Former Hoboken Mayor Peter Cammarano, 33, was a rising star in the Democratic Party 14 months ago – but thanks to an FBI corruption sting last July, “He has been absolutely unemployed … [he’s] lost his marriage and been separated from his child,” said defense attorney Joseph Hayden on Thursday.
Hayden and Cammarano appeared in U.S. District Court in Newark to find out the ex-mayor’s sentence, four months after Cammarano pleaded guilty to accepting $25,000 in illegal campaign contributions from an FBI informant who posed as a real estate developer.
The developer, Solomon Dwek, helped the FBI arrest 43 public officials and religious leaders in the Tri-State Area last summer, many of whom were running for election and allegedly accepted cash for their campaigns in exchange for a promise to help Dwek with his developments.
Several of those officials have since pleaded guilty, with only one prominent ex-official, former Assemblyman Louis Manzo, calling into question the methods used in the sting operation.
At Thursday’s hearing before Judge Jose Linares, Hayden pleaded for understanding in the sentencing of the former mayor and city councilman.
He mentioned Cammarano’s difficult childhood and claimed that Cammarano, who grew up in North Jersey, had a physically and emotionally abusive father. He said that these were potential indirect mitigating factors that led to Cammarano’s “catastrophic lapse of judgment.”
Hayden also described Cammarano as a campaign fundraising “novice” (although Cammarano’s background is as an election attorney). He said Cammarano committed a serious crime during the heat of a political campaign.
Hayden noted that Cammarano’s campaign had been carrying a large amount of debt at the time that he accepted some of the donations.
However, the pleas may contrast with the cocky statements Cammarano made on FBI tapes, including one remark that people working against his campaign would be ground “into powder,” and another comment about how easy it would be for him to win his election.
Cammarano was a city councilman last June when he beat out fellow Councilperson Dawn Zimmer for the mayor’s slot. Three weeks after taking office, he was arrested. Zimmer replaced him and eventually won the seat outright this past November.
Cammarano will report to prison on Sept. 20. His attorney asked the judge to consider Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary in Pennsylvania.
On Thursday, Linares called the proceedings to order and reiterated several of the points negotiated during Cammarano’s April guilty plea, among them a two-level reduction in punishment due to Cammarano’s assistance with the investigation. Both Hayden and U.S. Attorney Brian Howe described the assistance as “above and beyond even the acceptance of responsibility.”
Hayden then addressed the court. He said that apart from this one indiscretion, Cammarano has lived an exemplary life and “now his life is in shambles.”
Hayden stressed that Cammarano blames no one but himself for the predicament he is in, and argued that Cammarano had begun serving his sentence the day he was arrested.
Hayden said Cammarano has had his license to practice law suspended in New Jersey, has been stricken from practicing in New York State and, per the plea deal, has forfeited the right to ever hold public office again.
Hayden noted that his marriage was over and that it affected his relationship with his 3-year-old daughter, whom Hayden described as “the love of his [Cammarano’s] life.”
Cammarano also has an older child with a former high school sweetheart.
Hayden told the court that Cammarano accepted two $5,000 contributions after being sworn in as mayor and that approximately $19,000 in checks written by the campaign had bounced. He emphasized that the funds went directly to the campaign, not Cammarano’s personal accounts.
Finally, Hayden spoke of Cammarano’s recent work at St. Matthew Trinity Lutheran Church’s Lunchtime Ministry, where he said Cammarano has volunteered three days a week for the last nine months.
With the judge’s permission, Cammarano rose from behind the defense table, walked to the podium, and made a brief 50-second statement.
“It’s with a profound regret that I stand before this court today,” Cammarano began. “I have admitted to wrongdoing and criminal conduct in this case, and, as my lawyer has stated, I truly believe I have no one to blame but myself in this situation and for my conduct in this case.”
“I do want to take the opportunity to apologize for the disappointment I’ve caused, because I know that I’ve let down friends and family, my supporters and the people in the city of Hoboken,” Cammarano said. He closed by declaring, “I’ll spend the rest of my days, whatever comes, doing the best that I can to make amends for my conduct in this case.”
U.S. Attorney: Not so fast
But U.S. Attorney Howe said that Hayden’s point about Cammarano’s “novice” status wasn’t exactly right. He said Cammarano, by his own admission, was involved in and around political campaigns since the age of 15, was a prominent election attorney, and can’t claim mere ignorance as the reason for his crime.
“He accepted $25,000 in bribes for his official influence,” said Howe. “He was as well equipped as anyone to know what he was doing was wrong.”
Howe argued that it was incumbent upon the judge to make his sentence in accordance with the plea agreement guideline of 24-30 months, because criminal behavior like Cammarano’s has consequences for “political candidates who play by the rules,” and deters “good people from entering public service.”
Then Linares spoke.
“He was clearly one of the rising stars of the political spectrum of New Jersey,” Linares said, adding that “basic greed” seemed to motivate the commission of Cammarano’s crime.
Linares then sentenced Cammarano to a term of 24 months in a federal prison, plus another 24 months of “supervised release” during which Cammarano will be subject to drug tests and prohibited from possessing a firearm after he completes his sentence.
The judge ordered Cammarano to return the $25,000 and to “refrain from seeking or holding political office, elected or otherwise” for the rest of his life.
Before leaving the courthouse, Hayden made some brief remarks to the media, but answered no questions. He said: “Peter Cammarano made a catastrophic mistake. He has accepted responsibility for his mistake by pleading guilty, he will accept the punishment for his mistake by serving his sentence, and then he will rebuild his life and he will ultimately make positive contributions to society.”
Moments later, Cammarano and Hayden emerged from the courthouse, the former mayor carrying a copy of T.J. Stiles’s The First Tycoon, a biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt which won a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award.
As the two men made their way to the parking lot, a throng of reporters followed along taking pictures and asking Cammarano for comment, but he said nothing. Hayden and Cammarano then entered a Kia SUV and drove off.
Residents commend, criticize sentencing
A handful of residents attended the sentencing, including Cammarano supporters Margaret O’Brien and Patricia Waiters. Outside the courthouse, O’Brien could be heard telling news reporters that she still considers Cammarano a “hero.”
“Peter Cammarano is my friend for life,” O’Brien said in a later inteview. “No matter where he is or what he’s doing, I love him. I love his baby daughter.”
O’Brien who added that she thought the sentence should have been only one year and that she hopes Cammarano will appeal the decision. However, Hayden said that he would not appeal the decision.
Hoboken resident Forde Prigot was in the courtroom for the sentencing and said Cammarano got off easy. Prigot theorized that this debacle was a case of recent history repeating itself.
“Perhaps if [former Hoboken Mayor] Anthony Russo had gotten a stiffer sentence, it would’ve dissuaded people from thinking about taking bribes in the future,” Prigot said.
Russo, who served two terms in office in the 1990s, went to jail for taking bribes from a city contractor.
“I’m hoping that Cammarano has learned his lesson, but I’m not sure that this has been a warning shot,” Prigot said of the two-year sentence. “Fifty percent of the last four mayors from Hoboken are going to prison for bribery.” – AT