TRENTON, New Jersey (Reuters) - U.S. prosecutors said during opening statements on Thursday that the mayor of New Jersey’s capital city and his brother accepted bribes in exchange for help in a garage development, while defense attorneys said there was no evidence the siblings took the money.
The mayor, Tony Mack, and his brother Ralphiel have pleaded not guilty to federal charges that they were involved in a 2010 plot to secure the mayor’s help in developing a parking garage on city-owned land.
Federal prosecutors’ case against the brothers read like a cheap crime thriller, filled with secret meetings and code names like “Uncle Remus” to refer to corrupt payments. The mayor, not a tall man, was referred to as “the little guy” and “Napoleon.”
“You are going to hear over and over again that Uncle Remus is there,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Skahill told the jury in his opening statement. “One thing you are never going to hear is Tony Mack asking who Uncle Remus is.”
Prosecutors said a government informant offered a $119,000 bribe and paid out $54,000 in a series of eight payments from October 2011 to June 2012.
Mack’s defense lawyer, Mark Garnet Davis, cast doubt that the mayor ever received the money, which was collected by steak house owner Joseph Giorgianni. Giorgianni, who is also known as “The Fat Man” and “JoJo,” pleaded guilty in December 2013 to two counts of extortion.
“There is no credible evidence that Tony Mack took any money, or that he knew about the corrupt nature of the project,” Davis said.
The corruption trial in Trenton is playing out at a U.S. District courthouse that towers over the neighboring City Hall, where Mack, 48, has been the chief executive of the city government since 2010.
Mack’s lawyer has said he has no plans to step down despite a call to do so by Governor Chris Christie.
A former Trenton city official and confidant of the mayor, Charles Hall, also pleaded guilty in February 2013 to two counts of extortion.
Prosecutors accused the Mack brothers of trying to conceal their activities by avoiding meetings, and instead gathering at Giorgianni’s residence, his steak house and restaurants in Atlantic City.
Raphiel Mack’s attorney, Robert John Haney, told the jury that the U.S. government set up “a sting operation, a fiction.” He noted that Ralphiel Mack is a teacher and a football coach who has no political clout.
“You are going to hear the real evidence that Tony Mack is not involved at all, everything is run by JoJo,” Haney said.
The mayor and his brother each face one count of conspiracy to obstruct justice, one count of attempting the obstruction of justice by extortion, one count of accepting bribes and three counts of fraud. If convicted of all the charges against them, they each face a maximum punishment of 110 years in prison.
Another of the mayor’s brothers, Stanley “Muscles” Davis, a Trenton Water Works employee, is serving a six-year prison term on official misconduct charges in a separate case after pleading guilty in 2011 to taking side jobs on city time and with department equipment.
Editing by Scott Malone and Amanda Kwan