A Passing Parade of Crooked Pols

By Jeffrey Page

Maybe the numbers were on the high side this time. Forty-four public officials, including three mayors and a member of the Assembly, arrested in one day, most on charges of money laundering. But elected politicians in New Jersey betraying the public trust and stealing public money?

It will happen again. Over the course of a century it has happened before.

Some Jersey stories.

In 1971, John R. Armellino, the mayor of West New York, pleaded guilty to taking $1,000 a week to protect illegal gambling interests. Not just any gambling interests but those run by a gentleman named Joseph “Bayonne Joe” Zicarelli of organized crime repute.

The mayor did such a good job in carrying out his end of the bargain that West New York became known as the place to go in North Jersey if you were looking for a little action.

Armellino had come home from World War II a tragic hero. For gallantry in action on D-Day he was awarded the Silver Star. He also lost his right leg at Normandy. On his return home he entered politics. He was mayor for 20 years and ran his town like a dictatorship. If a critic got too vociferous at a council meeting, Armellino would snap his fingers and a cop removed the complainer. At which point, Armellino would calmly say, “Next to be heard.”

The mayor went to prison for four years.

In Jersey City, also in 1971, Mayor Thomas J. Whelan was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment. All Whelan did was come up with a way to provide for his old age. He and some other officials figured they could shake down contractors doing business with the city simply by suggesting that failure to pay up would force Jersey City to give its business to rival contractors – who would then have to pay. It wasn’t original and it wasn’t elegant, but it worked for a while and the Whelan group’s take was said to be more than $1 million.

However, one supplier got tired of being extorted and went to the authorities. It didn’t take long for Whelan and the others to be brought down. The mayor pleaded guilty and was sent away.

Tom Gangemi was another Jersey City mayor who had to leave office prematurely, but not for bribery, extortion or conspiracy. In 1963, two years after he was elected, the feds informed Gangemi that he had a serious problem. He had never bothered to become a U.S. citizen.

A Union City storefront bearing an immodest sign – “The William V. Musto Regular Democratic Organization” – was Billy Musto’s 18-syllable base of operations. This was where Musto, the long-time mayor, would spend time schmoozing with friends, drinking coffee, and meeting constituents. You needed a job? A loan? Maybe some food for the table? You had a complaint about a cop? For these you needed to see somebody with clout. That was Mayor Musto.

How popular was he? Popular enough so that one year he secretly gave financial support to a challenger because, as Musto said, it didn’t look good to run with no opposition.

And popular enough so that on May 11, 1982, Billy was sentenced to seven years in prison for municipal racketeering, and on May 12, 1982, he was reelected mayor. The guy he beat was his former protégé Bob Menendez who testified against him and who never claimed that the vote had been rigged. Today, Menendez is one of Jersey’s senators.

And so popular that when Billy was released from prison after serving three years, he went home to Union City to find that lampposts all over town were decorated with yellow ribbons and welcome-home signs. One said “The leader is back.”

They’re all gone now, these characters in the long, never-ending line of corrupt Jersey pols. But clearly, the game of greed, stupidity and betrayal goes on.

Jeffrey can be reached at jeffrey@zestoforange.com


2 Responses to “A Passing Parade of Crooked Pols”

  1. MichaelKaufman Says:

    Didn’t Gangemi run against Whelan when he was elected? I remember a wonderful mud-slinging campaign in which they took turns accusing each other of being crooked. As it turned out they were both right. And let’s not forget the many crooked pols in Newark or the sleazeball from Engelwood, Robert Toricelli.

  2. JeffreyPage Says:

    Did Gangemi beat Whelan in ’63? I had forgotten that. In any event, a piece on all the Jersey guys who went to jail would go on for days. I wanted to stick to mayors from the North end.

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