It began in the early-morning hours of Thursday, July 23, 2009.
On a warm day that would turn overcast with scattered rain, climbing up to near 80 degrees in the summer humidity, more than 300 FBI and other federal agents were in position across the metropolitan area well before the crack of dawn. Deployed from Brooklyn and Jersey City to the wealthy, beachfront enclave of Deal along the Jersey Shore, it was an invasion force about to execute a coordinated assault of military-style precision; a takedown that would shatter New Jersey’s political landscape and reach all the way into the governor’s office, while tearing apart an insular, Orthodox Jewish community that had long shunned outsiders.
For nearly three years, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office had been trolling for corruption in one of the nation’s most corrupt states, and this was D-Day. It was all about to come down.
Even those who were about to get arrested that morning did not seem to have a clue they would be the next stars of that classic New Jersey ritual: the televised “perp walk.” Among them was a rising young star in New Jersey politics, Peter Cammarano III.
An attorney and former councilman who specialized in election law and worked for one of New Jersey’s most politically connected law firms, Cammarano was in only his 23rd day as mayor of Hoboken, following a tough, hard-fought runoff election in the once blue-collar Hudson County city that long ago had served as a soundstage for the famed film classic On the Waterfront, but now a growing preserve of young urban professionals ferrying across the river to work in Manhattan. He was seen as the future of the Democratic Party and had spent the night before celebrating his 32nd birthday, looking as if he had not a care in the world.
He tweeted cheerfully on July 22: “I plan on bartending tonight @ the Hoboken’s St. Ann’s festival, look forward to seeing the residents and visitors of Hoboken tonight….”
“The Senator.” Cammarano had already earned his nickname by the time he was in high school. He wore his career goals on his sleeve and seemed to be making all the right moves: college to law school, moving from campaign volunteer to election lawyer, and then to council candidate in high-profile, high-octane Hoboken. He worked for one of the state’s top law firms and was a protégé to the dean of New Jersey campaign attorneys, Angelo Genova.
Cammarano was sure he was headed to the political big time and, to a certain extent, the eventual title was beside the point. Congressman was good. Senator better. Who knows, maybe even governor? He was articulate, looked good in a suit and was incredibly confident. He had the right persona and the right bio, married to another lawyer, father of a young child. Following a hard-fought race in 2005, Cammarano won his first term on the Hoboken council.
In a state where political shooting stars have crashed and burned in record time, Cammarano gave off the distinct whiff of another good-looking, hard-charging, well-spoken young man in a hurry. He seemed like a real up-and-comer. His connection to Genova was huge in a universe where Genova was considered the best of the best; a patriarch of campaign-finance work, labor counsel to governor after governor and a regular on the PR-essential lists of top lawyers in the state. Cammarano also made the right moves himself, becoming a fellow at the renowned Leadership New Jersey program and making a point of introducing himself to the top pols and political reporters in the state.
“He had a lot of gifts,” said Tom DeGise, the Hudson County executive and a veteran of the hardest of hard-core Hudson County political skirmishes. “Peter could speak. He really liked the arena of politics.”
But he made it seem he was not just a young version of the old-school bosses. He was the new face of the new Hoboken. He wanted to become the first mayor to have been raised outside the Mile Square City, as well as the first mayor to build a coalition of old-time ethnic Hoboken and new-era, single, professional, making-the-scene Hoboken.
Behind his back, Cammarano was constantly being compared to former governor Jim McGreevey. It was only a partial compliment. McGreevey was skilled at the game and he knew how to make things happen. “Peter knew to get higher he would have to have some accomplishments to run on,” said one of his confidantes. Cammarano pushed his fellow council members to give him the center spot on the council dais so he would get more camera time. He could out-argue, and out-articulate the others, and he religiously pored over videos of council meetings to improve his performance.
