Jersey City Trumps Jersey Shore: U.S. v. Leona Beldini

Jersey Shore? Fuhgeddaboudit. Jersey City is the gem of reality TV. Shore is MTV. Jersey City is FBI. Like, how real is that? Killer videos of pols talking trash and passing cash have been unspooling in federal court in Newark at the trial of Jersey City Deputy Mayor Leona Beldini. Beldini was busted last summer in an FBI sweep that corralled dozens of Jersey pols. It was one of the largest corruption roundups in Jersey’s thick history of roundups. The majority of the busted were from Hudson County, parent entity of Jersey City, second largest city in the state. Twelve public servants have pleaded guilty; Leona Beldini is first to stand trial. Charges? Bribe taking, attempted extortion, and conspiracy to commit extortion. MTV’s Jersey Shore has hot munchkin Snooki, but Jersey City has the far classier — albeit far older — Beldini. Back in the day, Beldini was burlesque queen “Hope Diamond.” “The Gem of Exotics.”

Jersey City, New Jersey

In the here and now, Deputy Mayor Beldini is a prominent Realtor, past president of the Hudson County Board of Realtors. Until suspended as deputy mayor (an appointed position) Beldini was Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah Healy’s liaison to various development-related municipal agencies. Beldini also headed the board of the quasi public Jersey City Economic Development Corporation, which among other things, administers the city’s Urban Enterprise Zone projects. One third of Jersey City is Urban Enterprise Zone. Development projects in The Zone are eligible for a wide array of tax exemptions and utility breaks.

Mayor Jerramiah Healy hasn’t been indicted but he appears in FBI videos featuring Beldini. (There are other tapes, starring other pols.) As does former Jersey City Housing Authority Commissioner, Vice President of the Board of Education, and Hudson County Affirmative Action Officer Edward Cheatam. (Yup, Ed wore 3 hats.) Also appearing: the late Jack Shaw, a well worn political consultant. Cheatam has pleaded guilty to conspiring with Beldini and others “to accept corrupt cash payments” in return for “official influence.”* Consultant Jack Shaw died of a Valium overdose a few days after being busted.

Mayor Jerry Healy is Jersey City’s version of Jersey Shore’s bod-flaunting JWOWW. JHOWW-come-he-keeps-getting-elected and Beldini go back decades. A Healy son has a license in Beldini’s real estate office and Beldini and the Healys are neighbors in Jersey City. They have summer homes a block from each other in Bradley Beach at the — where else — Jersey shore. In 1999, when Healy was Chief Judge of Jersey City Municipal Court, cops visited his vacation crib. Neighbors were bitching about party hearties. Healy wrestled with the cops on his porch. In the nude. (Though one neighbor said he was clutching a towel when the fracas began.) Healy pleaded guilty to a minor disorderly conduct charge.

In 2004, mayoral candidate Jerry Healy was seen — and photographed — passed out naked on his front porch in Jersey City. The nudie pic, which was posted on the Internet by an opponent, might have discouraged a less determined electorate. But Healy swept to victory.

In 2006, Mayor Healy was back for a rematch with the Bradley Beach cops. (This time he was clothed.) Two officers rassled him to the ground outside his sister’s bar and gave him a few shots of pepper spray. The shots chased a good deal of beer. Healy was convicted on disorderly conduct charges in 2007. The same year he was made chairman of the Hudson County Democratic Organization, a monster political machine that’s been somewhat weakened by a decade of corruption indictments and flaccid leadership.

By the Spring of 2009, Jerramiah Healy was on the mayoral campaign trail again, with Leona Beldini as campaign treasurer. Things were looking good. New York City Mayor Mike “The Situation” Bloomberg was set to toss a $1,000-a-head fundraiser for Healy at his NYC townhouse. (The Situation and his deputy mayor, Kevin Sheekey, have Jersey City roots. Sheekey’s family goes way back with the Healy family.) Another big bux event was scheduled at the Beacon, an elegant condo fortress in one of Jersey City’s poorest nabes. Plus, a new developer in town was spreading cash around.

Developer David Esenbach wanted to build a high-rise luxury condo project of 750 units on land next to a site contaminated with chromium in an inner city neighborhood. Esenbach was confident the units could be marketed for half-a-mil each. But he worried the city’s planning, zoning, and overall development process might be too slow and cumbersome.

Esenbach conveyed his concern to Mayor Jerry Healy, Deputy Mayor Leona Beldini, Housing Commissioner Ed Cheatam, and political consultant Jack Shaw in meetings at Healy’s favorite luncheonette (City Hall is so impersonal) and other eateries. The foursome assured Esenbach that Jersey City was developer-friendly. Healy touted “a planning department let’s put it that way, that’s receptive.”** Beldini and Cheatam praised the director of the Division of Zoning Enforcement. “Tony’s Good” opined Cheatam. “He’s good” echoed Beldini. “Tony’s good. Tony’s been good for a long time” said Cheatam.

Despite the real estate slump, Beldini seemed to think Esenbach’s projected price of half-a-mil each for his condos was on target. Saying “with what’s happening, the inner city is the place to invest.” Esenbach granted Beldini exclusive dibs on marketing the condos. Beldini touted her ability to “cut through red tape” and cited her position at the Economic Development Corporation and as the mayor’s liaison to the Parking Authority. (Parking being a huge issue in large scale development projects.) She also tried pitching a “shovel ready” former sausage factory for a potential condo project but Esenbach didn’t bite. He’d already passed on a macaroni factory pitched by Cheatam.

