ELIZABETH—A close political associate of Mayor J. Christian Bollwage was convicted of bribing a housing official last week in federal court.
Ray Vella, 33, of Elizabeth, owner of Pavel Construction, was found guilty of trading cash payments for more than $650,000 in contracts.
The verdict brings to a close a bid-rigging and kickback scandal that crippled a program meant to renovate dilapidated houses in Linden. Vella is the fifth and final suspect found guilty in a scheme that abused a federally-funded program to provide new roofs, siding and other home improvements to low-income and elderly residents to reward favored contractors.
“Like all the other corrupt contractors, Ray Vella paid bribes,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard E. Constable III said. “And in taking the government to trial he thought he would get away with it. With this verdict, the jury told him he was wrong.”
Program director Frank Rose admitted to orchestrating the plot and taking $189,000 in bribes from five contractors. He also admitted to taking kickbacks from his younger brother, Anthony Rose, a silent partner of two of the builders.
The scheme fell apart when Anthony Rose, grew angry over the kickbacks and went to authorities. He also pleaded guilty to his role in the scandal.
Vella was the only one of the five contractors who would not admit paying bribes. His lawyer tried to craft an image of a hard-working business and family man.
The case against the Elizabeth contractor hinged on testimony from Frank Rose. Vella’s lawyer tried to diminish the former housing official’s credibility with jurors, saying that Rose was motivated to cooperate with prosecutors in hopes of earning a lighter sentence.
Prosecutors used testimony from Anthony Rose and four other contractors to support their case. Two of the builders had pleaded guilty, while the other two agreed to testify against Vella to avoid criminal charges.
Frank Rose was the head of the Neighborhood Preservation Program in Linden from 1998 through 2006. In that role, he decided which homeowners qualified for government-funded repairs and which contractors did the work. He was supposed to solicit two bids for each job and select the lower one.
He fixed the process, telling trusted contractors how much to bid in exchange for bribes ranging from $500 to $5,000. Vella insisted that he was not a part of Rose’s scheme, but prosecutors were able to convince the jury otherwise.
A day after federal investigators first interviewed Vella in August 2006, he telephoned Rose in a panic and asked him to meet in the plumbing aisle of Home Depot in Linden.
“What was he doing meeting him in the plumbing aisle?” assistant U.S. attorney Adam Lurie said during his closing arguments. “What couldn’t they talk about over the phone?”
Vella was convicted of mail fraud, providing corrupt payments and obtaining property by fraud through bid-rigging. He is scheduled to be sentenced May 6 and faces up to 20 years in prison.
Vella has a long history of political alliances with Bollwage, who appointed the defendant to the city parking authority. Vella was an unsuccessful candidate for the Elizabeth Board of Education in 2003, in a campaign prompted by the mayor and funded by many of the same donors who have supported Bollwage, including Councilmen Ed Jackus and Frank Cuesta, as well as developers Luis Rodriguez and Ralph Salermo.
Vella was also campaign manager for Bollwage-backed Councilman Nelson Gonzalez in the controversial 2006 primary election. A sign supporting Bollwage for re-election last year was posted in front of Vella’s 1120 Coolidge Road home, which is just across the street from the mayor’s 1113 Coolidge Road residence.