TRENTON — A federal grand jury on Wednesday indicted former Passaic City Councilman Jonathan Soto on charges of pocketing $22,000 in bribes from undercover operatives seeking his help in obtaining lucrative municipal and school contracts.
The 15-count indictment adds two misdemeanor charges of attempted drug possession to the conspiracy and extortion allegations that were first outlined in a criminal complaint at the time of Soto’s Sept. 6 arrest.
“These guys are comedians, man,” Soto said by telephone Wednesday. “I don’t even know anything about it. I’ve been indicted on drug charges?”
Soto, fellow Passaic Councilman Marcellus Jackson, city Mayor Sammy Rivera and former Assemblyman Alfred E. Steele of Paterson were among 11 officials rounded up in an FBI sting operation that stretched from Atlantic County to North Jersey. Six of the officials, including Jackson and Steele, have since pleaded guilty to accepting bribes and are awaiting sentence.
Rivera was indicted two weeks ago on extortion and bribery charges and is awaiting trial. He is accused of offering to peddle his official influence in return for $50,000 and actually taking $5,000.
Soto, 32, a social studies teacher at Lincoln Middle School, had been suspended since his arrest. He remains free on $200,000 bail and will be arraigned as soon as the case is assigned to a U.S. District Court judge.
The indictment alleges that Soto extorted bribes from representatives of an undercover FBI company that offered insurance brokerage services to school districts and municipalities.
Soto allegedly accepted six payments from two cooperating witnesses in exchange for assurances that he would influence city officials to help secure contacts for the company.
According to the indictment, Soto was secretly recorded throughout the investigation, starting with a meeting with the FBI’s informants and a Pleasantville school official in an Atlantic City hotel room in October 2006. He agreed to use his official position and influence to obtain insurance brokerage contracts from the city and the school board in return for corrupt payments and took $2,000 at that time, it alleges.
In subsequent conversations, Soto variously referred to payoffs as “cake and green broccoli,” said he could enlist friends in other cities, and agreed to accept two $25,000 payoffs for himself and a conspirator, described as a high-ranking elected government official in Passaic and identified only as “Individual 1,” according to the indictment.
“[Individual 1] giving you the green light for you guys to come down is huge,” the indictment quotes Soto as saying. “Because it won’t just be the city. It will be the city, the [Board of Education] and everything else. The sky’s the limit in Passaic.”
Soto allegedly accepted $5,000 “for the boss,” at a rest stop on the Garden State Parkway and another $5,000 and $2,500 days later at a shopping mall in Egg Harbor Township, the indictment alleges.
After learning that a resolution authorizing the promised brokerage services had been rescinded by his colleagues in his absence, Soto sought to reassure the FBI operative that “the real power is with [Individual 1]” as opposed to members of the council who had voted against the resolution and for its rescission, the indictment said.
Over the next few months, Soto allegedly pocketed two more payoffs of $2,500 and $5,000, acknowledged he had passed on $10,000 to his unnamed co-conspirator and helped engineer the defeat of a competitor vying for the city’s health insurance contract, according to the indictment.
The indictment also contains two counts charging Soto with attempting to possess a controlled substance, which was not identified in the charges.
Soto was recorded saying he was “trying to cop some … weight,” and “that he has to stop smoking,” the indictment alleges. It accused Soto of asking an undercover informant to pay him in drugs rather than money.
Soto said Wednesday that when FBI agents arrested him, they threatened more jail time if he didn’t answer their questions truthfully.
Agents then asked him if he had ever taken drugs in his lifetime, and he said he admitted to smoking marijuana once because “they scared the [expletive] out of me.”
If convicted, Soto could face up to 20 years imprisonment on the conspiracy and extortion charges, 10 years on the bribery counts, and one year on the drug counts.
Soto’s attorney, Jose Ongay, said he was unaware of the indictment.