Jury convicts longtime freeholder on all 5 counts in bribery case Hudson prosecutor to seek Davila-Colon's quick removal

Jury convicts longtime freeholder on all 5 counts in bribery case

June 24, 2003 Jersey Journal

Hudson prosecutor to seek Davila-Colon's quick removal

NEWARK - Hudson County Freeholder Nidia Davila-Colon was found guilty in federal court yesterday for her role in a 1999 bribery scheme involving then-County Executive Robert Janiszewski.

After deliberating roughly 10 hours over three days, the jury of five men and seven women filed into U.S. District Judge William G. Bassler's court just after 11:30 a.m. yesterday and returned its verdict, the foreman repeating "guilty" after each of the three mail fraud and two aiding and abetting attempted extortion charges Davila-Colon faced.

The seven-term freeholder from Jersey City will be sentenced by Bassler on Sept. 29.

Although each of the fraud charges carries a maximum prison term of five years and the extortion counts 20 years, U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie said the federal sentencing guidelines will likely call for a total of between 31/2 and 5 years in prison.

Davila-Colon, who is serving her 19th year on the county board representing Jersey City and was re-elected last year in a landslide while under indictment, stood rigid yesterday as she listened to the verdict, her hands shaking slightly and her head facing forward, a hard, fixed expression on her face.

She left the courthouse on the arm of her brother, George Ortiz, who along with about a dozen other family members and supporters attended every day of the trial, which began May 27. She declined to comment or answer questions.

"This is a very important verdict in our continuing effort to stem the tide of corruption in New Jersey," Christie said during an afternoon news conference on the courthouse steps. "I think it should send a very clear message to elected officials."

Christie was flanked by U.S. Assistant Attorneys Jeffrey Clark and Phillip Kwon, who prosecuted the case.

Hudson County Prosecutor Edward DeFazio said he would file a motion in state Superior Court in Jersey City within days seeking Davila-Colon's immediate removal from the nine-member freeholder board.

"It's a criminal conviction and it touches on her office," DeFazio said yesterday in a telephone interview. "We are not waiting until the sentencing date."

If she is removed or resigns, the Democratic county committee members from the Fourth District will select a replacement until a special election can be held for the seat, according to Jim Kennelly, a spokesman for the county. Davila-Colon was most recently elected on the Hudson County Democratic Organization ticket.

She will remain free on her own recognizance, as she has been since her indictment in October.

After conferring briefly with her attorneys, Peter Willis and John Young, following the verdict, Davila-Colon, 49, walked down the fifth-floor hallway at the federal courthouse yesterday and offered only a terse "no comment" when approached by reporters.

Willis had argued that Davila-Colon was the victim of entrapment when she passed cash-stuffed envelopes to Janiszewski in 1999 at the behest of her then-boyfriend Dr. Oscar Sandoval, who was working as an undercover government informant, secretly tape-recording their conversations.

Sandoval was seeking the renewal of $2.3 million in contracts to provide psychiatric services at the county correctional facilities and at Meadowview Hospital in Secaucus.

The two $5,000 payments Sandoval handed her and which she then gave to Janiszewski in September and October 1999 were given to Sandoval by the FBI. Because of that, Davila-Colon was charged with aiding and abetting attempted - rather than actual - extortion.

Davila-Colon was charged with three counts of mail fraud because Janiszewski mailed tax returns and financial disclosure forms that concealed the bribery scheme, prosecutors said.

Willis comments

"I'm very disappointed, and it's the nature of this business that there's got to be a winner and there's got to be a loser," Willis said outside the courtroom, minutes after the verdict was handed down. "I hope that somewhere along the way Robert Janiszewski gets his justice and Oscar Sandoval gets his."

Davila-Colon admitted on the witness stand last week that she knowingly handed a $5,000 bribe to Janiszewski on Oct. 15, 1999, but said she did not know what she was delivering to the county executive when Sandoval gave her an envelope a month earlier, on Sept. 15.

Janiszewski, who has pleaded guilty to taking more than $100,000 in bribes during his 13 years in office and spent a year working as a federal informant himself, testified for the prosecution in the case in exchange for possible leniency when he is sentenced. He faces about three years but could get less.

During Janiszewski's testimony, Willis pounded away at his credibility, eliciting from him admissions that he took bribes from several county contractors beginning his first year in office in 1988.

Asked yesterday if there would be action taken against any of the people Janiszewski said paid him bribes - including such well-known figures in Hudson County as real estate developer Joseph Barry and political consultant Paul Byrne - Christie would say only that the investigation is not over.

"Nothing that (Janiszewski) said on the witness stand comes as a surprise to us," Christie said. "This is not the last time we will be talking about corruption in Hudson County."

Freeholder William Braker, also of Jersey City, will go on trial Oct. 21 for allegedly demanding cash bribes and Viagra from Sandoval.

Sandoval was under subpoena from the defense in the Davila-Colon trial but did not testify and has not been charged with a crime. Willis said he did not call Sandoval to the stand because he would not submit to an interview before testifying.

"You have to be off your rocker as a lawyer to put someone on the stand who you haven't interviewed," he said.

Appeal expected

Willis said he will appeal the verdict and had already begun filing motions to have it overturned, though he declined to discuss on what grounds.

"I'm very surprised," he said of the jury's decision, which was unanimous. "I thought there was sufficient evidence for entrapment."

Under questioning from Willis on the witness stand during the trial, Davila-Colon tearfully recounted her relationship with Sandoval, whom she met when she sought treatment from him for depression.

She began dating the married doctor after their therapeutic relationship ended, though Sandoval continued to prescribe the antianxiety drug Xanax for her.

Hoping to stir sympathy for his client during his closing argument Thursday, Willis painted Sandoval as a manipulator who, according to Davila-Colon, threatened suicide if she did not help him bribe Janiszewski. Because of this inducement, Willis argued, Davila-Colon was the victim of entrapment.

Janiszewski, who was not working for the government when he took the bribes she handed to him in 1999, testified that Davila-Colon also passed him bribes in 1995 or 1996.

The government argued that those payments show a predisposition on Davila-Colon's part to break the law, undercutting the entrapment defense. She denied knowingly making those payments.

The trial was interrupted for almost a week after Davila-Colon was taken to the hospital with chest pains. She was treated for high blood pressure and hypertension and was released after three days.

"She's not emotionally well," Willis said of Davila-Colon after the verdict yesterday. "And I hope she gets medical attention if she needs it immediately."

He added there was no reason to believe she required a doctor.

Asked about Davila-Colon's entrapment defense, Christie said: "Obviously the jury didn't buy that, and I'll stand by the jury."

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