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Albio Sires

Hudson County Politics Message Board

Small storefront stands tall in fund raising

Published 4/11/04 in the Asbury Park Press
By TOM TRONCONE
STAFF WRITER

It's a small nondescript storefront on what could be any corner in West New York.

Months-old campaign signs in English and Spanish still dominate its facade, and tightly closed vertical blinds permit only small glimpses of what's behind its locked doors.

It's the brick and mortar home of the West New York Municipal Democratic Committee, the chief fund-raising arm of Assembly Speaker and West New York Mayor Albio Sires. It is the organization that has helped make Sires a major player in state politics.

The West New York committee has been so successful in raising money that it lent $350,000 last October to the New Democratic Assembly Leadership political committee, an organization that Sires also controls as speaker.

As chairman of the WNYMDC, Sires has raised more than $2 million, of which more than $250,000 was transferred to his various mayoral and Assembly campaign committees since 1999. Hundreds of thousands of dollars more have gone into lavish fund-raising affairs.

It's the organization that Sires chairs and has used to help make him a king of pay-to-play in West New York. Many major contributors to the WNYMDC have been rewarded by the Sires administration with no-bid municipal contracts worth millions of dollars over the years, according to election and municipal records.

"The reason I have a WNYMDC account is because I am the Democratic chairman and I am responsible for presidential elections, gubernatorial elections, senatorial elections (and) legislative elections that are part of my district," Sires said. "And because I am the chairman and because the county committee people voted me the chairman, that's how that works."

Sires' mayoral secretary, Caridad Rodriguez, is the political committee's treasurer. His business partner, Ada Morell, in his title search company, A.M. Title Agency Inc., serves as the committee's bookkeeper.

Morell has been paid $65,000 by the WNYMDC for bookkeeping services and election filings, and $15,000 from the New Democratic Assembly Leadership committee, which Sires controls as speaker. Her daughter, Lisa Estavez, was also paid $10,000 from the WNYMDC fund.

Sires said he hired Morell because of his trust in a friend.

"For me to pay her to do all the accounts, it is because she is competent, she knows what she is doing, I never have had a problem with any filing whatsoever, and doing those accounts require a great deal of time," Sires said. "I used to pay people before that a while back, but she does it and I pay her."

The West New York political committee also provides a way for contributors to give more than the $2,200-a-year limit set on individual and business contributions to candidates in New Jersey elections.

Because the WNYMDC is a municipal political committee, each contributor can give up to $7,200 to the organization.

But there is no limit on how much the WNYMDC can give candidates, or even other political committees. For the 2001 election, the WNYMDC contributed $110,000 to Sires' Assembly re-election effort.

But who decides where the WNYMDC sends its money?

"Albio makes that decision," said Joseph Mariniello Sr., assistant West New York town attorney and former treasurer for the WNYMDC.

After running unopposed in nonpartisan municipal elections and defeating his Republican Assembly opponents in the 2001 and 2003 elections, Sires has amassed a considerable war chest through the WNYMDC. The Campaign Fund of Albio Sires, which he has used for Assembly and mayoral races, has few contributors other than the WNYMDC, according to election reports.

As of January, the Campaign Fund of Albio Sires reported a war chest of close to $320,000.

In terms of money, the WNYMDC wields significant influence in state politics. The committee has sent money to influence elections in the Assembly and help sway the outcome of mayoral and county races throughout the state.

For example in the last five years, the committee gave $25,000 to Brian M. Hughes in Princeton to help his campaign for Mercer County executive, $10,000 to Joseph N. DiVincen-zo Jr. for Essex County execu-tive and $50,000 to the Bergen County Democratic Organiza-tion. It has also sent $62,500 up the ladder to the Hudson Coun-ty Democratic Organization. West New York is in Hudson County.

Sires said the committee doesn't spend all its money on political races.

