Politics

03.17.14

Did Christie Go Easy on a Human Trafficker Just to Bust a Small-Time Pol?

Chris Christie built his reputation as a crime-fighter. So why did he cut a deal with an accused sex slave ringleader—and send to jail a Democratic mayor, instead?

Beginning in 2003, members of a smuggling ring in Honduras approached girls, some just 14 years of age, and talked them into illegally entering the United States with the promise of waitressing jobs.

After making it over the border, during which time the smugglers allegedly raped some of the girls, they landed in Houston, Texas. They were temporarily held there before making the rest of their journey north to Hudson County, New Jersey.

That’s when the girls learned the truth. They were never going to be waitresses.

The girls worked in one of several bars, Puerto de la Union in Guttenberg or Puerto de la Union II and El Paisano in Union City, owned by Luisa Medrano. They were on the job for 48 hours per week, making just $240 -- money that would have to go to pay off their smuggling debts, which ranged from $10,000 to $20,000. For that tiny salary, the girls were required to dance and drink with male patrons, and they were encouraged to prostitute themselves.

"If you wanted a beer, it was $4 … If you wanted a 'special beer' it was $14," Francisco Arroyo, a truck driver and customer at Puerto de la Union, told the Hudson Reporter. "These girls would do everything to the guys. I couldn't believe it was happening." 

While they worked, the girls were kept in apartment buildings owned by Medrano. Court documents allege that they were not allowed to move or stop working until their debts were completely paid off. If they didn't cooperate, “enforcers” stepped in.

According to the documents, one enforcer “instructed a co-conspirator, in the presence of [one of the girls], that ‘if  any of these bitches get out of line, you should beat them.’” The enforcer then “struck [a girl] in the head and pushed her into the front door, after he observed [her] talking with a man on the street to whom she had not been given permission to speak.”

What went on inside Medrano’s bars and apartments was not a well-kept secret. In January 2005, the Immigrant and Customs Enforcement received a complaint that “indicated that girls from Honduras who presently worked in the [bars] had been purchased by the owner of the [bars], Luisa Medrano, for $20,000 each.”

Not long after, investigators raided two of Medrano's Union City apartment buildings, where they discovered nearly two dozen illegal immigrants, including the Honduran girls. Some were later deported. The girls who told investigators of their ordeal were declared victims of human trafficking, their story one of indentured servitude, and Medrano the ringleader. 

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On July 20, 2005, Medrano was arrested. In the police car, Medrano, who speaks only Spanish, was alleged to have told an officer “all I did was employ them and rent them my apartment. They were just dancers, what they did afterwards is not my concern.”

Medrano was officially charged with a conspiracy to commit forced labor; eight counts of forced labor; one count of alien smuggling; and eight counts of harboring illegal aliens. For these crimes, reports say she could have faced up to 250 years in prison.

Christie ‘made it a mission to go after, for the most part, small-time crooks, which in New Jersey municipal politics is not a big challenge.’

United States Attorney Chris Christie made a public statement. "This was inhumane and sadistic treatment of young women who were kept as virtual slaves," he said. "These are among the most vile crimes I've seen in my time as U.S. Attorney, and we'll bring the full weight of Federal prosecution against these Defendants." 

In January 2009, Luisa Medrano pleaded guilty to a far lesser charges than the ones the state had initially levied against her. She was convicted of merely harboring illegal immigrants, not exploiting them.

For her crimes, Medrano was sentenced to a mere six months house arrest--during which time she was permitted to work in a restaurant she owned--and three years probation. 

What happened?

The U.S. Attorney's office cut a deal with Medrano. She got a light sentence, and in return gave up information -- some of which was about a local politician that Christie would use to burnish his image as an enemy of corruption. The upshot was that a human trafficker got off easy, in part, so that Christie could jail a small-town mayor.

The deal, critics charge, was at best a bad one and at worst, a callous political move. Christie's defenders respond that it was a necessary move to help catch other criminals -- just another one of the unpleasant compromises that prosecutors are routinely forced to make in the name of justice. At the time of Medrano’s sentencing, Christie’s spokesman, Michael Drewniak, said Medrano assisted with the convictions of eight other people who part of the smuggling ring.  

