The Soprano State The Soprano State



  • Beverly Hall has a place in The Soprano State. Chapter Six. Check it out. Gov. Christie Whitman brought her into the Newark schools to save them.  In 1999, before Hall left New Jersey for Atlanta  schools, “shortcomings” had been found in Newark school spending. When the state took over the Newark school system, it was flush with $58 million. By 2000, Sen. Robert Martin was asking questions about how more than $100 million in spending could not be accounted for.  Hall recently decided to depart from the Atlanta schools.  In 2009, ten years after leaving New Jersey, the American Association of School Administrators named her national Superintendent of the Year.  Among other things, she was credited with raising Atlanta’s test scores. But as she departs Atlanta, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution describes her as “embattled.” That’s because her tenure there  “soured under the glare of a test-cheating investigation.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Atlanta school officials, including Hall, carried out a campaign to suppress allegations of widespread cheating on standardized tests. As early as 2008, the newspaper reported statistically unlikely gains in some Atlanta schools.  In early 2010, a state analysis found suspicious erasure marks on thousands of students’ answer sheets. Atlanta has 58 schools where questions were raised about the erasures.  The newspaper speculates school officials could face criminal charges.
    Maureen Downey, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Dec. 19, 2010
    Kristina Torres and Heather Vogell, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Nov. 20, 2010
    Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Timeline, Nov. 21, 2010.

  • Albert Cernadas Sr., who also has a place in The Soprano State (chapters three and eight), is back in the news.  Cernadas, once executive vice president of the International Longshoremen’s Association and former president of the ILA’s Newark local, has been indicted by federal prosecutors and charged with a racketeering operation tied to the Genovese crime family, Cernadas is accused of shaking down union members for money every year around Christmas “with actual and threatened force, violence and fear.” Cernadas was removed from the ILA five years ago after pleading guilty to corruption charges related to union funds being spent on a pharmaceutical company controlled by organized crime.
    Ted Sherman, Star-Ledger, Dec. 16, 2010

  • The ten-year run of federal corruption convictions in New Jersey has ended. Ridgefield Mayor Anthony Suarez and former Assemblyman Harvey Smith have been found not guilty of taking bribes. Smith was accused of taking $15,000 in bribes from purported developer Solomon Dwek, who was working undercover for the feds. The Smith trial was the first corruption trial in the broad federal sting in which Dwek did not testify. Smith said Federal Express envelopes containing the $15,000 were tossed into his car without him knowing what was in them.  A jury also found Suarez innocent of taking $10,000 in bribes from Dwek.  The lawyer for Suarez said he turned down $10,000 in cash, never deposited a $10,000 check and kept only $2,500 that he believed was a legitimate donation to his legal defense fund.
    MaryAnn Spoto, Star-Ledger, Dec. 16, 2010
    Joe Ryan, Star-Ledger, Oct. 27, 2010.

  • Just when you think you have heard it all, someone goes and uses a cow to get a tax break in New Jersey. This wasn’t a dairy farmer. It was someone who used the cow to eat a front lawn for a few months and then sold the cow.  In New Jersey, if you own five acres and sell $500 in products, you get a farmland tax break. “Fake farmers” have abounded for years in New Jersey and have included former governors and lawmakers. The amazing part is that New Jersey allows the tax break to continue for millionaires, developers and anyone with five acres. The Asbury Park Press provided details on current abuses. With the state’s budget woes, it would be common sense to change the law. But then, this is New Jersey.
    Todd Bates and Andrea Clurfeld, Asbury Park Press, Dec. 10, 2010

  • Federal Judge Joel Pisano sentenced former Assemblyman Daniel Van Pelt to 3 years and 5 months in prison for bribery. In an Atlantic City restaurant, Van Pelt accepted an envelope with $10,000 in $100 bills from a purported developer.  A member of the Ocean Township government council, as well as an assemblyman, Van Pelt agreed to help the fake developer obtain environmental permits. The problem was that the man who paid Van Pelt the bribe was working for the feds. A jury said even in New Jersey you can’t put $10,000 in cash in your doggie bag and get away with it. “Selling official influence is a crime. As long as public officials continue to wield power for profit, we’ll continue to prosecute them and send them to jail,” said U.S.  Attorney Paul Fishman.
    U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, Nov. 19, 2010

