Final, fateful chapter in a Hudson epic Byrne's life ends on the day Janiszewski starts his jail term

Final, fateful chapter in a Hudson epic
Byrne's life ends on the day Janiszewski starts his jail term

May 06, 2005 Star-Ledger
Robert Janiszewski and Paul Byrne shared a friendship for nearly a lifetime, political power for a generation and the infamy of corruption during the last few years.

Yesterday, the former Hudson County executive and his once- loyal bagman parted for the last time in quintessential New Jersey fashion.

Janiszewski reported to prison.

Byrne died.

Just past noon, Janiszewski arrived at a Pennsylvania prison camp to begin serving a 41-month term.

Byrne, his body ravaged by diabetes and heart disease, had been embittered by his friend's betrayal after Janiszewski secretly recorded conversations that led to Byrne's indictment. Forty minutes after Janiszewski arrived at prison, Byrne's body was found inside his Jersey City apartment. He died of natural causes, according to his brother, Robert Byrne, the city clerk of Jersey City.

The two events seemed an appropriate finale to the friendship that joined the two Democrats in power and corruption, then ended in bitterness.

"Wherever he is, I hope Bob Janiszewski at least says a prayer for Paul Byrne tonight," said former U.S. Sen. Robert Torricelli.

Byrne, 59, was awaiting sentencing on federal extortion charges. Blind from diabetes, he had recently suffered congestive heart failure but refused surgery, fearing he would not survive an operation.

For three decades, Byrne occupied a unique place in New Jersey politics, a power broker in the background but at the center of major decisions.

Drawn by his sharp wit and savvy, legislators, governors and U.S. senators turned to him for advice -- often unaware their own political enemies were calling him as well. In the process, he served as a bridge between the heyday of urban machine politics and the modern era.

"It's not just the end of the chapter in Hudson County politics. It's the end of the book," said Donald Scarinci, a powerful Hudson County attorney and Democratic strategist. "Paul Byrne comes from that era of Hudson County politics for which it is famous. The old Frank Hague days, ward leaders, the era of the bosses, and that era has been over for at least for 15 years. Paul Byrne would tell the stories and would even do his politics like the stories that people hear."

He was remembered yesterday as a bundle of contradictions -- a man who could be vicious and loving; a corrupt bagman with a zest for life who charmed even FBI agents as they searched his apartment.

"He was very complex. He was, in his way, a man of his word," Senate Majority Leader Bernard Kenny (D-Hudson), a longtime friend of Byrne's said. "He just had a fantastic sense of humor. He saw irony in everything."

Byrne was born Feb. 1, 1946. His father was a Democratic ward leader in the neighborhood near Journal Square during the reign of machine politicians like mayors Frank Hague and John V. Kenny.

After graduating from Dickinson High School, he joined the United States Navy in 1964 and served four years in Spain. His fascination with the country would continue in later years, when he returned to participate in the annual running of the bulls in Pamplona.

In 1971, Byrne butted heads with his father by joining the Jersey City mayoral campaign of Paul Jordan. His father was working for the incumbent, Mayor John V. Kenny.

"My whole family was asking, 'Why are you doing this?'" recalled his sister Barbara Donnelly. "He said, 'You know what? I just want to get involved.'"

In 1973, Byrne ran unsuccessfully for city council. Four years later, he became director of economic development in the administration of Mayor Thomas F.X. Smith. When Smith went searching for a Polish candidate to run for Hudson County executive, Byrne recommended Janiszewski, his childhood friend, former Mayor Gerald McCann recalled yesterday.

Janiszewski served three terms, becoming one of the top power brokers in the state and the coordinator for President Bill Clinton's first New Jersey campaign. In nearly every sense, friends say, Byrne and Janiszewski shared that power.

After being caught on videotape taking cash from a contractor in an Atlantic City hotel room, Janiszewski spent his last eight months in office working as a secret FBI informant.

Yesterday, Janiszewski reported to the minimum-security Schuylkill Federal Prison Camp in Minersville, Pa., at 12:04 p.m., according to camp spokesman Steve Lake. He was assigned inmate No. 25038-050.

Federal inmates must serve at least 85 percent of their terms but can earn up to 54 days each year in credit for good conduct. If Janiszewski qualifies, he could be released in the spring of 2008.

The conversations Janiszewski secretly recorded of Byrne led to an indictment charging that Byrne collected more than $850,000 between 1999 and 2001 from firms seeking contracts with the county.

He pleaded guilty in July to accepting a bribe from an accountant seeking county work. His sentencing was delayed because of his failing health.

Byrne used his influence to promote stem cell research. In his final interview two weeks ago, he spoke of the importance of preparing a living will.

"I never heard him complain about a single day. I've complained more about the common cold than I heard this man complain about diabetes, blindness and nearing death," said Torricelli. Even as his health failed, friends say they were in awe at his ability to laugh and enjoy himself.

"It was virtually impossible to get him down," said state Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union).

Ron Smith, the owner of the Light Horse Tavern near Byrne's home, said Byrne often would call up the staff at the bar and ask their help to walk over from his apartment. On St. Patrick's Day, Byrne invited about 25 people to celebrate at the tavern amid a band of bagpipers that "got everyone stirred up."

"There was no private room -- just a big table in the middle of the room among the other patrons," Smith said. "He thought it would be his last send-off before going to jail. But in reality, it was his last hurrah."

He is survived by his sisters, Barbara Donnelly and Kathy Hathaway of Jersey City; and brothers Andres of Lake Hiawatha, Dennis of Wood Ridge and Robert of Cliffside Park. Arrangements are by McLaughlin Funeral Home, Jersey City and will be private.

Comments (0)

New comments are currently disabled.

Email to Friend

Fill in the form below to send this article to a friend:

Email to Friend
* Your Name:
* Your Email:
* Friend's Name:
* Friend's Email:
* Security Image:
Security Image Generate new
Copy the numbers and letters from the security image
* Message: