TRENTON, N.J. – FBI agents arrested a dozen people — 11 of whom are public officials — across New Jersey on Thursday in connection with a federal corruption probe, the U.S. Attorney's office said.
The officials arrested include two state lawmakers, a mayor, three city councilmen, school board members and a city council staffer.
All were charged with demanding and taking cash bribes to influence the awarding of public contracts, said Michael Drewniak, spokesman for U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie.
"This is another sad day for the people of New Jersey," said Assembly Minority Leader Alex DeCroce, R-Morris. "Once again New Jersey's culture of corruption is national news."
Initial court appearances were scheduled for Thursday afternoon in Trenton.
Christie and FBI Special Agent in Charge Weysan Dun scheduled an afternoon news conference to discuss the case.
Drewniak said all 12 were arrested Thursday morning. He said a federal complaint charges each with accepting payments from companies that offered insurance and roofing services to school districts and municipalities.
The investigation began with Pleasantville schools, near Atlantic City, in mid-2006, Drewniak said.
Soon, the FBI established an undercover insurance brokerage company purporting to employ the government's two cooperating witnesses and undercover agents. Pleasantville school board members then allegedly took thousands of dollars in bribes from the cooperating witnesses, Drewniak said.
The circle of corruption widened when Pleasantville school board members referred the cooperating witnesses to public officials in northern New Jersey who also took bribes and, in turn, put them in touch with other public officials, Drewniak said.
Those arrested allegedly demanded and accepted payments ranging from $1,500 to $17,500 and sought to continue receiving bribes from the cooperating witnesses, according to the criminal complaints.
Those arrested Thursday were Democratic state Assemblymen Mims Hackett Jr. and Alfred E. Steele; Passaic Mayor Samuel Rivera; Passaic Councilman Marcellus Jackson and former Passaic councilman Jonathan Soto; and Keith Reid, chief of staff to Newark's City Council president.
Steele has been an assemblyman since 1996, serving as deputy speaker since 2002. He's also the pastor at Seminary Baptist Church in Paterson and a Passaic County undersheriff.
Jenna Pollard, who answered the phone at Steele's Paterson office and identified herself as his chief of staff, said she had no comment and didn't know if Steele had a lawyer.
Steele was to be suspended from his undersheriff's job on Thursday but instead resigned from the $89,900-per-year post around noon, said Bill Maer, a Passaic sheriff's spokesman.
"These are serious accusations and the sheriff has zero tolerance for any member of the department involved in any type of corruption matter," Maer said.
Hackett, 65, has been Orange mayor since 1996 after eight years on the city council. He's been an assemblymen since 2002.
Hackett was convicted of kidnapping in 1975 and sentenced to 30 years in prison, but was pardoned after a year when the victim recanted testimony and Hackett's cousin confessed to the crime.
A phone message left at Hackett's office wasn't immediately returned Thursday. Neither were messages left at Reid's and Rivera's offices.
Rivera is a former police officer and professional wrestler.
Newark City Council President Mildred Crump said she just found about Reid's arrest and had no comment. She said he has worked for her since she became the council president on July 1, 2006.
The arrested Pleasantville school board members are board President James A. Pressley and Rafael Velez. Former members Jayson G. Adams, James T. McCormick and Maurice "Pete" Callaway were also arrested.
Callaway is now a Pleasantville city council member and the brother of former Atlantic City Council President Craig Callaway, who is serving time in federal prison from stemming from an unrelated corruption scheme.
Louis Mister, of Pleasantville, a private citizen, was also arrested.
"It's just a horrible day in Pleasantville," said John Deserable, a monitor sent by the state Department of education to oversee the district's finances. "It's another black eye to the district that we don't need. The children deserve better than this."
More than 100 public officials in the state have been convicted on federal corruption charges in the last five years.
Thursday's arrests were the latest in an anti-corruption campaign waged by Christie's office. Two other Democratic state senators, Wayne Bryant of Lawnside and Sharpe James of Newark, are among others facing pending corruption charges.
Assembly Democrats had no immediate comment on the arrests.
The Legislature isn't expected to return to session until after November's election but Assemblyman Richard Merkt was at the Statehouse Thursday and expressed dismay.
"I just find it really depressing that we continue to have problems with breach of public trust," said Merkt, R-Morris.