However, Medrano’s attorney, Gerald Shargel, told me that she “never testified about human smuggling” and court documents clearly state that “Luisa Medrano did not testify before the grand jury” regarding the human trafficking ring.  The U.S. Attorney’s office would not provide information about what convictions Medrano allegedly assisted on, or how many. Reached for comment for this story, a spokesman for Governor Christie referred me to Drewniak’s 2009 statements.

Absent any concrete evidence to the contrary -- and there certainly could be some evidence that has yet to publicly emerge -- it appears that Christie’s office all-but-excused one human trafficker that he considered to be “vile” in order to convict someone for comparatively petty crimes.

A source who worked with Christie in the U.S. Attorney's office and spoke with me on the condition of anonymity said, "People can disagree whether or not a human trafficking crime is worse [than political corruption]...But as a matter of U.S. policy, there are people who would say that U.S. policy says public corruption cases are given greater weight." 

***

On September 10, 2001, after months of speculation, Christie learned that President George W. Bush—for whom he had spent the previous few years fundraising, offering free legal advice and drumming up support among Garden State Republicans--had chosen him to be the United States Attorney. 

Christie was not a selection that immediately inspired confidence. He was a securities and appellate lawyer with no experience in criminal law. But the wounds of 9/11 were still fresh when his appointment was announced publicly two months later, and good Americans supported the president rather than questioning him. Even U.S. Senator Jon Corzine—future New Jersey governor and a Christie foe—issued a statement supporting Bush's decision to nominate Christie. 

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Jeffrey Chiesa, who worked in Christie’s law firm before being brought into the U.S. Attorney’s office in the summer of 2002, told me he never doubted Christie: "I had tremendous confidence in his ability to do that job." 

And indeed, Christie was considered by many to be a highly effective U.S. Attorney. By the time he left the office in 2008, he had convicted more than 100 politicians--more than one per month over the course of his six-year tenure. 

Chiesa -- who went on to serve as the Attorney General of New Jersey from 2012 until June 2013, when Christie appointed him to fill the U.S. Senate seat left open by Frank Lautenberg's death -- was impressed by Christie's leadership as the U.S. Attorney. "He went where the evidence took us in our cases. We brought great cases and got great results,” Chiesa said. “I thought he did a terrific job." 

Judged by the numbers, Christie's tenure as U.S. Attorney was impressive: five state legislators, 18 mayors, 15 municipal office-holders, and various other public servants and county executives—all off the streets and stripped of their power, thanks to him. 

But Christie's conviction rate did not impress everyone. According to Richard Merkt, a former New Jersey assemblyman and a one-time running mate of Christie’s, Christie “made it a mission to go after, for the most part, small-time crooks, which in New Jersey municipal politics is not a big challenge. I mean, they're all over the place."

"If you get everybody you go after, maybe you're not aiming so high,” Merkt said. “There are worse characters left in the New Jersey legislature, and he never touched 'em … Most of his victories—his pelts on the belt, if you will— were really," he reiterated, "small-time crooks who were taking advantage of their position to pocket a few bucks. It's just typical political graft … It was a lot more about quantity than quality. But he was able to parlay that into this image of being the shining knight who was cleaning up New Jersey politics." 

The press, like local political blog PolitickerNJ.com (run by future Christie appointee David Wildstein) lapped up Christie's many triumphs. "Will today be historic?" the clearly tipped off publication asked one morning in 2008. "If the buzz is accurate, U.S. Attorney Chris Christie could change the course of North Jersey politics today."

Moreover, Democrats charge that Christie disproportionately went after members of their party, something Chiesa dismissed: "My first corruption case there was against a Republican. The party affiliation had absolutely nothing to do with anything in those cases … I understand why [Democrats] might say it [was the case] … There is simply no way for anybody to manufacture cases."

Deborah Howlett -- a former spokesperson for Gov. Jon Corzine, who Christie defeated in 2009, told me – took a very different view. "I think there was a long-term plan during his time as U.S. Attorney to do the sorts of things that would set him up to run for governor, and would make the Corzine administration look bad, because that's who he was going to have to run against," she said.