(In ye old days, Jersey City produced something other than oleaginous pols and real estate capers.)

As the meetings progressed Esenbach made “donations” totaling $20 thousand. (A slice of what he was laying out at other meetings with Shaw, Cheatam, and myriad other officials.) Leona Beldini didn’t handle the cash but was enthusiastic about the transfer. Saying $10 thousand was for “J” (Jack Shaw) and the “Jersey City Democratic Committee”. She delineated how the money would be broken down into “different funds” (to beat legal limits on contributions) in order to “funnel it back into the mayor . . . which everybody does.” Esenbach said he’d “do him (Shaw) another 10 for Healy” and would “do more before election.” “Beautiful” replied Beldini.

Mayor Healy didn’t handle the cash. Cheatam and Shaw did the blunt talk. Esenbach did the taping.

Oh nooo! Developer David Esenbach didn’t exist. He was really developer Solomon Dwek, serial Ponzi schemer. In 2006, Dwek was nailed by the Feds for bank fraud after kiting tens of millions in bad checks. Apres bust, Dwek turned informant. Dwek was a natural for the job of Sting Boy. At Beldini’s trial, he admitted bribing countless public servants re development deals for some 10 years in Jersey and New York. He’d laundered the bribes through his family’s Yeshiva in Monmouth County. Dwek’s gift of grifter gab served him well with Healy, Beldini, Cheatam, and Shaw. On the FBI tapes the Fab Four echo each other’s lines and finish each other’s sentences like folks in a very old marriage. Dwek picked up their dialog and fed it back. Riffing on the slippery chit chat.

As for visuals, the tapes are cinema verite as shot from under a shirt. A herky jerky chest level camera catches Mayor Healy fist-pumping pepper onto potato salad. His tie hangs unknotted as if he’s starting to strip. His face looks red even in black and white. On one tape Leona Beldini describes the upcoming Healy fund raiser at the Beacon as an “elegant affair” with “carving stations” and “champagne.” The guests would be swell as well. “We want people who’ll look good.” One wonders — was Healy invited?

Political consultant Jack Shaw lends a touch of Banquo to the vids. As said, he died of a Valium overdose a few days after being busted. Accident? Only his shadow knows. His shadow hangs over the FBI’s case in Hudson County. After his arrest, Shaw allegedly agreed to cooperate with the Feds. His input would have been invaluable. It was Shaw who introduced Esenbach/Dwek to many of the indicted or suspect pols and it was Shaw who collected $40,000 from Dwek as an alleged bribe for the biggest fish in the batch — Joseph V. Doria, state commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs (DCA). As DCA head, Joe Doria chaired the New Jersey Redevelopment Authority, the Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, and the Council on Affordable Housing. Doria, a Hudson County machine man elevated to state power by former Governor Jon Corzine, admits meeting with Shaw and Dwek but denies taking bribes. Doria resigned as DCA head last summer, after his offices were raided by the FBI. He has not been indicted.

Jack Shaw cut his corruption teeth in Cook County, Illinois. He told Solomon Dwek that of all the places he knew, Hudson County was the most like Cook County. When the state’s attorney in Cook investigated Shaw in the late 70s, he emigrated to Hudson County. (He was invited in.) In Hudson, Shaw was jack of all trades. Among other things, he served as campaign manager and advisor to ex Hudson County Executive Robert Janiszewski. In 2002, Janiszewski pleaded guilty to extorting bribes from developers. Until his arrest became public knowledge, he wore a wire for the Feds. There went another batch . . .

Jack Shaw had his ups and downs. He riled a few cronies by allegedly embezzling from them to support a cocaine habit. The State Commission of Investigation said scathing things about how Shaw and a buddy ran the Hudson County chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. But in Hudson County, tomorrow is always another day. As the new millennium glided along, Shaw was guiding New York developer George Filopoulos of Metrovest Equities through the shoals of Jersey City’s development process. The result? The Beacon. An elegant condo fortress in one of Jersey City’s poorest nabes. FHA mortgages available! By the buy, Jack Shaw’s girlfriend was/is property manager for the Beacon. Money that Dwek gave Shaw flowed back to Mayor Jerry Healy’s campaign through her checkbook.

Even after death, Jack Shaw is a go-to guy. Leona Beldini’s attorney claims Jack was the real grafter. Cheatam? How ’bout that name? Solomon Dwek is a deceitful rat, Beldini an honest public servant. So pure she didn’t need to take the stand in her own defense. She just sat next to her attorney, shining . . .

As this is being written, the jury is out on U.S. v. Leona Beldini. In the FBI tapes, Deputy Mayor Beldini kept her hands clear of Dwek’s cash. Quid pro quo was at tongue’s length. Perhaps the jury will say “not proven.” But whether Beldini is convicted or not, the Feds deserve some sort of media award. Jersey City is a Reality TV classic. Its images are forever.

*Ex-Hudson County Official Admits Conspiring with Numerous Others to Extort Cash in Return for Official Influence, USDOJ, U.S. Attorney, District of New Jersey, 09/18/09

**Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are from the following transcripts of videos and audio tapes played during the U.S. v. Leona Beldini trial, and published in the Newark Star-Ledger:

Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff
Mondo QT

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[“Jersey City, New Jersey” photo by Oquendo; CC BY 2.0]