NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — If the lines at the local multiplex for “American Hustle” are too much to handle, this week brings the opportunity to witness some flesh-and-blood characters in a new and entirely real New Jersey political corruption prosecution.
“American Hustle” is loosely based on a federal string operation in the late 1970s known as Abscam that ensnared a roster of New Jersey politicians from almost every level of government.
Now, Trenton Mayor Tony Mack and his brother are scheduled to go on trial in federal court on fraud, bribery and extortion conspiracy charges also resulting from an FBI sting, albeit a more modest one. Jury selection is set to begin sometime this week.
Almost anywhere else, accusations that the mayor of a state capital city accepted bribes for a land deal might come as a surprise, even a shock.
In New Jersey, it’s just the latest installment in a long-running sideshow that predates Abscam, which used a con man and two FBI agents posing as Arab sheik investors to rack up 19 convictions, among them Camden Mayor Angelo Errichetti and U.S. Sen. Harrison Williams.
If the grainy videotapes of public officials eagerly selling their influence to the highest bidder were an eye-opener in the early 1980s, the corruption they exposed has since become a depressingly familiar feature of the political landscape in New Jersey, where dozens of public figures have been convicted in the last decade.
(In a particularly twisted example of flattery by imitation, one defendant in the Bid Rig bust of 2009 — an even more sprawling sting operation that led to the convictions of more than three dozen people, including two mayors and a state legislator — was caught on tape using a phrase immortalized by Pennsylvania Rep. Michael “Ozzie” Myers in Abscam: “Money talks and bull—t walks.” Like Myers, Vincent Tabbachino ultimately went to prison).
In bringing a case against Mack and brother Ralphiel, a onetime local football star, the U.S. attorney’s office took a well-worn page from its playbook and used undercover informants, a middleman with a criminal past and a fictitious parking lot deal as inducements.
Mack and the purported middleman, sandwich shop owner and convicted sex offender Joseph Giorgianni, were accused of agreeing to accept $100,000 for city-owned land assessed as $271,000 if they could split a $100,000 bribe. At the time of their arrests in September 2012, authorities said the men were paid $54,000 and promised an additional $65,000.
The verbiage alone could make this trial must-see viewing: Mack is listed in the federal indictment by the monikers “Honey Fitz,” ”The Little Guy” and “Napoleon;” Giorgianni apparently goes by “Mr. Baker” and “The Fat Man,” and the code word for cash was “Uncle Remus,” according to the indictment.
Giorgianni pleaded guilty last month to two extortion-related counts and unrelated drug and weapons charges.
In a recent court filing that seeks to limit or exclude some wiretap evidence, Ralphiel Mack’s attorney referred to Giorgianni as a narcissistic, ego-driven man who was “susceptible to flattery and exploitation” by the government as he sought to curry favor in an unrelated drug case. Giorgianni knew that his conversations were being taped and tailored his conversations accordingly, attorney Robert Haney claimed.
“The statements in them are not records of actual conversations involving corrupt payments with respect to the parking lot scam, but are, instead, a series of quotable wiretap phrases,” Haney wrote.
Tony Mack and his attorney didn’t return recent messages left seeking comment. Ralphiel Mack didn’t comment when reached Friday.
(© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)