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Kevin J. O'Toole, the chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, is a former New Jersey State Senator. (Photo: Kevin J. O'Toole.)

The O’Toole Chronicles: How do you know when they are wearing a wire?

By Kevin O'Toole, October 06 2020 8:21 am

The legend is that you haven’t really made your bones in good ole fashioned Jersey politics until someone comes hunting for you wearing a wire (listening device ) courtesy of federal, state or county law enforcement.  Given the last 25 years of colorful history in the Garden State, if you are to be snared on a sanctioned recording device, you are more likely to be talking to a federal source, as opposed to the other two. The feds have been far more prolific and practiced with this art form.

Close your eyes and imagine for a moment if every conversation captured on a government sanctioned wire is made public? Talk about ready-made opposition research. I am guessing that only a small amount of what is recorded is ever released publicly.

A little over 20 years ago I was approached by a particular vendor looking to do business with the County of Essex.  I was the County Chair and this individual thought he could approach me to “open up doors.”  This individual came to my law office and I instantly knew something was off.

-Before he could even drop his cashmere overcoat and ascot on the chair he said he could raise $10,000 and I only had to name the account.

-He name dropped several national politicos and said he had some on speed dial.

-He offered to host me at his estate in West Orange and would provide “whatever” I wanted (he obviously failed to do basic research on me as anyone who remotely knows me in politics will tell you I am more likely to scale the Empire State Building in a Spiderman leotard than have lunch or dinner with a perfect stranger).

-He seamlessly talked about wanting to get into the county purchasing cycle and would do whatever it took to get there.

After a few more ham-fisted attempts to provoke a response, I broke off the meeting as I ended all my traditional 15 minute meetings.   As the newspapers reported years later, this charming individual was cooperating with the feds for years, leading to the arrest and convictions of several very prominent public officials from Essex County, Paterson and Camden.

I would like to say that this taped encounter was the first and only for yours truly – not by a Trenton mile.  During this same period, I had at least three individuals approach me and tried to have interesting and curious conversations.  Two of the three were lawyers that I had known for a long time and their approach was a bit more covered and subtle. One even approached me at a wedding and tried to pin down details of a political deal…”sorry, time for the electric slide.”  Regardless, I’m glad to say that I never compromised myself during those aborted attempts to drag me in their treacherous web. I never needed a lawyer and watched from afar as the individuals all copped pleas a few months later.

A few tips –

-As an elected official, assume everything you say is being recorded, whether it be government sanctioned or plain old politics.  Everyone has an iPhone and even a child can purchase a tiny sophisticated device on the internet that can be hidden from plain sight.  We know of one individual in Bergen County, a Republican operative and lawyer, who has run for office many times, without success, but he is rumored to tape conversations with friends and foes.  Not exactly convinced it is government sanctioned.

-Remember, like text messages and emails, jokes and threats don’t translate well to a group of listening prosecutors or to a group of 23 (usually the number in a grand jury). Context isn’t always readily available, and not everyone on team government totally appreciates the nuance or stupidity of politics.

-Refrain from any favors that may even appear to be a quid pro quo, like agreeing to do a favor and in the same conversation asking for a donation or something else of value.

-If you think you are getting jammed up or a “friend” is trying to pin you down, have a credible lawyer in your saved contacts – names like Michael Critchley and Joe Hayden are the Elite that you might want to have a relationship with.

In the end, you cannot know when someone you are talking to is wearing a wire, so assume they all are.

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