"The intention all along [was to] make Corzine look bad," Howlett reiterated. "Dirty him up as much as you can, at any opportunity, even if you have to let child traffickers off." 

***

Luisa Medrano recalled during a cross-examination that her brother Guillermo once told her the way of the world: pay favors to people in positions of power in order to get what you want.

Medrano's Guttenberg bar, Puerto de la Union, was a local hole-in-the-wall frequented by Hispanic immigrants like Medrano herself, who came to America from El Salvador in 1974 with just a second grade education and entrepreneurial instincts. She opened up several bars in Northern Jersey that became successful on the backs of illegal immigrant workers, like the girls trafficked in from Honduras. 

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Puerto de la Union was popular, but it struggled to stay open. It was loud and raucous, and sometimes drunken arguments that began inside would spill out into the street. Medrano, who speaks only Spanish, often found herself in court in the town of Guttenberg, dealing with noise violations and tickets for unlicensed workers, and attempting to maintain her liquor license. 

Medrano needed friends in high places. She tried the police chief and the mayor of Guttenberg, a cramped little river town of 11,000 people that ranks as one of the most densely populated places in America. Neither would be baited. But then Medrano's luck improved.

When the town's 2002 mayoral election began, Medrano supported a Democratic candidate named David Delle Donna, a 43 year old retired pipe fitter. Medrano later testified, via an interpreter, that she purchased tickets for mayoral fundraisers in an attempt to have influence: "I wanted to buy a lot of tickets for them because I needed my liquor license at my restaurant and I wanted them to help me." Tickets for events were priced from about $500 to $1,000. "If they were happy with me because I bought a lot of tickets from them, it would probably be more likely that they would help me out when I needed to be helped," she said. 

Medrano's ticket-buying did not seem to curry her any favor in the town, even after Delle Donna assumed the part-time, $6,700 a year office. When Medrano arrived at Guttenberg's town hall one day in 2002 for an appearance concerning her liquor license, which was always on the verge of being revoked, she had never even met the mayor or his wife. 

But then her sister struck up a conversation with a short, dark haired Italian immigrant named Anna, who worked at the court as an interpreter. Medrano, it turned out, would soon be spending a lot of time in her company.

Anna was the wife of the mayor and just the kind of friend Medrano had been looking for. Medrano testified that the friendship made her "very happy … Because I needed someone like her who had some power inside City Hall to help me.” Because Mrs. Delle Donna was "very friendly," Medrano believed she would help her: "She had the power to do it. She was the wife of the mayor." 

Mrs. Delle Donna and Medrano became, as one witness later testified, the best of friends. When Mr. Delle Donna would come home from work, he would often find Medrano and his wife drinking Grand Marnier, which Medrano would bring over. Mr. Delle Donna, not speaking any Spanish, could never get particularly close to Medrano, who he had to communicate with through his wife. But a source close to the situation told me that the mayor respected his wife's friendship. 

Mrs. Delle Donna and Medrano sometimes made the two-hour drive to Atlantic City, where they would stay at the Trump Taj Mahal and gamble. They exchanged gifts on Christmas and birthdays. When the Delle Donna's daughter, Dorothy, turned 15, Medrano testified, she bought the girl a dog. The Delle Donnas became so close with Medrano that she requested they be one of her children's godparents. 

Medrano also helped Mr. Delle Donna's campaigns. She testified that she ordered the women who worked in her bars to help out in the field, at the encouragement of Mrs. Delle Donna. "They stood on the corner facing 70 Boulevard East … They had signs … they were asking [people] to vote for David … most of them were illegal." 

Throughout their four-year friendship, Medrano continued to contribute to David Delle Donna's campaign war chest. Prosecutors said Medrano contributed an estimated $12,000 in cash and checks, only $3,000 of which was reportedly recorded.

Medrano's bars only accepted cash, and she spent mostly cash. The legal limit for cash campaign donations is $200. So when Medrano allegedly handed an envelope, enclosed with $5,000 in cash, to a code enforcement official named Bob Rogers Sr., who sometimes helped on Mr. Delle Donna's campaign, it was a problem.

