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Posted by Joseph Mendez on May 27, 2005 at 21:56:29:

Ex-Mayor Russo sentenced to 30 months





Tom Jennemann
Reporter staff writer 05/23/2005





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A shell of his former charismatic and energetic self, cancer-ridden former Hoboken Mayor Anthony Russo was sentenced to 30 months in prison Tuesday for soliciting bribes from the city's former accounting firm.


Russo, 58, must report to the Federal Bureau of Prisons by July 5 and has been ordered to immediately pay a fine of $30,000. He also will have to pay $332,220 in restitution, according to the sentence handed down by U.S. District Judge Joel A. Pisano.

Of human frailty, and greed

By most accounts, Russo is a paradox. During his mayoral reign from 1993 to 2001, critics charged that his authoritative shadow loomed over the city workers and city boards. He sometimes got into very loud arguments with critics. But he was also a strong leader who oversaw great changes in the city, including the rejuvenation of the waterfront.

No single day better epitomizes his tragic duality better than July 1, 1997, according to the mayor's testimony.

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That day was Russo's second inauguration. He had won by a huge margin. At a celebratory dinner that night, according to Russo's testimony Tuesday, Gerard Lisa, who was then the city's auditor, placed an envelope full of cash into Russo's suit pocket.

"This is for you," Russo said Lisa whispered as he slipped the money into his pocket. "Later, I realized this was the start of something." According to the testimony, over the next five years, mostly at Lisa's office or the mayor's office in City Hall, Lisa would give Russo numerous envelopes full of money. Russo said that he spent much, if not most, of the money on gambling on sports and the horses. The envelopes would often contain thousands of dollars, admitted Russo.

The total take from Lisa, according to the U.S. Attorney, was at least $317,000. They added that Lisa kept detailed records of the illegal payments. While Russo said he had no idea of how much he took over the years, he doesn't contest the government calculation.

According to Russo's plea, the money was for Russo's favorable action on several million dollars in city contracts from 1997 to 2001.

However, the Lisa firm had been doing business with the city and county long before that. The point man of the firm had been Gerard Lisa's older brother, Joseph Lisa, who died of a heart attack in 1997. The elder Lisa had been one of Russo's closest friends, and had frequently appeared at City Council meetings before he died.

Russo apologizes

"I must say that I apologize to any and all of the people that were affected by my abhorrent criminal behavior," Russo said in a brief statement to the court. His head was shaven, the victim of many cycles of chemotherapy. Large dark bags were clearly evident under his eyes. "I apologize and I am heartily sorry," he added as his voice quivered with emotion.

In a plea for leniency, Russo's attorney, Dennis McAlevy of Union City, also spoke about the complex make-up of his client.

"On one hand, he was a terrific mayor," McAlevy said, "but on the other hand he was a mayor that used his office for his own personal financial gain. Even the people that love him are desperately heartbroken. The fact that he was a good mayor and a hands-on guy all went out the window."

The lawyer said that now he must live with a shattered legacy. "He could have been known as the man that turned Hoboken around to be the great place to live that it is today," McAlevy said, "but instead he is going to be known as at a man who disgraced himself for selling his office."

In a statement, U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie said that the sentence will make government officials think twice about pursuing a course of corruption.

"He made himself the poster child for greed and corruption by a powerful, arrogant elected official," Christie said. "This sentence accomplishes all that we sought - a lengthy prison sentence, plus restitution to the citizens whom Russo deprived of his honest services."

The pattern of the corrupt

By this point, Pisano has become quite the expert on New Jersey corruption. Over the past two years, he has overseen the conviction of no less than a dozen New Jersey public officials or contractors, he said.

"We find ourselves in the position, again, of dealing with a corrupt public official," Pisano said. "Recently this is something that I've become all too familiar with. We've been inundated with these cases recently."

Pisano said that a pattern has developed in those that have come before his court. He said that most, like Russo, come from working middle class families.

Russo, who was born and raised in Hoboken, paid his way through Murray State University in Kentucky, became a special education teacher, a popular multi-term city councilman, and a mayor who was elected by overwhelming margins in 1993 and again in 1997.

"These are people that strived to improve themselves, but then once they obtain public office, they embark on the path of corruption," said Pisano. "They have a sense of entitlement and arrogance that runs all too common in these cases."

Evasive acceptance of responsibility

Even though Russo has accepted a plea, Tuesday's sentencing hearing was not without drama.

According to the plea, Russo was not required to admit the full amount of his bribe-taking. However, after his guilty plea and as part of the pre-sentencing process, he was required to be candid with the U.S. Probation Department about other "relevant conduct," of which the government had evidence.

If the judge deemed that Russo was being evasive when it came to "acceptance of responsibly," then he could add as much as 11 months onto his sentence. By the judge's own admission, that was very close to happening Tuesday.

U.S. Attorney Luis Valentin argued that Russo was continuing to vacillate on taking full responsibility and failed to admit the full extent of his bribe-taking.

"At the 12th hour, he continues to oscillate like a pendulum," Valentin said.

Christie added that Russo was, throughout the process, ducking full responsibly.

"To the bitter end, Russo equivocated and minimized his conduct," Christie said later.

