption that he says plagued his administration from nearly the day he took county office in January, 1988.

Despite his comment Wednesday about telling the truth, Janiszewski earlier had told the court that he had found it "extremely hard to tell the truth" after so many years of deception.

Last week, defense attorney Peter Willis pressed hard for additional details and admissions beyond the handful of names Janiszewski has offered.

Janiszewski, now 58, served six years in the state assembly in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In 1988 he became the Hudson County Executive, and in 1992, he served as Bill Clinton's state campaign co-chairman, and in numerous other political and governmental posts. Janiszewski was born and raised in Jersey City, went to St. Joseph's Elementary School in Jersey City, and graduated from St. Michael's High School in Union City. He received his B.A. and Masters in social sciences from Jersey City State College. For a while, he taught in Hudson County Community College and Westwood High School.

For those witnessing firsthand the Davila-Colon trial, the testimony of the man whom politicos called "Bobby J" has been an enlightening experience, a view of the most powerful political figure in Hudson County since John V. Kenny, laying bare how Hudson County operated behind the scenes.

While Janiszewski was ostensibly the chief witness in the trial in which Davila-Colon has been accused of passing bribes, this has been the first opportunity for the public to see and hear Janiszewski's account of events that led up to his own apprehension by federal authorities on Nov. 17, 2000, and his eventual pleading guilty to charges of extortion and tax evasion.

His testimony lasted for four days and gave specific details to charges that have hung over Davila-Colon since October. (Davila-Colon was nevertheless re-elected to her freeholder seat the following month.)

In his own brief appearance before the federal court last October to plead guilty to charges against him, Janiszewski named Davila-Colon as a conduit for bribes. The bribes, he said, came from Dr. Sandoval, who was dating Davila-Colon (see sidebar). They were meant to help Sandoval acquire and continue contracts to provide psychiatric services to the County Adult Correctional Facility in Kearny, the Hudson County Juvenile Detention Center in Secaucus, and the County Psychiatric facility at the Meadowview Hospital Campus in Secaucus.

Sandoval eventually began cooperating with federal authorities who sought to catch Janiszewski in the act of taking bribes. Sources have said that authorities wanted to turn Janiszewski against more powerful contractors, developers and/or politicians who may have given him bribes. But thusfar, the only people to have been charged have been Janiszewski and Davila-Colon, the latter of whom appears not to have even profited financially from the exchanges.

How far did it go?

In his four days of testimony and cross-examination by Willis, a startling picture of Hudson County corruption emerged.

Janiszewski, whom Willis called "a professional politician and speaker," seemed to dominate the courtroom with his interpretation of facts. While Willis struggled to defend his client against the charges brought against her, he and Janiszewski dueled over details and definitions.

In courtroom clashes that would have made author John Grisham proud, Willis prodded at Janiszewski's professed ignorance of profits and deals. Willis sought to connect him with a variety of even more prominent statewide figures close to the governor for whom Janiszewski might have swung deals. In one such exchange, Willis recounted a dinner in Jersey City with Janiszewski, politically connected Attorney Paul Weiner, and an unnamed vendor.

"Didn't you get up to go to the bathroom so that Mr. Wiener could finalize the details of a deal?" Willis asked.

"I don't remember the dinner you're referring to," Janiszewski countered, noting he had had many dinners with Weiner because they were close friends, but none to influence any kind of deal. "If I did get up to go to the bathroom, it was probably because I had to go to the bathroom."

Willis seemed determined to catch him in a lie and expand upon what appeared to be a culture of corruption not just in Hudson County but elsewhere in the state. Janiszewski admitted that giving a portion of the county's labor contract to Weiner's firm, Weiner-Lesniak, had "a political flavor" since Weiner and his partner state Senator Raymond Lesniak were very well connected in state political circles. But Janiszewski stopped short of saying they did anything wrong.

"He tried to trip me up," Janiszewski said outside the court later. "But I can only tell him the truth."

When did the corruption start?

In seeking to determine at what point Janiszewski became corrupted, Willis asked if Janiszewski ever took gifts or bribes during the six years as a state assemblyman (1977 to 1983). Janiszewski said no.

"And yet, the moment you became county executive, you began taking bribes?" Willis asked.

"Well, not right away," Janiszewski said. "But within the first year."

"What happened? What made you suddenly decide to take bribes?" Willis asked, a question that did not really get answered, although Janiszewski did say the first bribe came from the county auditor at the time, the late Sam Klein, and was posed as a campaign contribution.