McGreevey, though, was also a man of many secrets. And that was the other side of the comparison to Cammarano. There were, of course, the unjustified rumors that Cammarano—like McGreevey—was gay and in the closet. It was the kind of talk that had dogged McGreevey for years before he actually came out. But it had never appeared to have any validity with Cammarano. More seriously, there were the real secrets to Peter’s personal life and how he did his politics.
Cammarano was a child of divorce and had a deadbeat dad for a father. He himself had sired a daughter while in high school and had been paying support ever since. When he finally decided to enter the Hoboken mayor’s race in 2009, Cammarano had the choice of going public with his history or trying to keep it secret. Despite recommendations from his advisers to put the information out in advance, he decided to keep a lid on it. Not to protect his privacy, but in a maneuver to tempt his adversaries to use it against him. That way, he figured, he’d be able to use his own secrets as a weapon against his foes in the three-way mayor’s race.
It worked like a charm. They played into his strategy and he got to play the wounded, wronged, hounded victim.
Cammarano also got in bed with some of the old-school pols around Hudson County, hoping their support could mean the margin of victory in the May election and acceptance when the mayors gathered to divide the spoils. He started paying consultants sent to him by other mayors and religiously followed their instructions over the objections of his loyalists. The end result was a campaign that neither looked nor sounded cohesive, but was just good enough somehow.
Some of his associates worried over Cammarano’s habit of cutting corners. As a lawyer trained in campaign-finance rules, he knew where the soft spots were and employed one of the best-known legal end runs in the business: He had a top campaign contributor pay the salary of his campaign manager, a salary that could easily surpass $2,000 a week in New Jersey. And he ran up big bills, which is not uncommon for pols who always figure they’ll win and then be able to fund-raise enough to cover their debts after they win.
What enraged his insiders, though, was the fact that Cammarano was sitting on a decent piece of wealth after his grandmother died and left him her estate. They didn’t realize the money was held in a joint investment account with his wife, Marita, and Cammarano was unwilling to tell her anything about his campaign finances. Worst of all, every single one of Cammarano’s manipulations would likely have been perfectly legal had he allowed his inner lawyer to do it the right way and set up legitimate political action committees that can—despite the public’s antipathy toward them—serve as unbridled supplements to a campaign crew. Staffers can get paid through them. Excessive donations can be made through them. It was exactly the type of sophisticated end-run McGreevey used to employ.
As the mayoral election proceeded, those around Cammarano started noticing a change. An arrogance took over, as did a diminished willingness to do the fund-raising, phone-calling and retail campaigning that is essential to get across the finish line. He also seemed to be getting in tighter and tighter with Michael Schaffer. Cammarano’s people started asking each other the same question out loud. What the f–k is Schaffer doing here?
Former Hoboken city councilman, perennial candidate, commissioner on the North Hudson Utilities Authority courtesy of a patronage appointment, Michael Schaffer was just another odd character in a sea of odd characters. A typical denizen of Hudson County politics, Schaffer had lost his council seat years earlier after his one-time patron, former Hoboken mayor Anthony Russo, was convicted on bribery charges, and he now spent his time just hanging around the game. He was sloppy and never seemed to have anywhere pressing to be. Still, he would don a business suit for no reason some days just to make it seem like he was somebody important going to some critical meeting.
Schaffer had gotten in with Cammarano early. The professionals and elected officials around Cammarano couldn’t figure out the connection, or even what he was doing there. Schaffer was always in headquarters, hanging out, talking with the staff, waiting for Cammarano to show up. Actually, it was a symbiotic relationship. Cammarano wanted the money Schaffer was connected to, and Schaffer wanted the reflected glory. One night, after a particularly important political event, Cammarano took off at 11:30 pm, telling his staff he had to go see Schaffer. They were flabbergasted. You can’t go see him in the morning?
Cammarano was always late for everything. He didn’t focus on anything, didn’t take campaigning or fundraising seriously, and did all the back-slapping —yet didn’t put in the work, said one Cammarano intimate. “But when Schaffer walked into headquarters, that was it. He’d go right to Cammarano in the back and the two of them would walk out without saying a word.”
