City Council Shakeup: Mariano Vega Resigns, Pleads Guilty to Corruption Charges

In a brief letter to city clerk Robert Byrne, Mariano Vega abruptly announced Monday that he would resign from his At-Large position on the City Council, ending a long tenure of 13 years as part of Jersey City’s governing body (he has also held the positions of Ward E councilman and council president). But the reason for Vega’s sudden resignation became apparent before the ink on his letter was dry.

Appearing in federal court in Newark Tuesday morning, less than 24 hours after his resignation became effective, Vega pleaded guilty to the charge of conspiring to accept $20,000 in bribes from Solomon Dwek, a witness posing as a crooked developer. Vega also acknowledged that he agreed to accept $10,000 in additional bribes from Dwek. The charges against Vega alleged that he conspired with former city health official Maher Khalil to convert the illegal cash payments into contributions to Vega’s 2009 council election campaign fund. Khalil pleaded guilty in September and is currently awaiting sentencing.

Vega was indicted in December of last year on eight charges relating to taking illegal payments, and he pleaded not guilty in federal court in January.

As part of the plea deal his attorney struck with prosecutors, Vega must return the $20,000 to federal authorities. However, seven of the eight counts against him were dismissed: three counts of attempted obstruction of commerce by extortion under color of official right; three counts of acceptance of corrupt payments; and one count of making false statements.

U.S. District Judge Jose Linares released Vega on $75,000 bail and scheduled a sentencing hearing for January 7. Vega did not return phone calls requesting comment on his resignation and guilty plea.

In the nearly 14 months since being arrested on corruption charges last July, several have called for Vega’s resignation.

Ward E councilman Steven Fulop was the first out of the gate with a statement released on the day of the arrest, and he followed it up with a resolution of no confidence asking the City Council to support a formal request for Vega’s resignation. The resolution was voted down, with Fulop its only supporter — Vega himself did not abstain from the vote, casting a nay.

Local good government advocacy group One Jersey City also issued a swift release calling on Vega to resign, and went a couple of steps further by including Mayor Healy and Ward C councilwoman Nidia Lopez on their resignation wishlist. Healy had been identified as “Jersey City Official 4” in the federal criminal complaint against former deputy mayor Leona Beldini, but has not been charged with any wrongdoing. Lopez was not involved in the federal corruption sting, but at the time was facing tax fraud charges in Florida and a legal challenge to her residency in Jersey City and by extension her eligibility to serve on the City Council.

At the council caucus on the Monday following his arrest, Vega responded to his detractors, maintaining that he was “not guilty of the allegations” and indicating that he had no intention of resigning. However, he did agree to step down as the chair of the closed-door Tax Enhancement Committee, which reviews applications for tax abatements and makes recommendations to the council. The proceedings of the committee were opened up following the unanimous passage of a resolution at that week’s council meeting.

And that meeting was one for the books. Despite the weekday morning hour — the council was on its summer schedule — dozens of wrathful community members addressed the council and hundreds more filled council chambers in order to give the council a piece of their collective mind. Downtown resident Phil Rivo delivered what was perhaps the most prophetic diatribe that day, reminding those assembled in council chambers that former president Richard Nixon for 26 months claimed innocence of any wrongdoing in the infamous Watergate scandal that brought about his resignation.

Local press outlets, including JCI and the Jersey Journal, joined the chorus of voices calling for Vega’s resignation.

For more than a year following the initial hue and cry raised by the public after the federal sting, Vega maintained his innocence. Even as he resigned from the position of council president in October, Vega indicated that the move was only temporary, “until such time as I am completely exonerated.” Sources have said that Vega’s decision to give up the council presidency came only under increasing pressure from his council colleagues, who may not have taken kindly to having a lightning rod sitting in the center of the dais.

However, Vega’s exoneration was not to come to pass. Indeed, Vega’s attorney Peter Willis has confirmed that negotiations toward a plea deal began in May of this year, indicating that Vega has been weighing a guilty plea at least since then.

The apparent fact that Vega served on the city council for months with the knowledge that he would likely plead guilty to charges of corruption has many furrowing their brows over the timing of his resignation. Had Vega resigned just 11 days earlier, the city would have been required to hold a special election in November of this year to replace him. Because that deadline was missed, that special election will be held in November 2011 and the council is now on a 30-day deadline to appoint a replacement. If the council can’t come to an agreement on whom to appoint, it could continue to operate as an eight-person council until next fall.

