New York

I-Team: Public Housing in New Jersey Town Given to Mayor's Political Supporters, Insiders Allege

What to Know

  • Public housing meant for the needy in North Bergen are instead being given to political supporters of the town's mayor, insiders allege
  • Some administrators at the Housing Authority, as well as political supporters, are getting drastically reduced rents, insiders claim
  • The Housing Authority say similar claims have been made by political opponents of the mayor in the past, and "they have no merit"

Six current and former insiders at the North Bergen Housing Authority allege some public housing units meant for the needy are instead being given to political supporters of that town’s mayor.

"It’s not right," one insider speaking on condition of anonymity told the News 4 I-Team. "Especially with apartments that needy families could be using." 

"I believe it’s criminal," said a second insider who asked her name not be used.

One example, according to insiders, is NBHA supervisor Cheryl O’Shea who they say is a well-known supporter of Mayor Nicholas Sacco. Insiders say she took a three-bedroom townhouse and pays reduced rent based on a misleading salary. Based on a reported $15,000 a year salary, O’Shea pays rent of $350 per month. But New Jersey state pension records show O’Shea had more than $51,000 in income, and under Department of Housing and Urban Development Funding guidelines, she should be paying about $1,300 per month.

"She makes way more than $14,000," a third insider told the I-Team.

"It’s not a fair and square process. Their salaries aren’t truthful and they are getting reduced rent for it," said another insider.

The whistleblowers said Ester Cordero also gets a housing deal in part because of her ties to Sacco. She is an assistant manager at the NBHA. Her reported salary to the housing complex in 2016 was $22,000 and gets a rent bill of $550 per month. But state records show she earned over $40,000 where she should be paying roughly $1000 a month.

When asked if such deals are done for housing authority workers only, one insider said it's done for "political supporters as well."

Six current and former insiders familiar with the Housing Authority have stepped forward to allege abuses at the federally funded complex.

A Housing Authority spokesman, Phil Swibinski, said in a statement on behalf of O’Shea, Cordero and the authority, that 11 NBHA workers have been given public housing apartments and townhomes. He said those employees are not bound by income restrictions in part because “they perform additional tasks like shoveling snow, light maintenance and cleaning that reduces the need for outside contractors.”

But federal officials said North Bergen Housing Officials have been told just three workers, not 11, are approved for so-called "live-in" housing deals. Federal officials said needy families on a waiting list always take priority over employees who want public housing.

The director of the Housing Authority, Gerald Sanzari, is a former deputy police chief in North Bergen with ties to Sacco. In February, he defended security director Georffrey Santini –- who is also close to Sacco -- amid no-show job allegations.

"He works 35, 40, 45 hours a week," Sanzari claimed.

Santini was fired after an investigation into the allegations reported by the I-Team.

Insiders allege that under Sanzari, some employees work as extensions of the Sacco political machine, making housing decisions in part based on a tenant’s political support for Sacco.

“Cheryl O’Shea would look and see if people are supporters,” said one insider. “And if they aren’t, they would not get an apartment. They would get skipped over.”

A second insider said,” I can tell you that people in need have been turned down because of their political affiliation.”

A third insider, referencing a tenant matter, said, “It was Cheryl, who is manager of that building who said, ‘I don’t want her here. She votes for the opposition.’”

When reached by phone, O’Shea referred the I-Team to attorney Rose Tubito, legal counsel for the Housing Authority. Tubito did not return phone calls.

But spokesman Swibinski -- who also represents Sacco -- said, ”Political opponents of the Sacco administration have made similar claims numerous times in the past and they have no merit.”

Insiders said O’Shea, the now-fired security director, Santini and others pressed workers to support Sacco politically – especially buying tickets to Sacco campaign fundraisers. Some cost up $1,000 per event.

“They come up behind you and they give you your ticket. They’ll block your car in. They’ll put it on your desk and it’s just, your name could already be on the ticket. They know if you buy one or not,” one insider claimed."

The Housing Authority spokesman said employees are not allowed to engage in political activity on property and that anyone with corruption allegation should report it.

But the current and former insiders said they fear retaliation and that past complaints have gone ignored.

David Miller, former U.S. federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York, said state or federal prosecutors should be looking into possible political and financial abuses in the Housing Authority.

“Remember, this housing authority receives federal funding. That could make all of these actions federal crimes,” Miller said. “Even if you are looking at small amounts, one, they aggregate up, and two, you are talking about the potential for wide ranging political corruption.”

The six insiders say they are blowing the whistle to try to help improve conditions for workers and to try to level the playing fields for needy families desperate for affordable housing.

“When is enough enough?” said one insider.

Another said,”I wonder where the FBI, where the attorney general is. Somebody ought to know about this and investigate it thoroughly.”

A housing spokesman late Thursday said in a statement the NBHA believes employees should get reduced rate apartments in the complex but that the NBHA is “committed to being in full compliance with all federal HUD regulations and would welcome additional guidance.”

Swibinski added: "NBHA Executive Director Gerald Sanzari has discussed this issue in detail with representatives from HUD, most recently in January, and to this date the Authority has not been provided with definitive instructions as to exactly how many resident employees are permissible.

"NBHA officials believe strongly that the current number of resident employees is appropriate given the needs of the agency and the cost savings that their employment creates. Executive Director Sanzari and the NBHA Board of Commissioners are committed to being in full compliance with all federal HUD regulations and would welcome additional guidance and information on the subject."

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