FBI agents arrested 11 public officials in towns across New Jersey Thursday on charges of taking bribes in exchange for influencing the awarding of public contracts, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.
Two of those arrested are state lawmakers, two are mayors, three are city councilmen and several served on the school board in Pleasantville, where the scandal began.
All 11, plus a private individual, are accused of taking cash payments of $1,500 to $17,500 to influence who received public contracts, according to criminal complaints.
“Today we witnessed another example of the disease that affects the state of New Jersey; the disease of public corruption that spread like wildfire from south to north,” said the U.S. attorney for New Jersey, Christopher J. Christie.
All 12 suspects, wearing handcuffs and leg shackles, made initial court appearances on Thursday afternoon. The charges against them were explained, they were advised of their rights and a $200,000 unsecured bond — to be paid only if they miss a court appearance — was set for each.
A federal complaint charges each of the 12 with accepting payments from companies that offered insurance and roofing services to cities and school districts, said Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for Christie.
FBI went undercover in probe
The investigation began last year with Pleasantville schools, near Atlantic City, Drewniak said. The FBI established an undercover insurance brokerage company purporting to employ the government’s two cooperating witnesses and undercover agents.
The probe widened when Pleasantville school board members referred the cooperating witnesses to public officials in northern New Jersey, Drewniak said.
Democratic state Assemblymen Mims Hackett Jr. and Alfred E. Steele were arrested, as was Passaic Mayor Samuel Rivera. Also arrested were Keith Reid, the chief of staff to Newark’s City Council president; Passaic councilmen Jonathan Soto and Marcellus Jackson; two current Pleasantville school board members, three former board members and a private citizen. One of the former school board members is now a Pleasantville city councilman.
“This is another sad day for the people of New Jersey,” said Assembly Minority Leader Alex DeCroce. “Once again, New Jersey’s culture of corruption is national news.”
Rivera is a former police officer and professional wrestler.
Hackett, 65, is both a legislator and mayor of Orange, a city of about 33,000 residents 15 miles west of New York City. He was convicted of kidnapping in 1975 and sentenced to 30 years in prison, but was pardoned a year later when the victim recanted and Hackett’s cousin confessed.
Hackett is accused of accepting $5,000 in bribes, according to the complaint.
A phone message left at Hackett’s office wasn’t immediately returned Thursday. Neither were messages left at Reid’s and Rivera’s offices.
'A horrible day in Pleasantville'
Steele, an assemblyman since 1996 and deputy speaker since 2002, also serves as a Baptist minister in Paterson. He’s charged with accepting $14,000 in bribes, according to the complaint. He had been Passaic County undersheriff but resigned from the $89,900-per-year post on Thursday, said sheriff’s spokesman Bill Maer.
Jenna Pollard, who answered the phone at Steele’s office and identified herself as his chief of staff, said she had no comment and didn’t know if Steele had a lawyer.
One of the former school board members, Maurice “Pete” Callaway, is now a Pleasantville city councilman and the brother of former Atlantic City Council President Craig Callaway, who is serving time in federal prison from stemming from an unrelated corruption scheme.
“It’s just a horrible day in Pleasantville,” said John Deserable, a monitor sent by the state Department of Education to oversee the district’s finances. “It’s another black eye to the district that we don’t need. The children deserve better than this.”
Thursday’s arrests were the latest in an anti-corruption campaign waged by Christie’s office.
More than 100 public officials in the state have been convicted on federal corruption charges in the last five years. Two other Democratic state senators, Wayne Bryant of Lawnside and Sharpe James of Newark, are among others facing pending corruption charges.