Convictions still haunt ex-mayors

12 05 2008

The real punishment may be the remaining life of regret, longing and debt.

Sammy Rivera, 61, may face as little as 18 months in prison when a federal judge sentences him in August for accepting a $5,000 bribe from an FBI informant. But when Rivera finishes whatever term he may receive, his troubles will be far from over if the experiences of other Passaic County mayors toppled by federal corruption charges are any indication.

Although their prison sentences stretched no longer than three years, their punishments seem to have lasted much longer.

Since emerging from their prison cells, three former Passaic County mayors — Louis V. Messercola of Wayne, Joseph Lipari of Passaic and Martin G. Barnes of Paterson — have been saddled with mountainous legal debts and fees.

But the bigger price is the loss of power and influence. While the three disgraced men all still live in or around the cities they once ruled, their presence has eroded from larger than life to practically invisible.

That’s a crushing blow for politicians such as Lipari, who used charisma and backroom dealings to rule Passaic for nearly a decade until his 1993 conviction forced him to step down. Asked to sum up the price of his conviction, he replied: “Very costly. Too costly.”

The former mayor has since regained a semblance of normality, if not opulence. Two black Mercedes-Benzes were parked near the backyard swimming pool of his ranch-style house in Garfield. But the words he spoke in an interview last week echoed a longing for the station he once held.

Of the three mayors, only Lipari invited a reporter into his house, and for an hour he ruminated about his political past while reclining on a couch. Withered by chronic illness and a heart condition, he managed to muster the energy to speak about his life as a street kid with a sixth-grade education who grew up to become mayor.

Lipari spoke defiantly about the charges he once faced, proudly about his accomplishments in office and vaguely about the vicious entanglement of money and politics he found himself in.

“Unfortunately,” the 71-year-old said, his voice a sleepy gravel, “you get wrapped around an axle, and the next thing I know, I’m indicted.”

He asserted he never was convicted of accepting bribes, only conspiracy to extort money and evading taxes, albeit on cash bribes he allegedly took. Lipari was acquitted of seven other charges, including demanding and receiving $175,000 in bribes for steering city contracts to crooked roofing and towing companies.

First regret filled his voice as he wondered how he could have avoided his conviction. “I wanted to testify,” but his lawyers advised against it, he said.

“Maybe that was a big mistake,” he said.

Then mist filled his eyes when his thoughts turned to his beloved Passaic.

“I don’t think there’s a day that goes by that I don’t think about Passaic,” Lipari said slowly and surely. “I loved Passaic. I still love Passaic. The city will always be in my heart.”

And Passaic still loves him, too, he said.

“If I ran for mayor of Passaic, I’d win,” he said. Then, when talk turned to who should come after Rivera, Lipari muttered: “They should appoint me mayor.”

That’s not a possibility. Those who are convicted of federal corruption charges are barred from holding elected office again.

Lipari emerged from prison in 1996. Burdened with debts, he was forced to sell his lucrative meat business, Top Grade Sausage Inc. in Hawthorne, which he said once earned him more than $500,000 a year. His children now own the firm.

Louis V. Messercola’s leadership unraveled on a day in 1988, when federal agents nabbed him in a grocery store parking lot. He later was convicted of extorting enormous cash bribes from contractors wanting to do business in Wayne. When he left prison in 1991, he declared in a newspaper article that incarceration had freed him from personal demons. NorthJersey.com

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