TRENTON - FBI agents arrested 11 public officials in towns across New Jersey today 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," the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, Christopher Christie, said.
All 12 suspects, wearing handcuffs and leg shackles, made initial court appearances this 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, Mr. Drewniak said.
The investigation began last year with Pleasantville schools, near Atlantic City, Mr. 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, Mr. Drewniak said.
Those arrested today were two Democratic assemblymen, Mims Hackett Jr. and Alfred Steele; the mayor of Passaic, Samuel Rivera; a council member of Passaic, Marcellus Jackson; a former council member of Passaic, Jonathan Soto; a chief of staff to Newark City Council president, Mildred Crump, Keith Reid; 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," the minority leader of the Assembly, Alex DeCroce, Republican of Morris, said. "Once again New Jersey's culture of corruption is national news."
Mr. Rivera is a former police officer and professional wrestler.
Mr. 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 Mr. Hackett's cousin confessed.
Mr. Hackett is accused of accepting $5,000 in bribes, according to the complaint.
A phone message left at Mr. Hackett's office wasn't immediately returned today. Neither were messages left at Messrs. Reid's and Rivera's offices.
Mr. 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 today, a sheriff's spokesman, Bill Maer, said.
A woman who answered the phone at Mr. Steele's office and identified herself as his chief of staff, Jenna Pollard, said she had no comment and didn't know if Mr. Steele had a lawyer.
One of the former school board members, Maurice Callaway, is now a Pleasantville city councilman and the brother of a 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," a monitor sent by the state Department of Education to oversee the district's finances, John Deserable, said. "It's another black eye to the district that we don't need. The children deserve better than this."
Today's arrests were the latest in an anti-corruption campaign waged by Mr. 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.