  • Former Perth Amboy Mayor Joe Vas, already convicted by a federal jury of misappropriating affordable housing funds, pleaded guilty in state court to money laundering, theft and a pattern of official misconduct. Vas admitted to accepting beachwear and eyeglasses paid for with city funding and to taking gifts from a city contractor. The state prosecutor recommend an eight-year sentence. The state time will be served at the same time Vas serves his federal sentence, which has yet to be levied on the former mayor and assemblyman.
    Ken Serrano, Asbury Park Press, Nov. 18, 2010

  • Michael Ritacco, the Toms River Regional School District superintendent who earned $234,000 a year and has been indicted and charged by the feds with taking between $1 million and $2 million in bribes, managed to sell his unused sick days back to the school district for $219,517. Ritacco cashed in 50 sick days each year between 2002 and 2007. Each year, he garnered at least $41,000.  The state has now capped such payouts for sick leave at $15,000, something that should have happened long ago.
    Matthew McGrath, Asbury Park Press, Nov. 18, 2010

  • In his blog, coauthor Bob Ingle said, “If this doesn’t show why the state needs pension reform, nothing will.” This is the pension case of Susan Bass Levin, who just turned 58. On the very day she was eligible for her state pension, Levin used her BlackBerry to resign from the part-time job that allowed her to stay in the state pension system. Her pension, however, won’t be based on that job. It will be based on the three years she spent in Gov. Jim McGreevey’s Cabinet. She will get $5,300 a month for life, plus lifetime health benefits.  After McGreevey left office, Gov. Corzine appointed Levin to a high paying job at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. But that would have taken her out of the New Jersey pension program where she needed a total of 25 years to qualify. So Corzine did what all governors have done in the past, he gave Levin a part-time job on the Local Finance Board to keep her in the New Jersey system. (Just to add to the story, that board, from 2005 to 2009, approved $7 billion in local government borrowing that was backloaded, allowing local governments to make small payments at first and then larger payments 10 or 20 years in the future.)  New Jersey taxpayers need to demand an end to a pension system that allows someone like Levin to rake in a fat pension for life. It’s an affront to taxpayers and to the state workers who have spent their lives working full-time jobs.
    Elise Young, The Record, Nov. 13, 2010
    Bob Ingle, Asbury Park Press, Nov. 15, 2010

  • Even for New Jersey, the sentence given to Donald Codey, brother of Sen. Dick Codey, is amazing.  Judge Thomas Scully of Monmouth County sentenced Donald Codey to five years probation and said he had to be evaluated to see if he has a gambling problem. Listen to what Codey did to deserve probation: The former president and general manager of  Freehold Raceway Park admitted stealing $3,045 in raceway promotional vouchers and admitted assisting two patrons in the cashing of bad checks at the track. The checks, you might think, were small change? No, $1.3 million.  Authorities said that when Codey allowed the patrons to cash the checks, he knew the banks would not cover the checks.
    Michelle Sahn, Asbury Park Press, Nov. 10, 2010

  • Former Assemblyman Neil Cohen was sentenced to five years in prison for distributing child pornography. Cohen admitted viewing images of child pornography on a computer in his legislative office. He also admitted printing copies of child pornography and putting them in the desk of a female receptionist in the office.  Cohen will be barred from public office and will be required to register as a sex offender under Megan’s Law.
    Attorney General Paula Dow, Nov. 4, 2010

  • For those who think the Gambino crime family is a thing of the past in New Jersey, the case of Andrew Merola is a reminder. Federal Judge Stanley Chesler sent Merola, who the feds described as one of the Gambino crime family’s highest ranking members, to prison for 11 years. Merola, of East Hanover and Toms River, pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy in connection with an illegal gambling operation, the collection of debts by extortion and a scheme to defraud stores with bogus bar code labels. All this happened in New York and New Jersey between 2002 and 2008.  The gambling and extortion sound pretty normal for organized crime. The bar code stuff is pure New Jersey. Merola admitted to defrauding stores like Lowe’s and Home Depot by creating bar codes with a lower price. Chesler sentenced 14 others who were charged with Merola.
    U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, Oct. 29, 2010

