Mayor Joey Torres is accused of using city DPW workers on taxpayer-funded overtime to do work a business owned by his daughter and nephew.
Charles Florio has made a name for himself with his real estate holdings, community involvement, and a public battle with Joey Torres that helped lead to the mayor’s indictment.
PATERSON — In July 2014, real estate developer Charles Florio bought a table’s worth of tickets for newly elected mayor Joey Torres’ inaugural ball at The Brownstone banquet hall.
At the time, the two men seemed headed toward a mutually beneficial relationship.
Torres’ mayoral campaign had touted a neighborhood stabilization plan that needed support from developers willing to invest in abandoned houses in Paterson’s worst sections. Meanwhile, Florio was in the process of acquiring more than 200 properties in Paterson, mostly places that no one else wanted.
But things between Torres and Florio went sour fast.
Within several months of the mayor’s ball, Florio hired a private investigator, Harry Melber, to follow Torres around. Melber’s sleuthing produced video recordings of city employees doing favors for the mayor, footage that found its way to NBC News and set in motion a probe by New Jersey’s attorney general that resulted in Torres’ criminal indictment earlier this year.
Florio’s role in the Torres investigation had been the worst kept secret in Paterson for more than a year until he finally acknowledged last month that he was the one who sent Melber after the mayor. Florio said he paid Melber somewhere between $200,000 and $300,000 in fees for his work.
“My family said, ‘You’re out of your mind,’ ” said Florio, 34, a third-generation real estate investor from Hudson County. “But I always remember what my grandfather told me: If somebody is trying to bully you, you hit them back.”
As Torres prepares to defend himself against the criminal charges pending against him, Florio continues to expand his real estate investment business in Paterson. Eight years ago, Florio didn’t own a single property in the city. Now he is among Paterson’s most prominent developers – a man whose high profile comes not just from the extent of his holdings and his battle with the mayor, but also from his willingness to make donations to cash-strapped community groups and his bold and ambitious approach to his business.
When Torres announced he wanted to sell off vacant properties, Florio said he would buy them all. When groups that run ethnic parades in Paterson said they couldn’t afford the city’s increased fees, Florio made a $17,000 donation to cover their shortfall. When budget cuts were going to force the cancellation of the city’s summer camp wrap-up party, Florio intervened and picked up most of the tab.
“Who else has done what he has done?” said Waheeda Muhammed of Paterson-based Grandparents Resource Center. “He’s willing to open his heart as well as his wallet to the community.”
Muhammed’s group has experienced Florio’s generosity. The grandparents’ center was running out of money and in danger of getting evicted from its offices a few years ago. Florio offered the organization a 10-year rent-free lease for four units in a building he owns at the corner of Rosa Parks Boulevard and Hamilton Avenue, Muhammed said. Instead of shutting down, the group has thrived at its new location, where needy people form early-morning lines twice a week to get food, she said.
“I consider him a friend and I consider him an honorary member of my church,” said the Rev. Allan Boyer, pastor of Bethel AME Church on Auburn Street.
When Bethel AME’s building needed a facelift a couple years ago, Florio sent over a crew to repaint the church. The developer also has contributed to the church’s basketball program and made donations for its Christmas toy drive, said the pastor.
“I think he genuinely cares about the community,” Boyer said. “Don’t get me wrong. He’s a businessman. He’s buying property and making money. But he doesn’t forget about the community.”
City Council President William McKoy said there’s a pragmatic aspect to Florio’s generosity. The developer’s donations help stabilize neighborhoods where he owns land, the council president said.
Florio said McKoy’s observation was “1,000 percent correct.”
“If you make an unsafe city safe, it’s a win-win situation,” said Florio. “It benefits the community and the value of your real estate is going to go up.”
Questions and conflict
In some ways, Florio has been at odds with community groups that believe Paterson’s best bet for revival is home ownership. The majority of Florio’s holdings are multi-unit apartment buildings and he acknowledged that more than half his tenants use various government programs, including Section 8 vouchers, to pay their rents.
During the winter, Florio sought city approvals to convert two apartment buildings he owns on Auburn Street into a transitional housing for homeless people. But the zoning board rejected his application.
Privately, some public officials and community leaders question Florio’s motives and assert that his charity is aimed at improving his tax status. But it’s hard to find anyone who has anything bad to say on the record about Florio – not even the mayor who has ended up in a jam because of the developer’s hiring of the private investigator.
