February 2

Former Fort Lee mayor who risked all understands Hoboken quandary

Burt Ross, who helped the FBI expose bribery, says, 'You can’t expect elected officials to do what I did.'

By John Cichowski
McClatchy Newspapers

HACKENSACK, N.J. — How should politicians like Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer react when they’re asked to do something they think is wrong?

click image to enlarge

Burt Ross, former Fort Lee, N.J., mayor, heroically went undercover for the FBI to expose mobsters. But he said, “It’s way too much to ask” others to take such risks.

2012 File Photo/Carmine Galasso/The Record/McClatchy Newspapers

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.”

(Continued on page 2)

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