  • A million-dollar bribe is a whopper, even in The Soprano State. In fact, a number of New Jersey politicians have gone down for far less. The feds indicted Michael Ritacco, the Toms River Regional School District superintendent, and charged him with taking between $1 million and $2 million in bribes from the school district’s insurance broker, Francis Gartland, who also was indicted. The FBI charged that Gartland paid the bribes to insure fees of $1 million a year. “In all instances, it was the taxpayers of New Jersey who were duped, “ said FBI Special Agent in Charge Michael Ward.  That’s because Gartland, according to the feds, inflated insurance prices to pay for the bribes. The bribes were paid in cash and also came in the form of home appliances, payment of a plumber’s fee and two Rolex watches worth more than $50,000, according to the indictment. In some cases, the bribes benefitted Ritacco’s girlfriend, a district employee, who, among other things, got one of the watches and college tuition for a relative, according to the feds.  The indictment charges that Ritacco and Gartland set up bank accounts in the names of sham companies to hide the bribes. As a school superintendent in The Soprano State, Ritacco earned $234,000.  He was on Gov. Christie’s transition team in 2009 and was chairman of the Toms River-Ocean County Chamber of Commerce.  Once again, you can’t make this stuff up.
    U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, Oct. 21, 2010
    Zach Patberg, Jean Mikle, Michele Sahn, Matthew McGrath, Asbury Park Press, Oct. 21, 2010.

  • Every time you pay a toll in New Jersey, think about this: While tolls went up in 2008 and will go up again in 2012, an audit by the state comptroller said New Jersey Turnpike Authority employees in 2008 and 2009 were overpaid $30 million in bonuses and payouts.  Longevity bonuses cost $11.6 million. Annual payouts for unused sick time cost $3.8 million.  Annual payouts for unused vacation days cost $3.7 million. Separation bonuses cost $1.4 million.  Bonuses for employees who worked on their birthday (It’s hard to believe.) cost $227,000. Employees also were given E-ZPass transponders to commute to work , meaning the authority missed out on $430,000 in tolls. In some cases, retirees were given health benefits after only five years of service. And the authority used a self-funded health benefits program when using the state program would save million of dollars.
    Office of the State Comptroller, Oct. 19, 2010
    Michael Symons, Asbury Park Press, Oct. 19, 2010.

  • Another jury has come through and can be counted among The Soprano State heroes. A federal jury convicted Joe Vas, a former New Jersey lawmaker and mayor, of misusing his office to misappropriate $360,000 in affordable housing funds, something that should be sacred even in New Jersey.  Get this scam: Vas bought a building for $660,000 and then sold it for $950,000. He promised the contractor who bought the property $360,000 in affordable housing funds and then shepherded the redevelopment funds through the process at city hall. The jury also found Vas guilty of lying to the feds and of federal election fraud for a scheme in which conduit donors gave cash to people who then wrote checks to Vas’s campaign fund.
    U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, Oct. 8, 2010
    Tom Haydon, Star-Ledger, Oct. 8, 2010

  • The feds have issued subpoenas to the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority and to Assembly and Senate Democratic offices, and it’s about Xanadu, the failed project at the Meadowlands.  The feds want to know about political endorsements by local, Bergen County and state officials for the project.  At last, the handling of the 2 million-square-foot retail and entertainment fiasco has raised enough questions for the feds to want to know whether laws were broken.
    John Brennan, The Record, Sept. 27, 2010

  • Jailed former Sen. Wayne Bryant has been indicted, again, on bribery charges. This time, Eric Wisler, a lawyer, formerly with the influential DeCotiis law firm, was charged with him. The feds say Bryant took a $192,000 bribe in return for supporting the redevelopment of Camden’s Cramer Hill and the controversial EnCap project in the Meadowlands. Federal investigators say Wisler, then EnCap’s lead lawyer, hired and paid Bryant to do legal work for the Meadowlands project, but Bryant did no legal work. The feds charge that the money was paid to buy Bryant’s support as a powerful lawmaker for the two projects. The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York is handling the case because New Jersey’s U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman represented EnCap before being named federal prosecutor.
    U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, Sept. 27, 2010
    Joe Ryan, Star-Ledger, Sept. 27, 2010
    Jeff Pillets, Peter Sampson and John Brennan, The Record, Sept. 27, 2010

