As party’s fortunes improved, so did his
BY ELISE YOUNG AND OSHRAT CARMIEL
State Sen. Joseph Coniglio and his family made a living of being Democrats in Bergen County.
A career plumber, Coniglio climbed the ranks of elected offices from councilman to state senator.
Along the way, at least two of his family members have derived employment from Bergen County government.
His wife, Valerie, is the clerk to the all-Democratic Board of Freeholders, a job that pays her $79,000. Coniglio’s son-in-law is a $107,000-a-year investigator with the Prosecutor’s Office. His Senate salary was $49,000.
And Coniglio, whose family income has risen with the fortunes of Bergen County’s Democratic Organization, has always remained close to the party, even on vacation.
Last summer, while the target of a federal investigation, he took a trip to Italy with the Bergen County prosecutor and the lawyer for the Bergen County Democratic Organization.
A federal indictment handed up Thursday suggests that Coniglio saw government as an avenue for personal gain.
Coniglio, 65, indicted on eight counts of mail fraud and one count of extortion, was charged with trading his influence in the state Legislature for a $5,500-a-month consulting job at Hackensack University Medical Center. He is expected to plead not guilty at a hearing next week.
Coniglio offered no comment after Thursday’s court proceedings, but defense lawyer Gerald Krovatin proclaimed the former senator’s innocence.
The investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office centered on Coniglio’s job as a consultant for HUMC. At the time Coniglio had the contract, according to the indictment, the hospital received millions in grants from the state Legislature.
Coniglio, in a 2005 interview with The Record, denied that his Hackensack medical center arrangement might cloud his judgment when voting on issues involving New Jersey hospitals.
“I may work for Hackensack hospital, but my job is to represent the voters first,” he said.
Coniglio has been under federal investigation for the better part of a year and was forced by party leadership in the fall to abandon his run for reelection.
“I don’t like to kick someone when they’re down, but I don’t find myself being a Coniglio supporter anymore,” said Allen Sklar, a former Bergen County freeholder who once served on the Paramus Borough Council with Coniglio. “A lot of it is his relationship with the Democratic county chairman [Joseph Ferriero]. Everything seems to be money now, rather than public service.”
Some say Coniglio was the type of guy who would always get the job done.
“He was a man who was very good in the field, working with his hands, and just as talented from the other side of things, overseeing,” said Eric Boyce, business manager of Plumbers Local 14. “He was respected by people for that. He was demanding in a supervisory role.”
He was just as reliable — and demanding — as a rising politician in Paramus and later in the Senate, former colleagues recall.
“It was a different time. It was rough-and-tumble,” recalled Paul Rotella, his campaign manager for a Borough Council seat in 1981. “The campaigns — boy, they were tough. Joe would go out there and knock on doors, or Sunday morning talk to people as they go to get their coffee and doughnut.”
Coniglio entered politics when friends from Unico, an Italian-American social organization, backed him for a Paramus Borough Council vacancy.