Torres said Paterson needs builders willing to invest in Paterson. “As long as he’s doing everything the right way,” the mayor said of Florio, “and I haven’t gotten any complaints that he has not.”
In interviews last week, Torres and Florio offered somewhat conflicting versions of the events that led to their dispute.
Torres said he saw it as a positive sign back in 2014 when Florio was interested in participating in the abandoned properties initiative for developers. “The only problem was he thought he could be the only one,” the mayor said.
But Florio asserted that the Torres administration quickly pulled the welcome mat away. The developer alleged that he suddenly found himself the target of unfair treatment from city inspectors and building department staff members. Florio said he was puzzled by the change and retained the private investigator to try to figure out what was going on.
“I hired Harry Melber to protect my business,” said Florio. “This wasn’t about some political agenda.”
Regardless of whether Florio was motivated by politics, his actions have reshaped the landscape for the city’s upcoming May 2018 mayoral election. Torres repeatedly has said he plans to run for reelection and has asserted he expects to get cleared of the charges pending against him.
Torres and three Paterson public works department employees – Joe Mania, Imad “Eddie” Mowaswes and Tim Hanlon – were named in a six-count indictment in March accusing the mayor of using the men to do work at a private business owned by his family members while they were paid overtime by city taxpayers. The New Jersey Attorney General’s Office has never officially confirmed Florio’s role, but acknowledged that it started its probe based on a tip and the NBC News reports, which were generated by the recordings Melber did for Florio.
In fact, Melber’s video and notes were among the first things subpoenaed when the state convened a grand jury in the case.
In April, the state offered the mayor’s three co-defendants a deal that would allow them to avoid jail time if they testify against Torres. The deal offered to Torres would require him to serve a minimum of five years in prison. The judge handling the case has scheduled a court session for Thursday.
With the cloud of the indictment hovering over the mayor, about 10 people have expressed interest in running for the city’s top job next year.
In the 2014 race, Florio had made a $2,000 contribution to Torres and $2,100 in donations to the candidate who finished second in the race, Councilman Andre Sayegh. Florio also made two subsequent $1,000 contributions to Sayegh – one for his 2016 council campaign and another last February, according to election finance reports filed with the state.
In addition to those political contributions, Florio also donated $17,000 to Sayegh’s civic association in 2015 to allow the councilman to come to the rescue when the Peruvian and Dominican parade groups needed more money to pay for police protection and other city services for the events. Some political insiders have questioned Florio’s initial behind-the-scenes role in the parade situation, saying it was designed to improve Sayegh’s popularity.
The connection between Florio and Sayegh has prompted Torres’ supporters to argue that the developer was acting on the councilman’s behalf when he hired the investigator to follow the mayor.
Sayegh said he learned of Florio’s actions only after Melber already had started tailing Torres. “I knew there was bad blood between the two of them, but I never realized it would result in that,” the councilman said.
Some Torres supporters have said it was clear that Sayegh knew what was happening with the private investigator because he began making repeated complaints about Public Works Department overtime spending well before NBC broadcast its first story alleging that city employees were getting paid by taxpayers to do personal favors for the mayor.
When asked if he plans to back Sayegh in the 2018 mayoral race, Florio said he has not yet made up his mind. “Right now, I see two qualified candidates in this race,” Florio said. At first, he declined to name them. But eventually relented and said that McKoy and Sayegh seem to be the strongest candidates in his eyes.
No matter who wins, Florio said he plans to continue his investments in Paterson. He said he owns close to 300 properties with about 2,250 apartments and a total value of about $205 million. For now, Paterson is the primary city where Florio operates.
But a year ago, he said, he bought a 1,000-unit apartment complex in a blighted section of Atlanta. Over the next 18 months, Florio said he hopes to expand his holdings in Atlanta to 10,000 units.
Florio said his grandfather prospered by investing in Jersey City in the 1970s, long before anyone was talking about the Gold Coast. Florio said he sees similarities between Jersey City decades ago and Paterson today.
“I’m staying in Paterson,” Florio said. “I’m staying in Paterson until it changes. Twenty years from now I’ll be that crazy guy walking around talking about Paterson or I’ll be an absolute genius.”
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