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Much of what is going on in Jersey City over the last few months resembles the 1948 classic Hollywood movie, “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House.”
The movie is about Mr. Blandings, who has become frustrated with the hustle and bustle of urban living and decides to move his family to the country.
This leads to a series of disasters, turning what should have been a simple endeavor of buying a house into a complex nightmare that has him knocking down the house he bought to build a new one.
Each step of the way, Blandings suspects he is being taken to the cleaners by the contractors he’s hired.
Unfortunately for Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop and his successful wife, Jacalyn, the circumstances are too similar to the movie, only made worse by the behind the scenes politics.
As with the Blandings, the Fulops decided to buy and tear down a house in Jacalyn’s hometown of Narragansett, Rhode Island.
Because Fulop got a line of credit from a Hudson County-based bank with which the city has deposits, and used the architect from Jersey City’s biggest landlord, the project has come under scrutiny, not only by media, but also by some of Fulop’s most powerful political foes.
Many of Fulop’s most ardent opponents became sources for a Bloomberg News story in July that raised questions about possible conflicts of interests involving the construction of Fulop’s dream house.
Although the story largely quoted unnamed sources, the list most likely included former Jersey City Police Chief Robert Cowan and developer Charles Kushner.
Fulop infuriated Kushner by withdrawing support for a large development in Journal Square last year. Kushner claimed Fulop’s action came because Kushner’s son, Jared, is the son-in-law of President Donald Trump. Fulop claims Jared failed to get the funding needed to move ahead with the project.
Prior to that Fulop forced Cowan out as police chief in a power struggle within the police department, making Cowan a lifelong enemy. Many believe that it was Cowan who supplied Phil Murphy, then candidate for governor, with the ammunition needed to force Fulop out of the primary for governor in 2016.
For months, Cowan and people close to him warned local media that a political bombshell was about to explode involving Fulop and his summer home in Rhode Island.
But when the story broke finally, it was more than a little disappointing, partly because it alluded to but did not prove any wrong doing.
Much like the Mueller Report that many anticipated would bring about the downfall of President Donald Trump, the story was rich in speculation and short on proof.
For the most part, media covering the story of Fulop’s country estate have stuck to what Bloomberg News reported, without providing any more details.
The two most critical elements of the original coverage question whether Fulop got special treatment from BCB Bank after his administration authorized depositing city employee pension funds.
The second most serious question involved Dixon Projects, a firm connected to the city’s largest landlord, and whether the architect’s services were payback for Fulop’s cancelling the 2013 reevaluation set in motion by his predecessor, Mayor Jeramiah Healy.
Fulop said he got market rates by the bank and pointed out that the deposits of funds in BCB Bank were approved in 2011, two years before he took office as mayor.
The Dixon situation is more complicated.
While Dixon may have benefited from the canceling of the 2013 reval, the company got banged later by the 2017 revaluation anyway.
The Fulop administration had other motivation for canceling the 2013 revaluation. Taking over as mayor, Fulop also authorized the establishment of a larger surplus in the municipal budget – a political trick that allowed Healy to take the blame for that year’s tax increase, but cleverly allowed Fulop to not raise taxes for several years after that.
Dixon, as the city’s largest landlord, also saw the most citations from city inspectors – more than 500 per year in 2019 alone, — all of which the company was forced to pay.
If there was a deal, why didn’t these fines vanish?
Fulop argues that the reason he selected Dixon’s architect was because of the quality of work.
Some may question the wisdom of having a roof-top pool on his new home, but he’s challenged his critics to prove there was any wrong-doing.
But Fulop is no political innocent. Anyone who met with him in The Brownstone Diner during his pre-mayoral days, know perfectly well how manipulative he can be.
His administration has also been plagued with operatives, who may or may not have been conducting private business in his name – with or without his knowledge.
One of these, Tom Bertoli, was also highlighted in the Bloomberg News story, as someone who benefited from being close to Fulop.
The story suggested that Bertoli used his connections with Fulop to get lucrative contracts with developers.
Bertoli allegedly failed to pay his federal taxes, and thus became the subject of a federal grand jury.
Insiders close to Bertoli said he eventually paid his back taxes (going back seven years), but federal authorities apparently sought to use this to get him to cooperate as part of a sting against other political people throughout New Jersey.
Bertoli is one of a number of former Fulop’s associates, who do business in the gray areas of government – a few of whom who have since resigned or ceased working with Fulop.
This includes his former chief of staff, Muhammed Akil and others allegedly involved in trying to rig a bid for an energy consultant contract. Eugene McKnight, a key political street operative, was fired from a city program for taking alleged kickbacks to place people in city jobs. Former Gov. Jim McGreevey has recently been fired his city job amid allegations that he mishandled money in the programs he oversaw.*
The big unanswered question is whether or not Fulop also wanders those gray areas, too, something his political opponents have yet to demonstrate.
This week, The Jersey Journal – the local daily in Jersey City – paid a visit to the under-construction home. Their story would have been better suited to the real estate section than the front page, because it did not shed any new light on the suspected conflicts.
Fulop referred the story as a kind of “stalking,” since it seemed dedicated to invading his private life, and clearly was well beyond the geographical area normally covered by paper.
“We really didn’t understand why they were doing the story when they called us for comment,” said a member of the Fulop Administration.
*Editor’s Note: McGreevey refutes the allegations and that Sudhan Thomas’ “audit” was never released, while noting that he publicly released eight audits.