"But I knew it was a bribe," Janiszewski said, leading to questions to how Janiszewski knew whether someone was bribing him or not.

But Janiszewski's testimony seemed to contradict statements made when he pleaded guilty last October. At the time, he said he had resisted bribes for years, but could not resist those offered by Sandoval. Yet, during his four days on the stand in the Davila-Colon trial, Janiszewski admitted taking bribes since 1988 or 1989. He said that in nearly every case, someone first approached him or an intermediary with an offer.

"Are you saying that you gave no indication that you wanted the bribes?" Willis asked him.

"I'm saying that people understood it and gave me the bribe," Janiszewski answered.

Giving up old friends

In the conflict with Willis, Janiszewski painted himself as the political and governmental leader of Hudson County who allowed powerful forces to manipulate him into providing them with opportunities for great wealth - behind-the-scenes consultants such as his oldest and one-time best friend, Paul Byrne. While Janiszewski admitted to profiting from some of those activities, his share of the wealth amounted to pocket change compared to the flow of money these consultants made in his name, Janiszewski claimed.

While Willis tried to steer Janiszewski into admitting that he had been cheated by his partners in illegal ventures with people like Paul Byrne walking away with millions while Janiszewski got peanuts, Janiszewski's own defense painted a kind of comic tragic character.

Under this odd depiction, Janiszewski came across as a relatively inept political figure seduced into running for county executive, ignorant of the criminal subculture until he was in office. Even then, Janiszewski's handlers implied, he was blissfully ignorant of the massive amounts of money being exchanged, as power brokers used his name to award contracts and collect broker fees.

Willis returned again and again to deals supposedly brokered by Byrne, and how much or how little Janiszewski knew about Byrne's activities.

"Are you saying people like Paul Byrne just gave you money without telling you what it was for?" Willis asked. "That's right," Janiszewski said. "At first. Later I learned more."

But Janiszewski refuted suggestions that he felt left out of the profit-making and turned against his boyhood friend, Byrne, because Byrne had not divvied up the profits evenly.

"I promised to tell the truth," Janiszewski told Willis during the cross-examination. "And that's what I've done."

"You gave up your lifelong friend?" Willis asked.

Janiszewski, silent for a moment, finally said, "I did."

The trial is expected to conclude at the end of this coming week, and other evidence is expected to be presented, as well as testimony from Sandoval and Davila-Colon.

The anatomy of a crime

You could hear the joy in the background of the tape played in the courtroom - people laughing, music playing, hundreds of voices all talking at the same time, asking about drinks or greeting each other in the distance.

The tape, recorded by the FBI on Sept. 15, 1999 at an outdoor Hudson County political fund-raiser, allegedly caught snatches of more incriminating conversations, and the alleged exchange of a $5,000 bribe from Dr. Oscar Sandoval to then-County Executive Robert Janiszewski.

Although once touted as among only four such exchanges all taking place in 1999 and 2000, the tape followed testimony by Janiszewski that such exchanges had taken place before, as far back as 1994, and involved many thousands of dollars.

Janiszewski testified that he had received two payments for a total $15,000 from Sandoval through his best friend Paul Byrne in 1994, and then two more payments through Davila-Colon in 1995.

Although federal investigators apparently began probes as early as 1995, the charges Janiszewski pled guilty to occurred in 1999 into 2000 at a time when his relationship is Sandoval had, as he put it, "grown strained." Janiszewski said that Sandoval wanted additional concessions in the contracts to provide psychiatric services to several county institutions, and Janiszewski resisted awarding the two-year contract, asking Sandoval to raise the bribe from $30,000 to $40,000.

In sworn testimony seeking to incriminate Freeholder Nidia Davila-Colon, Janiszewski outlined a series of payoffs that helped define Janiszewski's career and could send Davila-Colon to jail.

"I've done nothing wrong," Davila-Colon said before the trial Wednesday morning. "Nobody has me on tape exchanging anything with anybody."

Davila-Colon has pleaded not guilty to charges of fraud and attempted extortion. Sandoval has not been charged.

While Davila-Colon's attorney Peter Willis said envelopes may or may not have been exchanged, he questions the government's contention that his client knew they contained bribe money.

Indeed, while a different videotape, taken by FBI at a Hudson County Democratic Organization fund-raiser in late Sept. 1999, showed Davila-Colon walking with Janiszewski, the tape stopped short of showing an actual exchange of cash.

At some point, Sandoval became a cooperating agent for federal authorities.

