BYRNE 'AT PEACE' Tells docs not to resuscitate lets kin know time is near

Tells docs not to resuscitate lets kin know time is near


Among the saints and scoundrels of New Jersey politics, there are few lives as colorful as that of Paul J. Byrne.

A streetwise kid from Jersey City, he rose to become the guru of backroom politics for the state's most powerful Democrats.

There were heady times, fueled by power and graft. And a spectacular fall marked by two final betrayals: first, his lifelong pal, Hudson County Executive Robert Janiszewski, ratted him out to the FBI; then, his own body quit on him.

Now, Byrne says, he's ready to die.

Hospitalized for 11 days after suffering congestive heart failure and a slight stroke on March 31, Byrne refused the surgery doctors told him he needs to keep his heart beating.

Instead, with the Terry Schiavo case fresh in his mind, he gathered his five siblings and distributed a copy of his living will to each one.

He instructed his doctors to label his files with the letters "DNR": do not resuscitate. He set aside some money for a postmortem cocktail party and ordered his ashes tossed into the Hudson River from a Manhattan-bound ferry.

And he went home to his Jersey City apartment to live out whatever time he has left.

"You talk about heart valves and bypass - PJB's not going there," he said, referring to himself by his initials. "If it ends today, it's okay with me."

Even if he survived the operation to replace a blocked artery and a calcified aortic valve, Byrne, already blind from diabetes, would face a difficult rehabilitation.

Getting back on his feet would only mean he'd have to stand before a judge to be sentenced on federal extortion charges. For now, his sentencing has been postponed because of his health.

At his condominium inside a converted molasses refinery, Byrne's blindness prevents him from enjoying the view of the Statue of Liberty from his patio. But the phone still rings constantly with officials and politicians seeking advice. He can listen to the newspapers read over the phone through a service for the blind.

"All I have left is my mind," he said. "I don't want to be in a wheelchair drooling all over myself. I'm at peace with this."

For years, Byrne served as Janiszewski's top aide and closest confidant as the four-term executive rose to become one of the most powerful figures in New Jersey politics.

He had no official title, but was widely viewed as the gatekeeper to Janiszewski. U.S. senators and reporters alike keep his phone number on speed dial. When then-candidate Bill Clinton met with Janiszewski, who coordinated Clinton's 1992 New Jersey campaign, Byrne was there.

And when Janiszewski was brought down by in a corruption scandal, he brought his childhood friend down with him.

Byrne's latest health problems emerged less than a week before he was to be sentenced on charges that he was Janiszewski's "bagman," collecting more than $850,000 between 1999 and 2001 from firms seeking contracts with the county.

A spokesman for Christie said federal prosecutors will review Byrne's medical records to determine whether to reschedule the sentencing date, initially set for April 5.

Family members discounted any notion that the illness was an attempt to avoid jail time.

"The facts are the facts," said his brother, Robert Byrne, the city clerk in Jersey City. "This is not Michael Jackson's backache."

Byrne, 59, hums a tune out loud as he feels his way around the sparsely furnished condo in a pair of dark glasses. His points out the small plastic bags into which his brother Robert has placed the pills he needs to take each day.

"I've never taken so many drugs and not enjoyed any of them," Byrne jokes. "Hey, you have to have some humor about all this. This whole thing shouldn't be so maudlin."

His primary topic on this day is his living will. He agreed to discuss his health problems with the hope that it might encourage more people to prepare their own living wills.

Byrne, who never married and has no children, credits his brother Robert with organizing the family, making copies of the living will and passing it out their siblings.

Knowing his siblings won't be quarreling over his care, he said, "puts me at peace."

"If you don't do this for your family, you don't really love them," he said. "People say, 'It's in God's hands.' Really, it isn't. God is too busy to be running around to all the emergency rooms in New Jersey."

Byrne doesn't believe in God, anyway. For a convicted bagman, there is comfort in that.

"If had any religious faith, I'd be concerned about dying because I don't think I'd even make it to purgatory," he said. "I don't want to contend with the day of reckoning."

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