Mysterious Safes Opened in Jersey City Yield No Treasure

The unlocking of two mysterious safes in the Jersey City mayor’s closet turned out to be a bust.

As about two dozen reporters waited, a locksmith opened the City Hall safes today. The smaller revealed an electrical extension cord. The larger was empty, except for a strange odor released when it was opened.

The Mosler safes, installed in Mayor Steven Fulop’s office in the 1940s under his graft-prone predecessor Frank Hague, piqued his interest when he took over this year as head of New Jersey’s second-largest city. No one knew why the Hudson River town, with views of Lower Manhattan, would have secrets worthy of such security.

Fulop called the event a “Geraldo moment,” a reference to the two-hour 1986 television special during which Geraldo Rivera opened the secret vaults of legendary Chicago gangster Al Capone. That quest came up empty and has became a watershed moment for public letdowns.

“Unfortunately, there was no treasure,” Fulop, a 36-year-old Democrat, told reporters. “So now I know how Geraldo feels.”

Even in a state where corruption is a perennial source of jokes, Jersey City stands out. The 15 mile (24 kilometer) square municipality became known for boss-style patronage and election fraud starting in 1917 under the 30-year rule of Hague.

Secret Stash

Hague had a desk with a secret drawer that opened toward visitors so they could drop in envelopes full of bribe money, Fulop said.

Boss Hague, as he was known, managed to live in a top-floor, 14-room apartment in the city, as well as houses at the Jersey Shore and Miami Beach, on a salary of $8,000 a year, according to New Jersey City University. Known for “getting out the vote,” one study claimed in 1937 that Jersey City had a roster of 160,050 registered voters even though it had only 147,000 residents of voting age.

Former Governor Brendan Byrne, an 89-year-old who is considered the dean of New Jersey public affairs, often quips that when he dies he plans to be buried in Hudson County so he can remain active in Democratic politics.

Fulop, who worked at Citigroup Inc. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc., in May ousted Jerramiah Healy, 62, who was endorsed by President Barack Obama and now-U.S. Senator Cory Booker. In 2004, while Healy was still a councilman, a photo of him sleeping nude on his front porch surfaced on the Internet.

FBI Sting

In 2009, Jersey City was rocked by the largest Federal Bureau of Investigation corruption sting in state history. It netted 44 public officials, rabbis and a man accused of illegally dealing a human kidney. The case led to prison sentences for Healy’s deputy mayor, Leona Baldini, who had been his campaign treasurer, and several other aides and allies.

Elaad Israeli, the owner of Precision Lock & Safe Inc. in Floral Park, New York, and a “certified master safecracker” who opened the two, said in an e-mail that he was paid between $1,000 to $1,500 to open the safes through a process known as manipulation.

“We’ve had so many mayors go to jail that we thought this would be a fun and interesting thing to do,” Fulop said.

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