The envelope was said to have then been handed to the campaign treasurer, Javier Inclan. Inclan, he would later tell investigators, had a "don't ask, don't tell" policy when it came to donations. He testified that he likely passed the envelope on to Mayor Delle Donna.  

The illegal contribution was not recorded. 

As Medrano nurtured her relationship with the Delle Donnas, she was also fleshing out her resume as a felon, something they claimed to have been unaware of. When she was finally arrested, the Delle Donnas lent her $5,000 to retain an attorney, a source close to the case told me. The mayor even spoke to the press: "It's a terrible thing to happen in any establishment in my town … As mayor, I take responsibility for anything that happens in Guttenberg. But in this case, how could anyone know? What could we do?" Mayor Delle Donna also made the point that Medrano had "been accused of crimes. But just accused." 

***

Before the arrest of Luisa Medrano in 2005, Guttenberg police officer Elvin Negron went to the FBI. He had information about the mayor. 

Negron was dating Mayor Delle Donna's niece, Rita Perito, and their relationship allegedly turned physically abusive. Negron's attorney, Louis Zayas, told me Mayor Delle Donna "disapproved of Elvin dating his niece. He told the police captain to tell Elvin to stop dating his niece, but Elvin continued." Zayas recalled a witness claiming that once "Delle Donna referred to Elvin as a spic."

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After an incident where Negron allegedly became particularly violent with Perito, Mayor Delle Donna stepped in. He encouraged her to get a restraining order, which she did. 

The restraining order led to Negron having his gun taken away. "When Negron got let go, he got a tape recorder," a source close to the Delle Donna case told me. "He started going around Guttenberg, trying to get information. What he got was this code enforcement official, Bob Rogers Sr., who claimed Medrano gave him thousands in cash, and that he gave it to [Mayor Delle Donna's campaign treasurer]."   

Negron approached the FBI with what he found. When Medrano was arrested, she backed up Negron's claims.

On July 5, 2006, the FBI knocked on the Delle Donna's door. Mayor Delle Donna stunned the officials by inviting them into his home, a source close to the probe confided. It was the beginning of a months-long investigation that would have his home raided -- his computers and rifles seized -- and anyone he'd ever met "intimidated," as the source put it, by the Feds. 

The Delle Donnas were charged with three counts of conspiring to commit extortion and tax evasion, and two counts of mail fraud. The Delle Donnas were convinced of their innocence, and they demanded a trial. 

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Thomas Calcagni and Richard Constable prosecuted the Delle Donnas in court. (Today, Constable is the commissioner of community affairs—which distributes Sandy aid—in the Christie administration. He has been accused by Dawn Zimmer, the mayor of Hoboken, of telling her “money would start flowing to you” if she signed onto a development deal). 

‘You don't give up a Luisa Medrano to get a David Delle Donna on these facts. That's the story here. It doesn't make sense.’

The federal prosecutors accused the Delle Donnas of using their status to personally enrich themselves. The gifts the Delle Donnas had allegedly received from Medrano throughout the course of their friendship—the Yorkshire terrier, jewelry, gift cards to Macy's, liquor, and cash—were not gifts, the prosecution said, but bribes. The Delle Donnas retorted that their friendship with Medrano was a two-way street. How, after all, were the gifts she received from them gifts, and the gifts they received from her bribes? 

Ralph Lamparello, President of the New Jersey State Bar Association and former attorney for David Delle Donna told me, "an argument could be made that David Delle Donna should have grabbed his wife by the ear and said, 'Anna, I'm a public official. I'm the mayor. You can't have a friend like this.'"

The cash donation allegedly handed off to Mayor Delle Donna's campaign treasurer, Javier Inclan, was a point of focus.

Inclan, at the time of the trial, worked as deputy chief of staff to Gov. Corzine. "In the newspapers, every single day … It became a constant drip, drip, drip of David Delle Donna and Javier Inclan," said Deborah Howlett, then-spokesperson for Corzine. "And Javier Inclan, in every story, was cited as a deputy chief of staff to Jon Corzine. So, there became a direct tie to the governor in all of these stories."

Then came the news that the Delle Donnas had failed to report about $25,000 in taxes. (Luisa Medrano, it should be noted, was proven to have failed to report a total of $762,700.65 in personal income for the years 2001-2003.)

