A comment made to the Hudson Reporter three years ago during the groundbreaking of a proposed new police station for Marion Gardens apparently led to an investigation that revealed then Police Chief Phil Zacche was not showing up for Housing Authority security duties even though he was being paid.
This past Jan. 5, Zacche, who retired as police chief last April, admitted collecting thousands of dollars inappropriately from the Jersey City Housing Authority, which manages the city’s low-income housing. Before U.S. District Judge Freda Wolfson in Trenton, the 38-year veteran of the Jersey City Police Department pleaded guilty to one count of theft concerning programs receiving federal funds.
Zacche’s attorney Anthony J. Iacullo has been quoted saying that Zacche regretted his actions, which do not reflect his years of service in the Police Department.
“We believe his years of service are not reflected in what happened here today,” he said.
In court, Zacche said he had charged the JCHA about $31,700 for services he did not perform in a four-year period from 2010 and 2014.
JCHA hired him to work as security at the Marion Gardens public housing complex, located on the west side of Jersey City near Route 440. But in 2015, he happened to tell the Hudson Reporter he had not been to the complex in 25 years.
According to federal prosecutors, phone records placed Zacche other places at the times he claimed to be working at Marion Gardens.
Zacche, however, apparently did not take payment from the JCHA after he was named chief in 2014.
“We have been aware of this for quite some time, and we were the ones that provided the allegations to the prosecutor’s office in the first place when this was brought to our attention in 2015,” said a statement issued by Mayor Steven Fulop. “We have zero tolerance for corruption or misconduct and today’s actions speak to this. We will continue to work with the federal authorities to root out corruption.”
Sources inside the Police Department said the Zacche investigation is unrelated to a larger off-duty work investigation that has already led to the conviction of nine other Jersey City police officers.
Police Department sources said Zacche may well have been performing some of the off-duty assignments for the Housing Authority, but that a family illness had caused him to not work at times he allegedly claimed to be working.
Meanwhile, Robert Cowan, the police chief demoted for not cooperating with the city’s plans to restructure the department in 2014, claims he warned the city in a letter in 2013 about the problem. City officials claim they never saw the letter. But a gadfly whom police sources claim is associated with Cowan did raise the question at a City Council meeting a few months before Zacche unexpectedly resigned early in 2017.
Zacche became chief in 2014 after the city demoted Cowan in a power struggle over reorganization of the Police Department. Cowan eventually resigned, then filed suit a year later raising numerous claims of improprieties in the department. He dropped the lawsuit a few months later.
Zacche’s abrupt retirement last June surprised a number of people. He received a retirement payout in excess of $500,000.
Of the 10 officers who have admitted participating in the off-duty jobs scheme, Zacche is the first to admit taking money from a public agency instead of from a private company. Others have said they either took money from companies without performing the work they were hired to do or accepted bribes from other cops in exchange for approving fraudulent pay vouchers.
Words that came back to haunt him
In 2015, during a tour of a proposed new police station slated to be installed in Marion Gardens housing project, Zacche became nostalgic about an area of the city he grew up in.
“I haven’t been in this building in more than 25 years,” Zacche told The Hudson Reporter as he looked over the two-story brick building city officials hope to convert into the new police station.
Zacche, who joined the force in December 1979, has also overseen the juvenile and missing persons bureau, the narcotics/street crimes unit, and the robbery/auto theft unit.
“I worked this neighborhood as part of the narcotics squad,” he said. “But this is my old neighborhood; I grew up a few blocks from here. I’m a Marion section native.”
The remark was recalled at the public session of a council meeting in early 2017, when the gadfly police say is associated with Cowan asked how Zacche could have worked off-duty shifts if he hadn’t been there in 25 years.
“That remark in the newspaper started the investigation,” said high ranking police official, who also said that the Zacche investigation was one of three off-duty investigations the city conducted over the last three years.
Public Safety Director James Shea confirmed that the JCPD Internal Affairs Unit was working in conjunction with the FBI on these cases.
Police sources claim that the three investigations included one focused on Jersey City police officers working off-duty shifts for the New Jersey Department of Transportation, a second involving officers working for private contractors, and Zacche’s, which involved work for the Housing Authority.
Off-duty work may be a thing of the past
Zacche’s plea adds to the perception of an out-of-control department, although newly-appointed Police Chief Mike Kelly said the department has many “ethically rich” officers.
In a council caucus on Jan. 8, Shea said off-duty work may well become a thing of the past, describing the current situation as “a real mess.”
But Shea said the problems will be addressed. “We have zero tolerance for corruption,” he said.
The city has a contract with the Jersey City Housing Authority and the Jersey City Board of Education that allows off-duty officers work at a lower rate than the cost would otherwise be – as is the case with private contractors, where off-duty cops also get work.
Shea said if the city does away with off-duty work, the city will have to assign on-duty cops to these and the city would have to pick up the cost, rather than the Housing Authority, school district, or private contractors.
“If you kill the program, we’ll still need to respond,” Shea said.
Meanwhile the City Council, faced with renewing the Housing Authority contract, is considering awarding only a 90-day contract that would be reviewed and renewed, rather than a yearly contract.
A real mess
Although many people in City Hall knew about the investigations, the Hudson Reporter’s Between the Lines political column broke the story of impending indictments against off-duty officers in fall of 2016.
In January, 2017, after more than a year of investigation that included intensive surveillance, Jersey City has placed 11 police officers on restricted duty, pending the outcome of a federal probe into allegations they abused city policy and laws that regulate off-duty private security work.
Apparently initiated by the city department of Public Safety, the investigation centers on the way Jersey City police officers work off-duty shifts providing security and traffic control for road openings and construction projects.
Indictments against police were issued mid-year with officers pleading guilty in July followed by more in October.
The allegations included allegedly taking payments from contractors without reporting these to the city. The investigation apparently also looked into whether or not officers allegedly coerced cooperation from contractors as well.
Sources inside the Police Department said some officers may have also been doing these off-duty services while on duty, which means they would be paid by the city for regular police work as well as allegedly taking off-duty under-the-table payments from contractors. This may have involved required police escorts of overlarge vehicles. Some officers, while on duty, may have been escorting the vehicles and being paid by the contractors in cash.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.