Rivera Says He Won’t Call it Quits as Mayor

9 09 2007
Saturday, September 8, 2007

 

PASSAIC — He’s still in control. He’s not going anywhere and it’s business as usual at City Hall — well, except for maybe a few more angry telephone calls from residents who are not complaining about plumbing or potholes. They’re demanding that the mayor resign.

A day after FBI agents arrested Mayor Samuel Rivera and 11 others on charges of extortion and bribery, he sat behind his desk on Friday in the mayor’s office, dressed in a beige suit and beige tie, his hair neatly combed. His gold ring sparkled. “I am going to stay as long as I can,” he said as he conducted his mayoral duties — taking telephone calls, signing papers, reading a complaint from a resident about a neighbor’s purportedly illegal basement. Rivera, 60, is accused of taking $5,000 in bribes from undercover agents posing as insurance brokers. If he’s convicted, he could spend 20 years in a federal prison. He is determined to fight the charge. “I’m definitely going to fight it,” he said.

One state lawmaker was not quite so resilient. Assemblyman Mims Hackett Jr. of Orange told The Star-Ledger of Newark late Friday that he was resigning, something state Democratic Party leaders had called for. Rivera said one resident called and told him he should resign and informed him that a group of people would be picketing City Hall on Monday.“I can take care of the city’s business,” he said, but added, “It’s not easy when people have you convicted.”

Rivera said he was hurt that Council President Gary Schaer called Business Administrator Greg Hill Friday morning, telling him to strike all appointments on the City Council agenda that are from the mayor’s office.“He already has me convicted,” Rivera said.

Rivera said tape transcripts that U.S. attorneys presented in federal court Thursday, in which the mayor allegedly boasted in expletive-laden language about his ability to win four votes on the council to award a contract, were part of a plot to frame him. “I want to see those tapes,” he said. “They cut the tapes.

He recalled his surprise when FBI agents, whom he called “liars,” arrived at his house at 6 a.m. Thursday. “I was on my way to work,” he said, adding that he couldn’t disclose more details because of the pending case.The day before, he said, agents called him about Councilman Marcellus Jackson and former Councilman Jonathan Soto — both arrested on Thursday and charged with bribery. The agents said nothing about his own involvement in the alleged scam, Rivera said. They questioned him about his land deals in the Dominican Republic. Why was he giving away the city’s old fire trucks to small towns on the island? Does he own property there? “No,” he laughed, shaking his head. “I don’t own nothing in the Dominican, not even a flower pot,” he said.Rivera said he takes trips there and spends time with friends. He reached beneath a pile of scattered papers on his desk and found a letter from a woman, an elected official he met while vacationing in the Dominican Republic. She asked for help after her house burned down. He said he sent her a check.“I get letters from people all the time,” he said. “Mexicans, Dominicans, Peruvians. It’s charity. It doesn’t cost the city one cent.” Rivera is one of the highest paid mayors in the state, making nearly $118,000 a year. When asked if he took $5,000 in bribes from a fake insurance company, as the federal prosecutor’s complaint alleges, he scoffed.“I have no money,” he said. “I live on my paycheck.

He denied ever having talked about putting money into a bank account in Switzerland or the Dominican Republic.Rivera said the one time he recalls meeting with undercover agents purporting to be insurance agents was in his office at City Hall with Business Administrator Hill and Jose Agosto, the city’s finance director.He said a fight ensued between Hill and the agents. “Greg didn’t believe the deal they were offering,” he said. “The agents were saying the insurance was much lower than any competitor. Greg said, ‘I don’t believe you.'”Rivera said at that point, he told the two men that they should work out an agreement that would pass muster with Hill and Agosto. Hill was not available for comment Friday.Rivera said that as he sat in his jail cell Thursday afternoon next to Mims Hackett Jr., the mayor of Orange, who was also arrested, he thought to himself, “I don’t know who this guy is.” And that town in South Jersey, Pleasantville, where federal agents contend the scandal began?“I don’t know anyone in Pleasantville. I don’t even know where Pleasantville is,” he said.Rivera said he was encouraged by the many people who called him to express support.“I have very strong support from the Hispanic community. I have a lot of support from friends,” he said. “I’m going to keep on working.”He said he worried about those close to him. “This incident is definitely hurting my family. It hasn’t been easy,” he said.

The criminal complaint against Rivera alleges that the mayor met contacts in a restaurant and in a parked car. He said the only place he met with the purported insurance brokers was in his office with Hill and Agosto.During the arraignment Thursday, the judge ordered that the defendants’ passports be confiscated. But on Friday morning, Rivera’s passport sat on his desk. Rivera was released on $200,000 bail, to be paid if he misses his next court date.“I have to turn this in on a condition of my bail,” he said, pointing to the passport. Outside his office, familiar faces and characters roamed the corridors. Vincent Capuana, the city’s housing inspector, a close friend of Jackson and Rivera, avoided commenting on the controversy, walking quickly in the other direction. Deputy Mayor Robert Hare, walking toward the elevator, said he was standing by the mayor during this difficult time. “You want to understand, he’s my friend first,” Hare said. “I don’t believe in kicking people when they have a problem.”

Reach Meredith Mandell at 973-569-7107 or mandell@northjersey.com

The Associated Press contributed to this report.  

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