Ex-Hudson freeholder gets 37 months for graft

Ex-Hudson freeholder gets 37 months for graft

December 16, 2003 Star-Ledger

A federal judge yesterday sentenced former Hudson County Freeholder Nidia Dávila Colón to 37 months in prison for passing bribes to the county executive for her boyfriend, a psychiatrist with county contracts.

U.S. District Judge William Bassler said Colón was a kind and compassionate person who had been "heartbroken" and "humiliated" by Oscar Sandoval, the boyfriend who secretly recorded her for the FBI.

But the judge also said Colón, a freeholder for 19 years and the state's longest serving female in elective office, had become a victim of her own ambition.

"For too long, too many in this state have acclimated themselves to a culture of public corruption," Bassler told Colón during a hearing in Newark. "It's your misfortune to be one of those summoned by the wake-up call that public corruption will no longer be tolerated."

The penalty rivaled the stiffest given to any New Jersey official sentenced in the recent wave of federal corruption cases, and it was one the popular Jersey City politician might have avoided.

Colón, who never personally pocketed the bribes, chose to go to trial in May instead of taking a plea deal that might have earned her a substantially lighter term. A jury then convicted her of fraud and aiding extortion for delivering two cash-stuffed envelopes to former Hudson County Executive Robert Janiszewski in 1999.

For more than three hours yesterday, Colón sat as if she were frozen at the defense table while attorneys argued over her life and her crime.

Finally, she stood to address the judge, and wept steadily as she read a statement apologizing to her family, her constituents and her son, whose high school graduation and 18th birthday she'll celebrate in prison.

A single mother, Colón said she was duped by Sandoval, a man she said regularly accompanied her to church and promised to marry her. He also used her to bribe Janiszewski for the executive's approval on $2.3 million worth of contracts at the county jail and a county-run hospital.

"He was not loving me; he was manipulating me," she told the judge.

Sandoval won the contracts and later became a cooperating FBI witness. He wore recording devices to help prosecutors build a case against Janiszewski, who has since pleaded guilty, as well as Colón and William Braker, another freeholder awaiting trial on corruption charges.

Sandoval has never been charged.

The psychiatrist's role dominated much of the discussion yesterday, as it did during the trial.

"There's no question that Ms. Colon was treated most shabbily by this Dr. Sandoval, the Svengali of this case," Bassler said. "And there's no question that she had to be devastated by what he did to her."

Colón had faced as many as 51 months in prison under federal sentencing guidelines, but prosecutors wanted an even stiffer range, contending she perjured herself at trial.

Colón's attorneys urged leniency, arguing among other things that her history of public service was extensive and her role in the payoffs minimal.

Defense attorney Peter Willis renewed his trial contention that Colón was entrapped, and that her love clouded her judgment.

He called as a witness James Ferretti, a Jersey City psychiatrist who examined Colón this fall and who said the relationship overwhelmed Colón. Ferretti testified that Colón's fear of losing Sandoval also sent her into a suicidal depression.

Ferretti also said Sandoval violated medical ethics by prescribing a high daily dose of Xanax, an addictive antidepressant, and maintaining a romantic relationship with Colón while he was cooperating against her.

Willis asked the judge to use the case to send prosecutors a message about using someone so emotionally tied to a target. "This case stands out like no other because the conduct of the government is abhorrent," he said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Clark countered that such cases almost always depend on informants who betray people who trust them. He also said "the government didn't go looking for her" and actually tried to remove Colón as the conduit to Janiszewski so they could catch the executive.

But Clark said Colón inserted herself in the scheme, then repeatedly lied to FBI agents and the jury about her role.

"She is a victim of her own acts -- her own knowing, willful acts," he said.

Bassler agreed to a minimal reduction for Colón's history of public service, and at one point, he echoed Willis' concern about the government's investigative methods.

"There's something weird about the government using Sandoval under these circumstances," Bassler said. "That really sticks in my craw."

But the judge ruled that the evidence ultimately showed that Colón was a strong, independent-minded official who otherwise knew what she was doing. Bassler said Colón could delay her surrender until February. He also ordered Colón to pay a $1,000 fine and serve three years of supervised release when she gets out of prison.

U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie said the sentence should send out "a strong signal to public officials" that such corruption wouldn't be tolerated.

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