HACKENSACK, N.J. — How should politicians like Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer react when they’re asked to do something they think is wrong?
Burt Ross knew exactly what to do nearly 40 years ago when a mobster with a scar on his face and a gun in his jacket arrived at his home to offer a bribe. The very next day, the former Fort Lee mayor went to the U.S. attorney and agreed to wear a wire so the first installment of a $500,000 bribe could be witnessed and recorded by the FBI.
Zimmer doesn’t claim that bribery and certainly not that mob ties are involved in her case. But she does say she was improperly intimidated when, she claims, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno demanded that she either back a developer favored by Gov. Chris Christie or risk losing aid for damage caused by Superstorm Sandy. Zimmer, too, went to the U.S. attorney – but eight months after her alleged encounter.
And instead of working with the FBI, she went public with her story first, a tactic that may have destroyed the best chance of gathering evidence. Guadagno called Zimmer’s allegations “illogical” and “completely false.” A Christie spokesman called them “partisan politics.” If the Democratic mayor’s claims were genuine, said Assembly Republican leader Jon Bramnick of Union County, she would have “worn a mike” and gathered evidence to prove it.
But if her story is true, should voters expect their mayors to behave as Zimmer or Ross?
A QUESTION OF ETHICS
That theoretical question has intrigued lawyers and ethicists since the mayor’s story made headlines last month. But for one man, there’s nothing theoretical about it.
“You can’t expect elected officials to do what I did,” said Ross, who now lives in California. “It’s way too much to ask. If I had kids at the time, I’m not sure I would have done what I did back then.”
Although the two situations offer compelling similarities, the stakes were very different. Zimmer is risking her reputation by taking on a powerful governor in a fight for municipal aid that has yet to be proved valid. Ross risked both his reputation and his life to take on mobsters over a development deal that was documented long ago.
Even the eras were different. Ross wore a wire just three months before then-President Richard Nixon resigned in the Watergate scandal during the crude, early days of electronic surveillance.
ONCE WAS NOT ENOUGH
“The tape came out garbled at first,” he recalled, “so I had to go back and meet with these guys again. When they patted me down (at the second meeting), the guy’s hand reached near a place where the first wire had been. … The FBI said they would ‘prefer’ that I not be driven anywhere, but if I were, they’d follow in a helicopter. If you’re not trained for these things, you’re in a constant state of anxiety.”
Nevertheless, the investigation was a success. After a 1975 trial, Joey Diaco and the developer Arthur Sutton were sent to prison.
But Ross spent three months in protective custody. Upon his return to Fort Lee, he wore a bulletproof vest to council meetings. Although politicians don’t pose the same kind of physical threat as mobsters, he said the Hoboken mayor, a mother of two whom he calls “a hero,” would have risked much too much by becoming part of an investigation.
“If your cover is blown while you’re trying to catch the governor and the lieutenant governor in a crime, that’s not going to sit too well,” he said. “Who’d believe her? She’d be left out on a limb.”
Zimmer made a similar point in television interviews before the U.S. attorney asked her to refrain from talking publicly.
“I was really concerned that if I came forward (and) no one believed me,” she said on CNN, “we would really be cut out of the Sandy funding,” a goal she called her “No. 1 priority.”
As Zimmer explains last May’s encounter with Guadagno, she was trying to be practical by placing Hoboken’s needs ahead of her disappointment over the lieutenant governor’s comments even though she wasn’t sure if the comments “crossed the line” into criminality. She went public only after members of Christie’s staff became implicated in traffic tie-ups near the George Washington Bridge that appeared to be engineered to persuade the current Fort Lee mayor to back the governor for reelection.
“As more and more comes out about Bridgegate,” she said, “I had an obligation to come forward because I think there are some strong parallels here.”
William Kearns, a lawyer who conducts ethics seminars for the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, sympathizes with this approach.
“You’re elected to serve your town, so you have to make judgments about whether you’re helping or hurting the town,” said Kearns, a municipal attorney and former mayor of the Burlington County township of Willingboro. “Some things are right, some things are wrong, and some fall in a gray area. But before making judgments, I say consult a lawyer.”
Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, is more critical.
“The better course would have been for her to go to the authorities a long time ago,” said Sloan, a former federal prosecutor. “She would have looked good now.”
But as Ross noted, taking on the governor last May might have appeared much less sympathetic than gathering evidence against mobsters during the Watergate era. “He was nearing the height of his popularity then, and he had this reputation as U.S. attorney for going after corrupt politicians,” he said.
Indeed, as a U.S. attorney, the governor has been widely praised for successfully prosecuting more than 100 corrupt local politicians, sometimes enlisting informants to approach them with tens of thousands of dollars in bribes. As the former Monmouth County sheriff, Guadagno, too, had been a ranking law enforcement official.
But the rank, reputation and popularity of the state’s highest officeholders should not inhibit witnesses from coming forward, insisted Sloan, of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
‘A FLAW IN OUR CULTURE’
“When people don’t come forward, it suggests a flaw in our culture,” she said. “The only thing that might make a difference is for more complaints to be filed and for these complaints to be taken seriously. But it takes courage.”
At 70, the man who showed courage 40 years ago isn’t so sure.
“If that’s true, then name me another elected American official who turned down a bribe, then wore a wire to help convict the bribers,” Ross said.
“It never happens,” he added after a long pause. “The risk is too great.”
Jonathan Goldstein, the former U.S. attorney who prosecuted Diaco and Sutton, also couldn’t recall a similar case. In Goldstein’s experience, witnesses remain intent on protecting themselves. “It’s human nature,” he said – with one exception.
“Burt Ross is a unique public figure,” Goldstein observed, “and we should all be very proud of him.”