West New York contractor Victor Coca, who pleaded guilty in July to bribing a fire official to abate $8.7 million in fines, was sentenced to 19 months in prison by U.S. District Judge Esther Salas today.
By John Heinis/Hudson County View
Coca, 50, received a 19-month prison sentence after a six-hour sentencing hearing. Salas also issued a penalty of two years of supervised release.
Coca was originally supposed to be sentenced in October and then December, Hudson County View reported.
During the court proceeding (where Hudson County View was present), Coca conceded that on March 27, 2014, in order to abate about $14,500 in fines on a Bergenline Avenue property, he offered a $2,000 bribe to a town fire official in exchange for eliminating the fines and obtaining a certificate of occupancy (CO) for the building.
It was also revealed that a second property, 6200 Hudson Ave., had outstanding fines and fire code violations totaling roughly $8.7 million.
West New York Fire Official Frank Martinez took the stand for at least two hours as Coca’s attorneys, Howard Brownstein and Nelson Gonzalez, tried to paint a picture where Martinez solicited Coca into offering a bribe – where the bigger picture was really to build a case against Mayor Felix Roque.
However, in sworn court testimony, Martinez disputed both those notions.
Martinez recalled a December 2013 meeting in the mayor’s office with Coca, his then-real estate attorney Zak Aljaludi and then-Town Business Administrator Joe DeMarco to try and settle $8.7 million worth of fines at the Hudson Avenue property – where the initial figure that was thrown out was $250,000.
Also a captain for North Hudson Regional Fire & Rescue, Martinez said he went to the FBI after Coca approached him in the hallway of town hall a couple weeks later, stating that “there’s money in this for me the town and the mayor” after establishing Martinez was in charge of the matter.
Martinez also admitted that he spoke to the FBI about a “suspicious” fire at then-Commissioner Ruben Vargas’ house back in December 2011, further stating he felt that his job was in jeopardy ever since Roque’s administration took over in mid-2011.
“All the calls I had with Mr. Coca were recorded,” Martinez said during questioning by Brownstein, also making it clear he wore a wire every time he subsequently met with Coca in person.
Despite those facts, Martinez didn’t budge from his stance that the FBI never told him to steer the conversation towards bribery, insisting he was simply told to see where the conversations go.
After two uneventful meetings in February and March 2014, respectively, at an April 7, 2014 meeting at Vesso bakery in West New York, Coca asked “how much will it cost to take care of it?,” referring to $14,500 in fines at 4901 Bergenline Ave. – which had no certificate of occupancy at the time.
Coca then invited Martinez to his house on April 21, 2014, where he gave him a $5,000 cash bribe in an envelope, also making a $5,000 check out to the West New York Bureau of Fire Safety to make sure the $8.7 million in fines were abated as well.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Rahul Agarwal pointed to instances in the transcripts that showed Coca knew exactly what he was doing when he committed this devious behavior.
“I want to move this [expletive] along, finish this building in six months,” Coca is recorded as saying.
Furthermore, at an April 24th meeting, Martinez deduced that Coca had “friends within the administration,” as he urged him to write building code violations against opponents of Roque – particularly former board of education and commissioner candidate Patrick Cullen.
“That ****ing old man … close the windows in his house like it’s prison … he’s ****ing crazy,” Agarwal read from the transcript.
Another hotly contested aspect of the case was whether or not Martinez was truly a high-ranking public official. Martinez testified that according to state statute, he was the only person with the authority to issue, negotiate and settle fines associated to fire code violations.
However, with Aljaludi on the stand, Gonzalez explained that he began representing Coca on the 6200 Hudson Ave. property around mid-2013, before closing on the property in October 2013 – with construction commencing shortly thereafter.
According to Aljaludi, Coca ended up owning 30 percent of the building and had a 15 percent stake in 6200 Hudson LLC.
Aljaludi testified that he met with DeMarco four times, speaking with him on the phone “about a half dozen more times,” to settle the fines on the property.
He said that they reached a verbal agreement of $65,000, however, the agreement could never be completed since DeMarco took “a leave of absence” before the paper work could be written up.
DeMarco, who was also the assistant to the town attorney in West New York, became the Bayonne business administrator after new Mayor Jimmy Davis took office in July 2014.
“Mr. DeMarco was the ultimate decision maker here,” Gonzalez argued.
However, Salas felt the argument fell flat, given that the fines were never actually settled and it was Martinez who was bribed by Coca.
Also worth noting is that Brownstein claimed Coca refused to give the FBI any information on Roque, repeatedly stating that court papers submitted by the government had “Felix Roque” as the header, but Agarwal said there was little truth there.
“The first page of transcripts was submitted as a sub-file to Mayor Roque … when Coca was asked by the FBI if he knew about any corruption or wrongdoing in West New York, he compared the agents to Fidel Castro: ‘that’s how Castro operates.'”
Prior to Coca addressing the court in Spanish, Brownstein pleaded with the judge to give his client 10 months house arrest instead of jail time.
“He’s a non-violent offender that’s lived an extremely positive life outside of this incident.”
At one point crying during his remarks, Coca gave a summation of his accomplishments since moving to the United States, as well as the vital role he plays in his household for his wife, three daughters and grandson.
“I acknowledge I committed a serious failure. I’m very sorry for my family,” he said through a court translator, adding that he is paying for his oldest daughter’s dental school tuition, as well as that his grandson’s father does not live in the U.S.
Salas, to some extent, took pity on Coca’s heavy financial burdens, and also made note of his friends, family and workers high opinion of him. Nevertheless, she felt it was no secret who caused all these problems.
“It troubles me that Mr. Coca stood up and discussed all his troubles because of this crime … some horrible things happened, but only he is to blame.”
“A message has to be sent not only to Mr. Coca, but to society as a whole,” she right before sentencing him to 19 months in prison.
Salas also acknowledged that Coca received “a gift” for not receiving an additional fine and for being able to stay out of prison until June 22 so that he can see his youngest daughter graduate high school.
Martinez and Brownstein both declined to comment to Hudson County View after the court proceeding.