Author Topic: Mike Kelly: Zisa case, lawsuits leave Hackensack in 'havoc'  (Read 5207 times)

Offline BLeafe

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(from today's Record)


A police chief on trial. Loud protests after the firing of well-liked high school administrators. Almost 20 lawsuits filed by disgruntled cops. A century-old sewer system desperate for repairs.

This is the state of dysfunction in Hackensack.

Every town endures stresses, strains and rough patches. But the problems facing Hackensack and its 43,000 residents rank among the most challenging in New Jersey.

Consider what might happen in the coming days.

The six-week criminal trial of the citys suspended police chief, Ken Zisa, on charges including official misconduct, witness tampering and insurance fraud, is to be placed in the hands of a jury sometime Monday or early Tuesday. The verdict could be announced by the end of the week.

Whatever the outcome, Hackensack officials next must decide how to handle a series of federal lawsuits filed by almost 20 current and former police officers who accuse the chief of using his police position to raise campaign funds.

If Zisa a former Democratic assemblyman, is acquitted, the city will have to prepare for another costly legal and political quagmire that Zisa will demand to return to his $191,000-a-year job, with two years in back pay withheld since his arrest.

If he succeeds, a bizarre scenario will play out in which the citys top cop will be directing crime-fighting efforts by a force of 107 officers while also fending off allegations contained in the civil lawsuits that he demanded money from some of those officers to pay for his campaigns when he was a Democratic assemblyman from 1995 to 2005.

This is a very active time no question about it, said Hackensack City Manager Stephen Lo Iacono.

Emil Canestrino, a retired police captain who frequently criticizes Zisa and town affairs at council meetings, had far more blunt assessment.

Its havoc in this town, said Canestrino, whose wife, Kathy, ran for the Hackensack City Council as a reformer in 2009 but lost.

Zisa has called the lawsuits against him bogus and frivolous. Meanwhile, Lo Iacono described the possibility of the controversial chief returning to his job in the midst of those lawsuits one of the biggest challenges facing Hackensack.

As Zisas criminal trial was winding down in recent weeks, Lo Iacono said he and other city officials conducted hours of private discussions to assess the potential problems and options for Hackensack if the chief asks for his job back.

One concern, Lo Iacono said, was how Hackensacks rank-and-file cops might react if Zisa returns. The force, already fighting low morale, is reportedly deeply divided over the Zisa trial and the federal lawsuits and the possibility that Zisa might target cops who criticized him.

Adding to the worries, Hackensacks municipal insurance carrier recently announced that Zisa had become such a legal risk that it would no longer cover him for liabilities stemming from his job.

They lasered him out of the coverage, said Lo Iacono, noting that all other city workers would remain covered.

Nonetheless, Lo Iacono said that Hackensack could not block Zisa from returning to his job if he wanted to.

He is within his rights. Its his job, said Lo Iacono, noting that the city is exploring the possibility of buying separate insurance for Zisa if he returns.

Zisa is no stranger to controversy or politics. Nor is his family, whose legacy seems to hover over even the smallest issues in Hackensack.

Zisas father, Frank, served as mayor and deputy mayor for 16 years. His brother Jack held the mayors job for another 22 years. A cousin, Joseph, is currently the city attorney. And until Zisa was arrested in 2010, his younger brother, Frank Jr., was his deputy. Frank Zisa Jr. resigned days after his brothers arrest.

But if the Zisa family was a ripe source of political intrigue in Hackensack, Zisas criminal trial became a clearinghouse for accusations that went far beyond the actual criminal charges.

The case against Zisa seems relatively straightforward. Prosecutors allege that he illegally meddled in two routine police investigations involving his live-in girlfriend at the time, Kathleen Tiernan, who was also charged with conspiring with him in one of the incidents.

In 2004, Zisa allegedly ordered officers to file false reports of an assault and robbery reportedly involving Tiernans teenage sons.

Zisa also is accused of showing up at the scene of a 2008 accident in which an allegedly drunken Tiernan smashed his car into a utility pole. Zisa is said to have whisked Tiernan away before she could be tested for sobriety by officers at the scene. He later reportedly filed a fraudulent insurance claim for $11,000, stating that Tiernan swerved to avoid hitting an animal.

But in closing arguments Friday, Assistant Bergen County Prosecutor Daniel Keitel made a point of focusing not merely on the charges alone but on what he felt was Zisas high-handed conspiracy to wield power for his own ends.

I submit the reason were here is because the law wasnt enforced, Keitel said. In Hackensack, there are two systems of justice. One is if youre anyone else, and the other is if youre a Tiernan or a Zisa.

Zisas defense attorney, Patricia Prezioso, countered with a conspiracy theory of her own, claiming that Bergen Countys chief prosecutor, John L. Molinelli, made a secret pact with Democratic state Sen. Loretta Weinberg to hold on to his job if he brought Zisa to trial an accusation that Weinberg denied in an interview Friday.

The dueling accusations underscore the level of discord that emerged in this trial. For many, the trial has become the spark for stirring up old animosities.

Michael Tompkins, 39, moved out of Hackensack to Ocean County after losing his job as an emergency medical technician with the Fire Department in a round of budget cuts that he said was politically motivated.

I have no use for Hackensack anymore, said Tompkins, whose father and grandfather served in the Hackensack Fire Department. I left because its nothing but politics and misery.

As for Zisa, Tompkins said: I dont trust him. I dont like him. If he gets acquitted, that city is doomed.

At City Hall, Lo Iacono fears an entirely different doomsday scenario.

The citys sewer line along Main Street dates to the 1800s, he said. Aboveground, the streets storefronts are in dire need of a complete makeover.

Hackensack has commissioned an imaginative plan to revitalize Main Street by investing millions of dollars and trying to attract other investors. But first, Lo Iacono said, Hackensack needs to fix the sewer no easy task for a city strapped for cash and burdened by legal bills.

Lo Iacono said Hackensack got a taste of a potential worst-case sewer scenario when a branch of the line broke last year and caused a key road to be blocked for four months.

Imagine if that happens in the middle of Main Street, Lo Iacono said. Businesses will leave.

As if worries about sewers are not enough, however, Hackensack is primed to endure another Zisa-connected political fight in its school district.

As the prosecution and defense prepared final arguments for Zisas trial, a group of four, reform-minded school board members mounted their own challenge to what they say is too much control over hiring wielded by the Zisa family and its Democratic machine, led by the partys municipal chairwoman, Lynne Hurwitz.

The Zisa coalition persecuted me while I was running for the school board, said one of the four board members, Kevon Larkins, 34, a former Hackensack High School track star. Larkins maintained that his campaign signs were ripped down.

There were too many deals behind closed doors, he said. It ends now.

As a first test against Hurwitz and Zisa, Larkins said, he and three other school trustees blocked the rehiring of the principal of Hackensack High School and two vice principals. In protest, almost 1,000 Hackensack High School students walked out to hold a protest rally on the football field on Friday. That night, several hundred parents and students flooded a school board meeting to demand answers.

Hurwitz, who has attended almost every day of Zisas trial, declined to comment on the school board controversy or the challenge to her power.

I think its a great community, she said of Hackensack. Cities go through growing pains.

But another of the reformist school trustees, Carol Martinez, said the rehiring controversy is merely the beginning of a long political battle to oust the Zisas and their machine.

I dont think its going to end, Martinez said of the political battles in Hackensack and the Zisas. The message to them is that were not going to give up.


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