TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Federal agents arrested the struggling mayor of New Jersey’s capital Monday on corruption charges, alleging he agreed to accept bribes in connection with a proposed parking garage — actually a fake project created by authorities trying to snare him.
Trenton Mayor Tony Mack, his brother Ralphiel and convicted sex offender Joseph Giorgianni, a Mack supporter who owns a Trenton sandwich shop, were each accused of a single charge: conspiring to extort the undercover informants who pulled them into the scheme.
U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman said at a news conference Monday that the city-owned land a few blocks from City Hall for the garage was assessed at $271,000. He said Mack and Giorgianni agreed to accept $100,000 for the land for the city coffers — as long as the purported developers paid a bribe of $100,000 to be split between the two alleged conspirators.
A federal magistrate Monday ordered Mack released on an unsecured $150,000 bond — the same as his brother — but ruled that he cannot leave the state while free on bail. Mack left the courthouse Monday without commenting.
But his lawyer, Mark Davis, said he believes his client is innocent, as the mayor has professed since his home was raided in July. “I believe that the evidence, as far as I can tell, appears to be insufficient to prove the charge,” he said.
The charges against Mack, a 46-year-old Democrat, did not come as a surprise in the city.
He’s been accused of hiring unqualified cronies to city positions, made deep cuts in the police department and overseen a chaotic City Hall as officials fled their jobs soon after he took office in 2010.
Things got so bad that the state government threatened to withhold $6 million in aid unless he agreed to hire only department head candidates cleared by the state.
He avoided a recall election last year after opponents fell about 1,000 signatures short of getting a measure on the ballot.
Federal agents began working with an informant to gather information on Mack and the other suspects in September 2010, just two months after Mack took office. Fishman would not say when the investigation began or why. They also tapped the phones of Giorgianni and the mayor.
Fishman said investigators quickly understood the relationship between the mayor and the sandwich shop owner: “It became clear he was a bagman for the mayor.”
The defendants received $54,000 — in envelopes stuffed with cash and in one case, including $100 casino chips — and anticipated accepting an additional $65,000 from a cooperating witness who purported to be a developer, according to court documents that laid out the sting.
The criminal complaint portrays Giorgianni as a boastful man who did most of the talking with two FBI informants, making Mack sound eager to accept bribes. Authorities would not identify the informants, other than to say one was cooperating to get a better deal in his own criminal case and the other was paid.
The sting was similar to a massive sting known as “Bid Rig” that resulted in criminal charges against 46 people — many of them local officials — in 2009. Then, bribes were attached to fictitious development projects. Prosecutors have had mixed success in winning convictions.
Giorgianni complained at one point that Mack, 46, could not take bribes because he was being watched so closely amid the recall effort, the documents said. “It’s sickening,” he told one of the informants, according to the court papers.
“I like to make money for my friends,” he said, according to the papers, and went on to reference infamously corrupt political boss William M. Tweed. “I like to do it like the Boss Tweed way. You know Boss Tweed ran Tammany Hall?”
He was also caught on tape telling one of the informants: “One thing about the Mack administration — when I say that, it’s me and Mack — we’re not greedy. We’re corruptible. We want anybody to make a buck,” and “I’m there to buffer the thing where, you know, take the weight … going to jail’s my business. It ain’t his.”
By contrast, when Mack was recorded, it was mostly just to say he’d meet someone or exchanging pleasantries. But in April, he was recorded at a meeting with Giorgianni and one of the informants saying: “I really appreciate what you guys have done for us. I appreciate your support and, like before, I support you and I’ll keep on supporting you.”
Authorities say, though, that the short-in-stature Mack, whom Giorgianni referred to as “Napoleon,” was involved in the scheme. One piece of evidence they offer is that Giorgianni referred to money by code — calling it “Uncle Remus” — when he spoke with Mack, and that Mack seemed to know what he was saying.
The complaint also said that $2,500 in $100 bills with the serial numbers of those given to Giorgianni were found in a search of Ralphiel Mack’s home in July.
John Hartmann, the lawyer for Ralphiel Mack, who is the football coach at Trenton Central High School, said the case against him is weak.
Under state law, Tony Mack would be forced out of office if he is convicted. But activists in Trenton would like to see him step down immediately. “If he were smart, he’d resign,” said Jerell Blakely, a former campaign manager for Mack who is now a critic. Blakely predicted Mack would not step down on his own.
The mayor and his brother could each face 20 years in prison if convicted.
Giorgianni and eight others were charged separately Monday with a scheme to distribute oxycodone from the sandwich shop, and he was also charged with weapon possession by a convicted felon. He went to prison in the 1980s on charges of carnally abusing and debauching the morals of a 14-year-old girl in the back of his shop.
The case gained notoriety because of weight-related health problems that got Giorgianni, a steakhouse owner who once claimed to tip the scale at over 500 pounds, released and led a prosecutor to charge he “ate his way out of jail.”
He faces up to 50 years in prison if he’s convicted on all charges. He was released on bail of $250,000 and must stay in his home as a condition. A public defender representing Giorgianni did not immediately return a phone call.
Follow Mulvihill at http://www.twitter.com/geoffmulvihill