It had been a Saturday night, just before 8 pm back in early April when the FBI first intercepted a phone call from political consultant Jack Shaw to Schaffer. Shaw wanted to talk to him about the upcoming mayoral elections in Jersey City and Hoboken. He had a guy he wanted Mike to meet; a developer by the name of Dave Esenbach who he said had recently given another official $20,000.
“I know Esenbach will give Cammarano $5,000,” predicted Shaw. “We’ll probably have to run it through you.” The developer was throwing out $5,000 and $10,000 payments to just about anyone running for election in Hudson County, said Jack in wonder.
What Shaw did not know was there was no Dave Esenbach. It was a name being used by a disgraced former developer from Monmouth County by the name of Solomon Dwek, now a cooperating witness for the government and wearing a wire for the FBI, who was at the center of what was to become the biggest corruption sting in New Jersey history.
Shaw arranged to meet with Schaffer and Cammarano at the Malibu Diner in Hoboken. The evening before, they connected to confirm the time and date. “We’re gonna try to get this kid some money tomorrow,” said Jack.
The Malibu was a typical Jersey diner of polished stainless steel and turquoise and pink neon, located on 14th Street in Hoboken. The entry on Cammarano’s personal schedule for the day put it bluntly: 2 pm to 3 pm Mike Schaffer at Malibu with Peter only.
Shaw and Jersey City Housing Authority commissioner Edward Cheatam came in with Dwek; they met Schaffer and Cammarano inside. To Cammarano, it was just another private fundraiser, and he began talking about himself. “I run the election law department at the biggest election law firm in the state of New Jersey,” he said. One of his issues for this race, where his opponent, Dawn Zimmer, was looking to put the brakes on new construction, was development. “To the extent there’s a pro-development person in this race, that’s me.”
Dwek, as Esenbach, said if he were to look for opportunities in Hoboken, “I wanna make sure that I, you know, you, you’re my man.”
“You can put your faith in me,” said Cammarano. “I promise you you’re gonna be treated like a friend.”
On the surveillance video, a deal of sorts was ironed out. Dwek said he would deal through Schaffer, giving him $5,000 to start, and then after the election, he would do another $5,000. “Just make sure you expedite my stuff,” he said. “Make sure my name is not—I don’t want it to show up. I don’t want any conflict issues.”
“Right, right, right.”
“I’m a business man,” said Dwek. “Generous guy.”
On Friday, May 8, the group gathered in Hoboken, again at the Malibu. “10:30 am to 11:30 am—Meeting with Mike Schaffer” was the entry that day in Cammarano’s calendar. The election was the following Tuesday and Shaw told Schaffer that Dwek wanted to “invest” some more in the young mayoral candidate. Dwek, as usual, went into his routine about “expedite my stuff” and how he didn’t want any conflicts so his name couldn’t show up anywhere. Another $5,000. “Don’t put my name—like last time.”
Dwek suggested that after the election the following Tuesday, they might meet on Wednesday or Thursday to celebrate a campaign victory. “I’ll give you —I’ll do another five.”
“Maybe after, uh, we sleep in a little bit on Wednesday,” Cammarano said to laughter all around.
Four days later, Cammarano won a spot in a Hoboken runoff for mayor, surprising the political establishment. His need for cash now went into warp speed, as the street money flew out the door. Cammarano wasted no time. Voters were actually still going to the polls in Hoboken when Denis Jaslow called Dwek with the news that Cammarano needed cash. Jaslow, an investigator for the Hudson County Board of Elections, didn’t realize that Dwek was already hooked into Cammarano through other bagmen, and didn’t ask. Jaslow just wanted the finder’s fee that Dwek was throwing out for everyone brought to the table.
“I got a call from Peter Cammarano,” Jaslow said.
“Peter? Yeah,” Dwek replied.
“Are you in the neighborhood?”