"You should look at my records for all those years," Sires said. "You're going to see money to -- $4,000 to the Little League or school board, $3,000 to sponsor leagues for other towns, 15 to 20 buses a year for senior citizens. . . . I would say a large chunk of the money that is in the West New York Democratic (commit-tee) has gone to a lot of these organizations."

A review of campaign finance records from 2000 through 2003 shows that of the $2 million raised by the WNYMDC, about $100,000 -- or 5 percent -- went to various community groups, such as the Latin American Ki-wanis Club, and to pay for Thanksgiving turkeys and bus trips for senior citizens.

More than $400,000 went to pay for the annual Mayor's Ball fund-raiser at the Westmount Country Club in West Paterson, Passaic County, from 2000 through 2003, records show. Ticket prices range up to $500, and the proceeds go to the West New York Municipal Democrat-ic Committee.

Sires, a former Republican, said that Democrats in Hudson County want to see Democrats succeed around the state.

David P. Rebovich, a New Jer-sey politics expert at Rider Uni-versity, isn't so sure.

"It is the bold and confident incumbent who would assert that," Rebovich said.

He said political contributors in West New York may not re-alize that their money is actual-ly being shipped across the state, and not kept locally to help Hudson County Demo-crats.

Rebovich said if he were a do-nor, "I want to be able to say tangibly what I did for you, not that I helped you amass a huge fund that was used for amor-phous purposes."

How the WNYMDC raises mon-ey in itself has raised ques-tions.

A former West New York police officer, Richie Rivera, and two former firefighters said in sepa-rate interviews that some offi-cers and firefighters regularly sold tickets, while on duty, to political events that benefited Sires' organizations. They said other tickets -- up to $500 each -- were sold from the mayor's of-fice in town hall.

Sires said he never enlisted the aid of police or firefighters in his campaigns or fund-raising activities.

A WNYMDC fund-raising docu-ment obtained by Gannett New Jersey indicates that the com-mittee kept track of firefighter names, the ticket numbers they purchased, the price paid for each ticket and a comment sec-tion.

Some of the written comments include: "All he could af-ford/check overtime and daily acting capacity," "Emphatic 'no' (because) he earns his money and it's staying in his pocket" and "Sour grapes."

When completed, the list was forwarded to Rene Abreu, a top Sires aide and fund-raiser, ac-cording to two sources.

Abreu is on trial in U.S. Dis-trict Court in Newark on sepa-rate charges of mortgage fraud and accepting corrupt pay-ments from West New York's former police chief.

Former officer Rivera was fired from the police department in 1996 for insubordination, but he later won an out-of-court set-tlement for improper termina-tion and the town paid him $675,000. The town admited no wrongdoing.

Rivera said in a recent inter-view that on numerous occa-sions he witnessed police offi-cers and other municipal workers selling Sires political tickets to businesses while they were on duty.

He also said officers would sell tickets to reputed Cuban orga-nized crime members, take the tickets back, pocket the cash and resell the tickets, he said.

"The cops had several reasons," Rivera said. "One was to fund-raise for an elected official and incumbent. Another would be to be in favor with that individ-ual and, thirdly, to make mon-ey."

Rivera wore an electronic re-cording device for the FBI for 18 months during a probe into police corruption in the town that led to the jailing of the town's former police chief and numerous officers.

"Individuals were typically giv-en about 10 tickets each to sell if you were part of the fund-raising committee," Rivera said, noting that the tickets were numbered and who got which number was recorded. "When a police officer or any-one else selling tickets would approach an individual in an illegal enterprise with several tickets and try to sell them to the individual, the individual would be more than happy to shell out whatever type of mon-ey."

Rivera said he does not know if Sires was aware of the scheme, and Sires said if what Rivera said is true and he had known about it, the mayor "would have put a stop to it."

Sires and Richard Turner, the West New York business ad-ministrator and mayor of Wee-hawken, dismiss Rivera's claims as those of a disgruntled former police officer with an ax to grind.

Hudson County Facts Winter 2006 by Anthony Olszewski
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