Eventually he arranged for an exchange on Nov. 17, 2000 in Atlantic City, at which point Janiszewski was taken into custody. Janiszewski said during the trial last week that federal investigators found $88,000 in various envelopes in Janiszewski's home and $7,200 in his county government office. Some of the cash had been lying around for years, dipped into on occasion for travel expenses and gift buying, Janiszewski said.

Davila-Colon, during pre-trial interview, said 1999 was a tough year emotionally. Her mother had been diagnosed with a terminal illness from which she would die before the end of the year.

In love with Dr. Sandoval, Colon-Davila had made no attempt to hide her affection for him.

"I did not know he was still living with his wife," she said. "He was supposed to get a divorce, and we were to get married."

Sandoval, who is scheduled to appear as a witness some time within the next week, lived a rather exotic life style, Janiszewski said - sometimes wearing mink coats and driving a Bentley automobile.

Although Janiszewski called Sandoval "annoying" and Wills painted him as an opportunist who may have used his client to access Janiszewski, Davila-Colon said she is less certain about her feelings.

"I've forgiven him," she said of Sandoval, "but I'm not sure I can forget."

Sandoval, whose offices are in Union City, was not available for comment.

Byrne responds to Janiszewski's claims; says he was consultant to Barry

Political consultant Paul Byrne, in an interview last week, did not disguise the fact that testimony of his former best friend, former County Executive Robert Janiszewski, made him feel betrayed.

"We go back to kindergarten together," he said. "We were altar boys together in St. Joe's. That's 52 years we've known each other."

Janiszewski, in testifying as a government witness against Hudson County Freeholder Nidia Davila-Colon for federal corruption charges, defined Byrne as a "consultant" who did business behind the scenes, often without Janiszewski's knowledge, and at times served as a conduit for bribes to Janiszewski.

In testimony given to the court last week, Janiszewski claimed Byrne was among a handful of Hudson County vendors who regularly gave him bribes. In cross-examination by Davila-Colon's attorney Peter Willis, Janiszewski agreed with the term "bag man" as a fitting description of Byrne's relationship.

"I am angry," Byrne said last week. "I don't remember a time when I didn't know him. We lived one block from each other. My sister babysat both of us when we were young. I ate over his house three times a week; he ate over my house three times a week."

Byrne did not reply to the list of allegations that included his brokering various deals or shifting millions of dollars into a Canadian bank, but did say that the $2,000 a year bribe Janiszewski claimed Byrne gave him out of his own pocket was ludicrous.

"I spent more than $5,000 a year taking him out to dinner," Byrne said.

While federal authorities have not brought charges against Byrne nor told him he is a target of an investigation, the accusations made in court against him are serious and could eventually lead to charges if pursued.

U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie, when approached with the question of possible charges being brought against the handful of vendors named by Janiszewski, declined to comment. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Clark, who is prosecuting Davila-Colon, said he could not comment under on the case under orders from the presiding judge, and would not speculate on possible further charges.

"I'm the person that got Bobby into politics," Byrne said. "When Mayor Smith wanted someone to run for state assembly, I brought up Bobby's name."

Byrne said he had advised Janiszewski on political matters at various points, even acted as his agent for policy meetings and such.

"This doesn't make any sense," he said.

Byrne: I was consultant to developer

Among the more prominent people accused by Janiszewski of having given him bribes has been Hoboken-based developer Joseph Barry of the Applied Companies, who has built luxury units on the Hoboken and Jersey City waterfront as well as low-income affordable housing in Hoboken. Janiszewski said that he got $309,000 in bribes over the years from Barry, much of it coming through Byrne. He said that Barry gave him some bribes personally, and was hoping for assistance in securing low-interest federal loans.

Byrne said Thursday morning that he was a paid consultant for Applied Housing, and that he got an agreed-upon salary from Barry for Byrne's services.

"I got everything by check from the Applied Companies," Byrne said. "Joe Barry and I had a long-standing business relationship and I'm proud of that fact."

(Barry also founded and was the majority owner of the Hudson Reporter newspaper group from 1983 to 1999, when he sold the paper to his two partners.)

Byrne, a political consultant, said he was paid for his help in brokering deals.

"The reason I can reach the highest level of government is because people trust me," Byrne said.

Byrne called Janiszewski's claims "Bobby J's get-out-of-jail free ticket." He also said that Janiszewski "knew everything that was going on with everyone."

Regarding another deal that came under scrutiny, a much-criticized deal with a company called Progressive Health Care to take over operations of the county's two hospitals, Byrne said he brokered that deal but was as much a victim of Progressive's bankruptcy as the county. -Al Sullivan
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