Because incumbency traditionally confers a strong advantage to candidates in Jersey City’s municipal elections, it stands to reason that Vega’s appointed replacement would benefit from a one-year delay of the special election if he or she decided to run to keep the seat. And because Mayor Healy will have by far the most influence over the choice of replacement, the narrow margin by which Vega’s resignation missed the deadline is causing some to cast suspicious glances in Healy’s direction.

Good government activist and 2009 mayoral candidate Dan Levin, who heads up One Jersey City, says his suspicions are raised by what he sees as too-convenient timing.

“I question why … with the charges and sentences hanging over him, why Vega would obviously actively delay resigning and pleading guilty to postpone the special election a year,” he says.

“Were there negotiations with the mayor and other council members, was there any type of collusion for this outcome?” Levin wonders. “Most people in a reasonable state of mind would think that this was intentional.”

Riaz Wahid, who has recently been a leading member of a citywide recall movement targeting Mayor Healy and several council members accused of being administration rubber-stamps, said that he is “really hurt” by the fact that a special election for Vega’s seat will have to wait until 2011.

“We the people of Jersey City would have had a great opportunity to elect somebody … this November,” he says. But instead “they took the opportunity from us … they want to go for an autocratic system appointment.”

While he has not made any statements directly tying the timing of Vega’s resignation to mayoral influence, councilman Fulop has expressed disappointment in the way Vega left the council. But overall, he says, he is “happy that the city’s finally going to be able to move forward.”

Levin echoes Fulop’s optimism, saying he hopes that “Vega’s defiance … and mayor/council machinations will give rise to more public anger about local government, resulting in people getting involved and voting in larger numbers.”

Mayor Healy has denied assertions that he had a hand in the timing of Vega’s resignation, saying that it all took him quite by surprise.

“The administration was only made aware of councilman Vega’s resignation [Monday] morning, upon receiving an email and a subsequent written letter,” Healy said in a statement released Monday. When JCI pressed the question after Vega’s guilty plea, Healy added that his administration “[has] no control over the federal courts and we were apprised of these events as they unfolded.”

In the mere days since news of Vega’s resignation broke, a number of names have been mentioned in inside baseball circles as potential replacements, and the favored candidate — for the moment, at least — seems to be Vega’s council aide Hilario “Larry” Nuñez. Nuñez is reported to be a teacher at Snyder High School, and was a candidate for mayor in the crowded field of the 2004 special election to replace Glenn Cunningham, who died while in office. He also ran for city council in 2005. Nuñez could not be reached for comment.

City clerk Robert Byrne confirms that his office has thus far received at least two letters from residents seeking to be considered for the seat: Erik-Anders Nilsson, of the human rights advocacy group Jersey City Peace Movement; and Adela Rohena, who ran for the Ward C seat in 2009.

The Healy administration declined to confirm or deny rumors about any particular candidates for Vega’s replacement. City spokeswoman Jennifer Morrill said it would be “unfair” to make a statement at this early juncture, saying that the mayor wants to keep the field open to all qualified applicants.

“We’re working with the City Council to try and build a consensus for a replacement for Mariano, so that this important position in city government does not stay vacant for any prolonged period of time,” Healy said in Monday’s statement.

According to council president Peter Brennan, the mayor and council are currently in talks with community groups to find a suitable appointee. Brennan seems to acknowledge that the seat will likely go to a member of the Latino community, saying the mayor has been meeting with “the Hispanic associations” about the matter.

Wahid, of the recall group, says he hopes that the ethnicity of a potential replacement will not be as important a consideration as qualifications for the position.

“I hope this is not about the Hispanic community or any other community,” Wahid says. “We should bring the right deserving candidate to the table and we should look at all the resumes and all the interested people.”

Editor’s Note: A quick FYI: Back in July of 2009, we started appending an asterisk to Mariano Vega’s name to reflect the fact that, because of the cloud of suspicion hanging over him, all of his votes after his arrest would be tainted with an asterisk. Because Vega has finally resigned from the City Council and will no longer be voting, it’s time to remove the asterisk.

Photo: Steve Gold