  • Former Assembly member Anthony Chiappone was sentenced to a year of probation and a $5,000 fine. This is not a stellar performance by the sentencing judge, Superior Court Judge Gerald Council of Mercer County, or the prosecutor, Chris Christie’s Attorney General Paula Dow.  Chiappone ended up facing one charge, tampering with public records, after he admitted to knowingly submitting false campaign reports. The reports failed to report five state-issued paychecks for a legislative aide that were deposited into the campaign account and exceeded the legal limit for contributions. The indictment against Chiappone charged that he conspired with his wife, Diane, to have state paychecks issued to a legislative aide, who then donated money to the campaign fund. Charges against his wife were dismissed. Dow seems to know that the assembly member broke the law, but she thinks losing his public job is enough punishment.  This case is particularly egregious because the paychecks involved were state paychecks, or public money.
    Attorney General Paula Dow, Sept. 17, 2010
    Melissa Hayes, Jersey Journal, Sept. 17, 2010

  • Just when you thought New Jersey couldn’t be first, again, in something shameful, you find out that it is the first state to be charged with securities fraud. Between 2001 and 2007, the state sold more than $26 billion in municipal bonds. During that time, it failed to tell people who invested in those bonds that it was underfunding its pensions.  The Securities and Exchange Commission said the state created a “false impression” that retirement funds were being adequately funded.  In other words, the state hid the fact that the state budget would be affected when those payments had to be made.  “The state of New Jersey didn’t give its municipal investors a fair shake,” said the SEC. In settling the case with the SEC, New Jersey didn’t admit any wrongdoing, and there was no penalty involved, except the state said it won’t do it again. In true New Jersey style, the settlement was reached in secret.  So while the fraud was committed under governors DiFrancesco, McGreevey and Corzine, the Christie administration, which negotiated the settlement, doesn’t come off looking good either.
    Bob Ingle, Gannett, August 19, 2010
    Reuters, August 18, 2010

  • U.S. District Judge Jose Linares sentenced former Hoboken Mayor Peter Cammarano to two years in federal prison. Cammarano pleaded guilty to taking $25,000 in bribes from an undercover operative posing as a developer. Even as he pledged zero tolerance for corruption, Cammarano took $15,000 in bribes while a councilman running for mayor and another $10,000 after he became mayor. This is not the first time we have tipped our hat to Judge Linares. (He also sentenced former Jersey City deputy mayor Leona Beldini to three years in jail.) In addition to two years in jail, Linares fined Cammarano $25,000.
    U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, Aug. 5, 2010

  • The Star-Ledger managed to obtain the elusive e-mails between Carla Katz and Gov. Jon Corzine. The GOP went to court to get them, but New Jersey’s high court said executive privilege should prevail, keeping them secret. While the e-mails did not reveal any direct labor negotiations between Corzine and Katz, then president of a local representing 8,000 state employees, it did indicate that Corzine, even though he was the most powerful governor in the nation, could not manage to cut off communications with his old girlfriend, Katz.  “While Corzine tried to convince Katz that they needed to avoid contact because of the negotiations (ongoing labor contract talks with the state), Katz had been sending e-mails pertaining to the talks for weeks,” Josh Margolin of the Star-Ledger wrote.
    Josh Margolin, Star-Ledger, August 1,  2010

  • The federal charges against Joe Ferriero, former Bergen County Democratic chairman, have been dismissed. Ferriero, who was convicted of conspiracy and mail fraud, was the beneficiary of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling which dealt a crippling blow to a tool federal prosecutors used to bust corruption.  The high court ruled that a “theft of honest services” law could only be used in cases where there is a bribe or a kickback. The Associated Press reported that Ferriero beamed when the case against him was terminated. Ferriero was convicted, under the honest services law, for conspiring to obtain a government grant without disclosing his interest in a consulting company that profited from the grant.
    Associated Press, July 29, 2010

  • New Jersey has the highest property taxes in the nation.  In an effort to contain tax growth, New Jersey now has a law that caps local spending and property tax growth at 2 percent a year. The political process that accomplished that was ugly, but it got done. The law applies to towns, school districts and counties. There are exceptions for employee pensions, health care, emergencies and debt payments. Voters have the power to override the limits.  In addition, Gov. Christie has capped school superintendent salaries at the $175,000 that the governor earns. There are exceptions for those who earn bonuses and those who work in large cities. But it’s a start.
    Angela Delli Santi, Associated Press, July 14, 2010
    Bob Ingle, Gannett, July 25, 2010