“I’m not in the neighborhood, no. I’m in the city. Why? What does he want to do?”
“They want to see if you can do something for him.”
Jaslow said it was important to get the cash, or a commitment, immediately. “They’re trying to get something put together today. They gotta put money on the street.”
With his typical cool, Dwek told Jaslow to carry back the message that Peter could count on “five extra” for the runoff.
A week after the election, Shaw, Cheatam, Schaffer, Dwek and Cammarano reconvened, and the talk turned hard and direct and concentrated on the June 9 runoff. Cammarano was in rare form. “Right now, the Italians, the Hispanics, the seniors are locked down. Nothing can change that now … I could be, uh, indicted, and I’m still going to win 85 to 95 percent of those populations.” The Hawk—the FBI’s miniature surveillance video system worn by Dwek—got every word, clear as can be. With each syllable, Cammarano more and more became the poster boy for New Jersey’s corrupt politics.
“We’re breaking down the world into three categories,” Cammarano said of those who backed and opposed him. “There’s the people who were with us, and that’s you guys. There’s the people who climbed on board in the runoff. They can get in line. And then there are the people who were against us the whole way. They get ground into powder.”
Anyone among that last group looking for construction approvals could just languish for three years, Cammarano announced. Another $5,000 for the boy king.
The June 9 election was close and the results were not immediately tallied. Up by more than 200 votes when the numbers came in off the polling machines, Dawn Zimmer had to wait for a count of about 775 absentee votes. It wasn’t until three days later, after all the absentee and provisional ballots were counted, that Cammarano emerged with a slim, 161-vote victory. Genova had been on hand personally to stand sentry at the county’s election office to ensure the ballots were counted properly. Peter had been elected Hoboken’s youngest mayor.
The victory, however, came at a huge cost. When the smoke cleared, Cammarano was at least $85,000 in debt. During the election day itself, campaign scheduler Jamey Cook-Lichstein remembered the staff writing so many $1,000 checks to street workers that they ran out of checks. Then they ran out of money, and the checks that had been distributed bounced for the rest of the week at the check-cashing kiosks near the city’s westside housing projects.
One month to the day before the takedown, Cammarano’s calendar showed one more of the now familiar entries for the Malibu: “9 am to 10 am Meeting with Mike Schaffer, Jack Shaw and David. Where: Malibu Diner. Description: Attending: Peter.”
Shaw directed the conversation right where the FBI wanted it to go. Where Cammarano needed it to go because he needed the scratch. “So anyway, we understand you got a [campaign] debt…. The main reason we’re here is to see how we can help you, and you’ve got to tell us somewhere in the neighborhood of what you need.”
Dwek weighed in with what had become his own campaign slogan: “I’m a generous guy.”
Cammarano confided that the street money checks that bounced totaled about $19,000 and that he had to take out a $20,000 bridge loan to cover himself. Dwek offered $10,000, provided he could remain invisible on paper. “I appreciate it,” the mayor-elect said, grateful for the money.
On a warm, sunny Wednesday in Hoboken on the first of July, Peter Cammarano was sworn in as the city’s 37th mayor. As he put his hand on a Bible at noontime to take the oath of office, the young lawyer, flanked by his wife, Marita, who held their baby daughter, Abigail, promised to make residents proud. “The motto of the United States is e pluribus unum. In other words, out of many we are one,” Cammarano declared. “In Hoboken, we are all neighbors. We shall rise or fall, sink or swim, but ultimately succeed together.” Most of New Jersey’s political elite was in attendance—including Governor Jon Corzine, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, and U.S. senators Frank Lautenberg and Bob Menendez—along with 500 of Cammarano’s closest friends at the Schaefer Center at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken.
It was not a day to celebrate democracy for the U.S. Attorney’s office. The swearing-in of the new mayor had long been a source of concern among federal prosecutors. They had known for months they were going to arrest Cammarano. Then he actually won the election. The question had been whether they would allow him to take the oath of office.
