Meadowlands Mall Defendant Was Racketeer or ‘Chairman Meatball’

A former New Jersey Democratic power broker was portrayed by a federal prosecutor as a racketeer who extorted $1.7 million in bribes to smooth approvals of a $3.7 billion mall at the Meadowlands sports complex.

Joseph Ferriero abused his post as chairman of the Bergen County Democratic Organization to demand $35,000 monthly payments from a Virginia developer building a mall once known as Xanadu, the prosecutor told jurors Thursday at the start of a criminal trial in Newark, New Jersey.

A defense lawyer countered that Ferriero is no criminal, and the payments he and two partners got over three years were not bribes from Mills Corp., then a Virginia real estate investment trust. He denied prosecutors’ claims that Ferriero was a menacing figure who threatened to derail Xanadu.

Rather, Ferriero served as a volunteer chairman who “was and is popular” and earned a legitimate living based on his relationships, said his defense attorney, Michael Baldassare. To defang the image created by prosecutors, Baldassare told jurors of the nickname given to his client by former Bergen County Executive Dennis McNerney.

“His name for my client was Chairman Meatball, because he’s short, fat and Italian,” Baldassare said in his opening statement.

Ferriero will testify in his own defense and deny charges including racketeering, conspiracy and fraud, Baldassare said.

Xanadu is now called American Dream Meadowlands, and it sits unfinished next to the New Jersey Turnpike. Governor Chris Christie once called it “the ugliest damn building in New Jersey, and maybe America,” yet his administration agreed to public financing and a $390 million tax break.

Triple Five

Mills ran out of money, and a later developer that took over the project filed for bankruptcy. Triple Five Group, the Edmonton, Alberta-based owner of the Mall of America in Minnesota, assumed control in 2011.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Barbara Llanes said Mills had been working for years to develop the site when the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority said in 2002 that it would have a public competition to develop part of the Meadowlands. Mills lined up consultants, lobbyists, and public relations specialists to build support for its proposal, Llanes said.

Ferriero and two partners in a consulting firm spied an opportunity, she said. They attended a meeting with a Mills lawyer and Ferriero threatened to support a competitor unless they were paid $35,000 a month, Llanes said. Mills, represented by prominent North Jersey attorney Robert DeCotiis, agreed to pay Ferriero’s consulting firm because it feared economic harm if it didn’t, prosecutor said. The firm did no real work, she said.

‘A Shell’

“This company was nothing more than a shell that allowed him to do something very important,” Llanes said. “It allowed the defendant to receive payments in secret.”

DeCotiis will testify as a government witness after receiving an immunity grant, Baldassare said. The payments were arranged by a former Mills executive who also will testify, James Dausch, the defense lawyer said. He said Dausch isn’t credible, and mocked the notion that he was a “terrified executive” who paid Ferriero, a volunteer chairman.

“Is it reasonable to say that James Dausch was so afraid of the volunteer that he paid him $1.7 million?” Baldassare said.

Ferriero is under indictment for a second time. In 2009, he was convicted of conspiracy and mail fraud for using a consulting firm he co-owned in a kickback scheme involving grants for local governments. A judge threw out that conviction after a Supreme Court ruling in 2010 that narrowed the law for the type of fraud then at issue in Ferriero’s case.

U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman indicted Ferriero again in 2013, charging him with the grants scheme, as well as racketeering and a set of charges accusing him of bribery involving a software developer.

Before the trial, Baldassare asked U.S. District Judge Esther Salas to dismiss the case because Fishman had previously represented Dausch as a private attorney in 2008. Salas ruled that Fishman’s prior representation didn’t create a conflict of interest after he became New Jersey’s top federal prosecutor in 2009. The trial is expected to last as long as two months.

The case is U.S. v. Ferriero, 13-cr-00592, U.S. District Court, District of New Jersey (Newark).

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