Mayor With a Past Has a Future in Prison

25 08 2008

WHEN a federal judge sentenced former Mayor Samuel Rivera to 21 months in federal prison on Aug. 15, an era ended in this tattered city of nearly 70,000, leaving many here debating Mr. Rivera’s tumultuous past and wondering what is to come.

To many, Mr. Rivera, 61, had been an improbable choice as mayor; he was an explosive man who had been implicated in the deaths of two young men. But to others in this city of shifting demographics, he was the forceful leader they needed to fight crime.

“He was a good politician in his first four years,” said Gary Schaer, the former City Council president who became acting mayor when Mr. Rivera resigned. “But in the last three years, he became inebriated with his own power, he forgot himself.”

Mr. Rivera, the first Hispanic mayor in this city about 15 miles from Manhattan, was a symbol of how Passaic had been transformed from a 19th-century industrial powerhouse, home to a large, middle-class Slavic population, to a 21st-century blue-collar enclave that is nearly 70 percent Hispanic, said Edward A. Smyk, the Passaic County historian.

“The Latino population in Passaic had been increasing over the years, and they felt they didn’t have a voice,” Mr. Smyk said. “And it was one of their compatriots they elected.”

But Mr. Rivera could never leave his past — including several brushes with the law — far behind him.

On New Year’s Eve 1966, Mr. Rivera shot and killed his brother-in-law Miguel Matos, 23, while showing his young niece how to load the pistol he used as a security guard. A court ruled the death accidental.

In 1980, Mr. Rivera, then a professional wrestler and a police officer in Puerto Rico, slashed his stomach after his partner, Thomas Lopez, shot and killed Aristides Navarro, 22, a suspected drug dealer. Five years later, Mr. Rivera confessed in court that he had falsely claimed that Mr. Navarro attacked him to give Mr. Lopez a defense for having killed the man.

After he was elected mayor, John J. Farmer Jr., New Jersey’s attorney general at the time, tried — but failed — to stop him from taking office because of his guilty plea in Puerto Rico.

Rolando Pacheo, 29, a lifelong Passaic resident who works at Kmart, volunteered for Mr. Rivera’s mayoral campaign and said he did not hold the man’s history against him.

“Whatever happened in the past before he was councilman and mayor should not have been brought up,” Mr. Pacheo said. “To have a Hispanic mayor for the first time in our city was a big deal.”

Last September, Mr. Rivera was arrested and charged with accepting a $5,000 bribe in exchange for lucrative insurance deals with the city. He pleaded guilty on May 9 and resigned that day.

During his sentencing, Mr. Rivera gave a letter to Federal District Judge Freda L. Wolfson in which he wrote that he had entered politics “with the sole purpose of helping others,” and that he had accepted a bribe a year ago not out of greed but out of “bad judgment and stupidity.”

Speaking up for Mr. Rivera, Miguel Ocasio, 50, a truck driver, said that several years ago, when he needed an apartment, Mr. Rivera helped him find one. “He did a lot of things for a lot of people,” he said. “He made a mistake, but he’s a good mayor.”

When Mr. Rivera left office, the Council dropped the mayor’s salary from the nearly $120,000 Mr. Rivera had earned as the third-highest-paid mayor in the state to a little more than $72,000, to “show the people that you’re not to be enriched” by the position, said Keith Furlong, spokesman for the city.

Though many declined to be interviewed out of fear of retaliation, others in Passaic spoke out against Mr. Rivera.

“I’m not a fan of his,” said Marco Kury, 59, a store owner. “We need a change.”

Henry Klingeman, Mr. Rivera’s attorney, said that Mr. Rivera was “relieved” that his bribery case was over and was “satisfied” with his sentence.

Daniel Schwartz, councilman at large in Passaic, said that now that Mr. Rivera was going to jail, “the city can close this chapter and focus on more important issues, like the budget.”

Former Mayor Margie Semler, 85, who was unseated by Mr. Rivera, said that she was glad that he would go to prison, but she wondered what he, and the city, would do next.

“He’ll be back again,” Ms. Semler said. “Whether he’s as big as life or whether he’s in the shadows remains to be seen.” Go to Complete Coverage »   NYTIMES.COM




3 responses

27 06 2009
robert abreu

what is the name of the prison that ex mayor sammy rivera is and place. thank you

27 06 2009
robert abreu

what is the name and place of the prison that the ex mayor samuel rivera is located. thank you

3 12 2011

I dont care what any of you people think Sammie is a good guy sure he might have done somthing bad but havent we all. When he was Passaic’s mayor he made sure everything was done he made sure the schools were good, and for a while they were, and when it snowed he made people shovel the snow before anyone would wake up, he was one of the best mayors Passaic has every had and it was a pleasure to meet him as a nieghbor and im not even 14 yet and his step son his step daughter his wife and his wife and himself are really nice.

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