The debate had been going on since April or early May, when it first became clear they were going to be arresting Jersey City councilmen—they thought maybe half the Jersey City council at one point—and they worried that they could throw a major city into chaos. Would the voters and the residents of Jersey City become innocent victims of a government sting? It was a serious question and not an unusual one for prosecutors who arrest elected officials with some frequency. Then Cammarano entered the picture, and it was not only members of the governing body who were to be arrested, but a mayor in a city where the position carries full executive authority, like governor or president.
Shaw and Cheatam met Cammarano and Mike Schaffer one last time on July 16, still pushing another real estate deal. By now, Dwek was starting to slip. Asked by the new mayor about the property’s exact location, Dwek was just not sure. “I think it’s, it’s a parcel of land or something that’s available,” he said. “And then on Hudson Street, there’s an apartment building that’s all rentals now and the whole building might be coming on the market. Maybe there’s an opportunity to go higher, add some density, go wider.”
As he fumbled over the details, Dwek got to the point of the matter. He asked if he had the mayor’s support.
“Yes,” said Cammarano. “Wholeheartedly.”
“At least I bet on the right horse this time,” joked Dwek.
“Yeah. You did,” said the mayor.
In the wake of the costly runoff, Cammarano was still trying to raise money to erase his campaign debt and Dwek told him he was there to help. “I’ll give Mike ten thousand, you know, green,” he said. “Just make sure my name, like the other times. Don’t put my name on nothin’. I don’t need any, uh, issues.”
The group left the diner and walked into the parking lot, where Dwek and Schaffer walked to Dwek’s car. Dwek opened the trunk and pulled out a FedEx envelope.
“Don’t put my name like…”
Schaffer interrupted with a laugh. “I know. I know the drill.”
Dwek walked back to Cammarano, who was talking with Shaw and Cheatam.
“I’ll be in touch with you next week,” said the mayor.
“I’ll take care of the other ten,” promised Dwek. “Just, you know, make sure I have your support…expediting my stuff.”
“Yeah, yeah. I’m with you.”
Soon after he was elected mayor, Peter Cammarano assembled a new team to run the city. Like him, they were 30-something professionals, many of whom he had gotten to know through young Democrats’ groups. They viewed their gigs as investments in their resumes and their futures. Anyway, they figured, “It’s not like Pete’s going to get indicted or something.” Like people outside of Cammarano’s circle, they viewed the young mayor as being on his way to bigger and better, and so he was too smart to do something stupid.
Suddenly, their world seemed very, very different early on July 23.
Phones started ringing at the homes of Cammarano’s aides, each one telling another to turn on the television and trying to figure out what they should do. Some of them, with little children at home, had to switch from Barney to Newark perp walks. Others, without kids, were still asleep, only to be awakened by the news.
“Peter has been taken in by the FBI as part of a large-scale operation,” said the voice on the other end of the phone after awakening Hoboken’s chief city attorney, Steve Kleinman. “It’s big.”
Kleinman couldn’t believe it, until the phone rang again. “I guess you’re going to have an interesting day in city hall today,” said the second voice, instructing him to turn on Channel 5. “I saw them walking people in and out of the FBI in Newark. At that point, we realized that this was real,” Kleinman recalled.
More than a year after Cammarano was videotaped boasting about grinding political opponents “into powder” and predicting that not even criminal charges could prevent his election, he finally walked into the Newark courtroom of U.S. District Judge Jose L. Linares to plead guilty to extortion conspiracy. Eyes downcast, he admitted accepting $25,000 in illegal campaign contributions. He was sentenced to two years in federal prison in August.
“After he finishes the criminal process, I expect he will rebuild his life and once again be a positive member of society,” said Cammarano’s attorney, Joseph Hayden Jr.
Cammarano is telling people he is writing a book. Federal law prohibits him from making any money from it.
From The Jersey Sting by Ted Sherman and Josh Margolin. Copyright 2011 by the authors and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.