The prosecution, in its opening statement, called the Delle Donnas "two public officials who sacrificed the public trust and the trust of the campaign committee for their own personal gain." 

There to see the trial was the U.S. Attorney himself. "Christie came into court like a football hero," a source who attended the trial told me. "He had a huge entourage. People would just stop and stare at him when he walked in."

On April 29, 2008, the Delle Donnas were found guilty of conspiracy to commit extortion and tax evasion. Mayor David Delle Donna was sentenced to 36 months in jail. Anna Delle Donna was sentenced to 39 months in jail.

Christie told the press, "Days like this are never easy. We take no joy in the job that we have to do, but if people are going to hold public office and violate the law, they are going to be held accountable." 

The day after being found guilty, David Delle Donna resigned as mayor.

Christie insisted at the time that Medrano would still feel the full weight of federal prosecution: "We never took it as a trade. Luisa Medrano will be punished." 

***

And for good reason. What went on in Luisa Medrano’s apartments was a nightmare. Girls who became pregnant were forced to have abortions. In January 2005, enforcers learned that one of the girls was expecting a child. The girl was told “that she would be required to have an abortion so that she would be able to continue to work at El Paisano Bar and pay off her smuggling debt,” according to court documents.

The girl was given $300 for an abortion, but the clinic refused because she was too far along. The next day, the enforcer made the girl “to ingest pills designed to induce spontaneous abortion.” The girl became ill, and the next day gave birth to a live baby girl, who then died. She was brought to the hospital, where enforcers threatened her that she would be imprisoned if she told anyone the truth about the birth.

Yet Medrano would never be punished for overseeing such horrors. January 2009, one week after the Delle Donnas had surrendered to authorities, Luisa Medrano was sentenced to three years of probation, six months of house arrest and asked to forfeit two of her apartments and pay $250,000 in back taxes. No jail time, in other words. This, after being charged with crimes carrying 250 years’ worth of jail time. And during her house arrest, Medrano was allowed to work in a restaurant she owned. After her probation ended, she disappeared.

Drewniak, the spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office at the time, told the press, "[Medrano] assisted greatly in the investigation we were undertaking, whereas the Delle Donnas fought tooth and nail, went to trial and took a chance with a jury who found them guilty." 

The Hudson Reporter was unimpressed with the rationale, speculating that the "Medrano sentence could be campaign fodder against Christopher Christie." 

"I think David Delle Donna would not have been the subject of an investigation by the U.S. Attorney's office if he was not a Democratic mayor," Lamparello said. "You should and must go after politicians who are dirty...What you don't do is you don't give up a Luisa Medrano to get a David Delle Donna on these facts. That's the story here. It doesn't make sense." 

Lamparello continued: "Put on the scales of justice Luisa Medrano's indictment and the allegations against her, and David Delle Donna, and the allegations against him. There is no way you have Luisa Medrano as your witness against David Delle Donna. I mean, it should be the other way around!"

Chiesa disagreed. Asked what he thought of allegations that the case against the Delle Donnas was not substantial, he said, "Who told you that? I don't mean to be argumentative with you … If someone who is facing charges has information, and credible information that can lead to other cases, that's information that agents will take and bring the to assistant U.S. Attorneys. In that case, I believe that [Medrano] had information on serious extortion charges against the Delle Donnas."

However, Rick Shaftan, a Republican political consultant, said he was baffled by the results. "A human trafficker didn't go to jail, and Dave Delle Donna gets to spend three years [in prison] in Kentucky?" Shaftan added. "Usually, when somebody testifies, they're going to get somebody who's done a bigger crime, not somebody who's done a lesser crime." 

Chiesa was appalled by the suggestion that Christie cut a deal for political gain. "The accusation is ridiculous. You're asking me my view, right? Be very careful, okay? We don't know each other. Human trafficking was one of my priorities as attorney general. I agree that's a very serious crime. What I'm telling you is there was never a time in the U.S. Attorney’s office where we traded serious crimes for lesser crimes." 

David Delle Donna is still on probation, which prevented him from commenting for this article. Luisa Medrano could not be found.