After a day of wrangling back and forth among attorneys, following months of wait and see mode following charges of corruption by the state Attorney General’s Office, and two years of citywide back chatter about his imminent political demise, a greatly aged-looking version of Paterson Mayor Jose “Joey” Torres took the government’s proffered plea deal of five years in prison without parole and forfeiture of his office.
The Paterson Times first reported the news here.
A source told InsiderNJ that attorneys and the court will hammer out the details of the mayor’s forfeiture of office on Monday.
In the highest profile corruption case of the year in New Jersey politics, Torres stole taxpayers’ money when he enlisted city Department of Public Works employees to do private work for him. The DPW workers today all also copped a plea deal, prior to the mayor’s attorney John Azzarello emerging last from Superior Court Judge Sheila Venable’s chamber in Jersey City.
Less than a year ahead of a scheduled May nonpartisan mayor’s election, the local governing body is expected to vote in Council President Ruby Cotton as Torres’ acting successor, although she may face a challenge from a said-to-be mulling Councilman Bill McCoy.
It was truly the exclamatory end of a long political life in Paterson.
A former councilman and member of a big family of local Puerto Rican merchants, Torres first won the mayoralty in 2002, beating a corruption-hobbled Mayor Martin G. Barnes. He won reelection handily in 2006 and briefly – at his apex of political power – looked like a possible lieutenant governor candidate choice for Governor Jon Corzine in 2009. Sitting on a million dollars in the bank, he took the 2010 election for granted.
“Token opposition,” was how he described challenges by councilmen Andre Sayegh and Jeff Jones.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Jones beat the low-gear incumbent, in no small part because of the citywide presence of future Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly, a popular head of recreation who ran as a council candidate that year, spiked the African American vote, and helped springboard Jones.
Turned out of City Hall, on the strength of a politically connected relationship with Ocean County GOP Chairman George Gilmore, Torres decamped to Jackson during the Jones years, employed as the township business administrator. But he sensed opportunity for a return when members of a stumbling Jones administration filed for overtime pay as Paterson reeled in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene.
Torres made his comeback in 2014, standing up to the local Democratic establishment, blowing out Jones and taking revenge on the party-backed Sayegh, whom he had blamed in the aftermath of the 2010 election for dividing the vote and helping to propel Jones to victory.
On the day he assumed the oath of office, his wife, Sonia, made a futile attempt to unify a city rent by a contentious election. Encumbered by a presidential office-seeking Gov. Chris Christie, who sworn-in Torres, the ceremony outside city hall carried the choruses of rowdy and irritated pro-teachers’ union protesters.
The often friendly father of three daughters, Torres attempted to play it all off.
But he wouldn’t finish a third term, as NBC News investigative reporter Jonathan Dienst uncovered the case that resulted earlier this year in the AG’s Office charging Torres and three DPW workers with racketeering and official misconduct charges. They also faced 3rd degree theft of unlawful taking and tampering of public records charges, and 4th degree charges of falsifying records.
According to Joe Malinconico of the Paterson Press, “The criminal case against Torres stems from a falling-out he had with real estate investor Charles Florio in 2015 over the developer’s building applications. Within months of buying tickets for Torres’ inaugural ball, an angry Florio hired a private investigator to follow the mayor around for about a year.”
“An old school case of corruption,” said Attorney General Chris Porrino.
The 58-year old mayor was defiant.
“I fully intend to vigorously defend myself against these allegations, and I look forward to the opportunity to present all of the facts in a court of law,” Torres said at the time. “I am confident that when the full story is told, I will be vindicated.”
Today proved it was not to be.