Newark, NJ (AP) — Federal authorities couldn’t have picked a more fertile target than New Jersey’s Manhattan-facing waterfront towns for a fake cash-for-development undercover sting, longtime observers say.
The majority of those arrested in a sweeping FBI bust that netted 44 people on corruption and money laundering charges had ties — real or feigned — to development along the Hudson River.
The criminal complaints paint a picture of building and zoning departments where influence, connections and payoffs determine who gets a prompt hearing and a smooth approval process for their applications and who is left at the mercy of a system so seemingly dysfunctional that developers sometimes budget for bribes.
Jersey City, where more than a dozen of those arrested in the corruption probe either lived, worked or had connections, has been at the epicenter of a development boom that has transformed former polluted industrial rail yards and warehouses into gleaming waterfront high-rises with unparalleled views of the Manhattan skyline.
Certain developers have made fortunes off the city and received tax abatements that continue today, even though there’s little open space left along the waterfront, where luxury housing and office buildings housing large Manhattan firms have earned the area the nickname “Wall Street West.”
“Everybody knows developers run New Jersey,” said Joe Morris of the Interfaith Community Organization, which has been pushing for environmental remediation of contaminated land in Jersey City. “The developers run local government in every place in the state.”
Morris has led a lawsuit to force the cleanup of a former chromium plant site he believes is the property at the center of the recent FBI sting. The Jersey City address referred to in the criminal complaints borders one of the last undeveloped large tracts of open space in the city.
“The public officials in the criminal complaints seemed like they knew the drill,” Morris said. “They asked a surprisingly few number of questions about the site, such as if it was contaminated, and it shows the last thing on their minds is public safety.”
Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University, said the latest arrests point to serious problems with the way development happens in New Jersey.
“In addition to targeting these municipal elected officials who clearly are steering either permits or contracts or development schemes toward developers, the other end needs to be prosecuted as well,” she said. “There are developers and planners and engineers out there making payoffs, and this is indicative of how business is done.”
Posing as a wealthy developer, the government’s cooperating witness repeatedly said in secretly taped conversations with public officials that he’s neither a Democrat nor a Republican but a member of the “Green Party” — referring to his penchant for doling out cash bribes in exchange for help.
He explained to Jersey City officials with power over the planning and zoning process that he’s hoping to build a large-scale apartment development worth up to $200 million in their city. He tells them he’s fine with paying approximately $200,000 to $300,000 “upfront” to assist in obtaining the necessary approvals.
Although the project was fictitious, the documents show various officials telling the undercover witness that he’ll be granted “smooth access,” a heads-up on confidential information and pending state action concerning the property, and assistance pushing through a zoning change and environmental paperwork.
The Jersey City employees who were charged in the investigation have been suspended without pay by the city’s embattled mayor, Jerramiah Healy. Although Healy is mentioned in the federal complaints, he reiterated that he is not charged with wrongdoing and has no plans to step down.
Healy said he’s proud of Jersey City’s development record.
“Our criterion is: Is it good for our city? We’re not interested in enriching private developers,” Healy said. “On the other hand, if it’s good for the city and that’s a byproduct and they’re making money on it, that’s OK.”
Jersey City Councilman Steven Fulop said developers raise a lot of money for politicians in New Jersey, something he said should change.
“When you have that kind of toxic mix of money and political influence,” he said, “there’s the potential for what could be perceived as deal making that’s not in the best interest of the community.”
AP Writer David Porter in Newark contributed to this report.