At issue was Russo's inconsistency on whether he admitted to actively soliciting the bribes, or if he reluctantly accepted the payments as rewards.

The judge said that Russo's accounts of involvements place him anywhere between being a "benign receiver" to being "an outright thug." For the judge to accept the plea, he needed Russo to admit that he actively solicited the money. He required him to fully accept responsibly. The judge became so frustrated that he was prepared to have the government present evidence and testimony in a separate hearing next Monday - including testimony from Lisa - if Russo continued to be evasive in accepting responsibility for soliciting and accepting the full amount of $317,220 from Lisa.

Only after a five-minute break, where the judge allowed Russo and McAlevy to talk, did Russo agree to answer, under oath, questions that satisfied the court that he was accepting full responsibility and admitted in clear language the full amount taken from Lisa over the years. Only then did Pisano accept the plea, even though he was "still reluctant" to do so.

"This was a much closer call than it needed to be," said the judge.

The details of the case

Russo had entered into a plea agreement in September of last year in which he admitted to accepting thousands of dollars in bribes and unlawful cash payments from the principals of the Hoboken-based accounting firm Lisa and Associates.

In addition to holding city and county contracts, the firm had done business with the now-defunct Hoboken Parking Authority and the Hoboken Board of Education, whose elected board was filed with Russo-backed members for his eight years as mayor.

The federal government had investigated Russo for 10 years, and in the allocution, Russo admitted to taking much more, but his conviction was based only on actions that took place toward the end of his second term, shortly after he was defeated in May, 2001.

The federal counts were technically mail fraud charges associated with the bribes that he took.

Lisa, 47, a politically connected accountant, didn't bribe only Russo. He also admitted in federal court in August of 2003 to paying thousands of dollars in bribes to former Hudson County Executive Robert Janiszewski from 1997 to 2001. He pleaded guilty in front of U.S. District Court Judge Harold A. Ackerman to one count of having made corrupt payments through an unnamed intermediary from 1997 to 2001 to secure the renewal of his firm's auditing contract with Hudson County.

Also took money from Pino's

In another interesting nugget from Tuesday hearing, as part of his acceptance of guilt, Russo also admitted that he took $15,000, through an intermediary, from a principal of Pino's Auto Body, the city's former towing company.

The intermediary, Russo admitted, was former Alcoholic Beverage Control Board Chairman Frank Andreula. Several years ago, Andreula was indicted for allegedly accepting kickbacks from bar owners in conjunction with his title. He served jail time and was released last year. Russo said at the time that he had had no knowledge of Andreula's activities. But on Tuesday he admitted that he took $15,000, which was extorted from the owners of Pino's Towing.

While he admitted to taking money through Andreula from the towing company, Russo still maintains that he never took any bribes from local bar owners.

The sentencing

When Pisano issued his sentence of 30 months, he said his primary objective was to dissuade future public officials from going down Russo's corrupt path. "Those that go into public office must get the message," Pisano said. "You were the mayor of a very important city. You were at the top of the pyramid. One in that position, in my view, cannot reasonably ask for leniency."

Cancer didn't sway

Russo has made a motion to have his sentence reduced because he has battled cancer over the past five years. Russo was first stricken with cancer four years ago. A malignant tumor was found in his brain and doctors gave him eight months to live.

The tumor was removed in March of 2000 and Russo was treated with 25 sessions of radiation therapy.

Tests later revealed that the cancer had manifested in his lung. He underwent surgery that removed the upper third of his right lung, and he was treated with six cycles of chemotherapy.

A second brain tumor was detected in August 2001. Russo underwent another procedure to remove the tumor. But remarkably, the cancer went into remission in 2002 and doctors said Russo was in good enough health to run for public office again.

Shortly after being elected to a seat as the city's 3rd Ward councilperson, Russo resigned tearfully at a press conference, announcing that cancer had returned.

While the cancer is now in remission, Russo has suffered from lung, brain and adrenal cancer, and his doctor said in court that it's only a matter of time until they return. Russo's doctor testified that a long prison sentence would "be a death sentence."

Pisano declined to downgrade Russo's sentence, but said that he would forward Russo's medical record to the prison where Russo is assigned and he will receive adequate health care while incarcerated.

Meanwhile, Russo's son, Michael Russo, 29, serves in Russo's old spot as 3rd Ward councilman. Russo recently ran for mayor and lost. During his campaign, he said he loved his father but denounced his activities.

Neither did gambling sway

In a recent pre-sentencing hearing, Russo's attorney told the judge that his client is flat broke, and that because Lisa and Associates was also his personal accountant, he is having trouble compiling completed tax returns.

McAlevy added that his client's teaching pension is in jeopardy, which will also make it difficult to pay restitution.

But the judge said that disclosure had no impact on how much restitution he would place on Russo. He added that he expects Russo to pay the entire $332,220, but said that he found it troubling that so many corrupt officials spend their ill gotten gains on such banal pursuits, such as gambling.

"What I find disgusting is that he would take this money and spend it on such trivialities," Pisano said.

Russo and his wife, a real estate agent, also own a shore house. Russo also owns some of his Civic Association on Adams Street.


©The Hudson Reporter 2005

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