  • A new report from George Mason University says that New Jersey’s public employee pension system could run out of money as early as 2013 under certain assumptions.  Even if the fund gets a return of 8 percent interest, it could be unable to meet its obligations by 2019. That’s why some reforms have been put in place. But ponder this when you wonder why things are so bad: Janet Passante retired this year as chief of staff to the mayor of West New York. Her salary was $119,288, and she took with her into retirement $306,324 in unused sick leave and vacation time.  The reforms cap such payments at $15,000, but do not apply to current employees.
    Bob Ingle, Asbury Park Press, June 27, 2010
    Karina Arrue, Jersey Journal, June 5, 2010

  •  The case of former New Jersey lawmaker Anthony Chiappone covers all the bases when it comes to the reasons why New Jersey’s culture of corruption continues. This is a story about an assemblyman and his wife who were charged with funneling more than $8,000 in state-issued paychecks for legislative aides into their own bank account and Chiappone’s campaign fund, and then failing to properly file campaign reports on the money. (The indictment alleges that Chiappone and his wife conspired to have 13 state paychecks issued to a legislative aide, who donated the money to the campaign.  Five of the checks went into the campaign fund and eight into their own bank accounts for personal use.) This is a story about how Hudson County voters re-elected Chiappone after the indictment. And this is a story about how the state attorney general settled the case by letting the wife off the hook and by dropping all the charges against Chiappone except one, filing false reports with the election commission, a third-degree charge. Just hours after he was indicted, Chiappone could be found celebrating his wife’s birthday in a Newark restaurant because they already had made reservations. A year later, he pleaded guilty to the one charge and the attorney general is asking for probation. Attorney General Paula Dow touted the agreement by saying Chiappone forfeited his Assembly seat and won’t be able to serve in public office in New Jersey ever again. But for those who looked to Dow as a change in the way political corruption is prosecuted in New Jersey under Gov. Christie, this looks like a step backward, not forward.
    Patti Sapone, Star-Ledger, June 25, 2010
    Attorney General Paula Dow, June 25, 2010
    Attorney General Anne Milgram, August 26, 2009

  • The State Commission of Investigation remains intact. Thanks to Democratic leaders, rather than Gov. Christie, who wanted to make a $3.5 million cut to the SCI’s budget and end its independence. Christie said the funding was restored because the Democrats in the Legislature wanted it.  Democrats in the Legislature can at least count this as something they did right in 2010. The SCI is an agency that’s sorely needed in New Jersey to battle waste and corruption.
    Maya Rao, Inquirer, June 23, 2010

  • New Jersey’s city schools have been in crisis for decades despite the billions spent on them. News reports focusing on Newark and Asbury Park show a sad state of affairs that leaves students out in the cold. The Wall Street Journal reported that nearly half of the teachers in Newark took at least two weeks of sick leave during the last school year. A quarter of the teachers took off three weeks or more.  Here is the chilling sentence in the sick-leave story by Barbara Martinez, “The district was taken over by the state in 1995 and since then has seen three state-appointed superintendents and little change in student performance.”  Teachers have taken advantage of a generous sick-leave policy in their contract, which gave most teachers 18 paid sick and personal days off. Those with 25 years of service got up to 28 days off in the school year of 191 days.  Joseph Del Grosso, president of the teachers union, said teachers are using up sick days before they retire. Asked about teachers using sick days if  they are not sick, Del Grosso said, “We’re not priests or nuns.”  Over in Asbury Park, the school district is the subject of both a state and federal probe. In April, the FBI  seized documents from the district office and the home of Superintendent Michael Ritacco. The federal probe focuses on the district’s insurance companies. The school board has not suspended Ritacco because he has not been charged with a crime. And now the Asbury Park Press reports that the school board has so many nepotism conflicts that it can’t discuss or vote on Ritacco’s job without going through rarely used legal loopholes. Ritacco supervises the relatives of five of the nine board members (four of the five board members’ relatives were hired or promoted after the board member’s election), and one of the board member’s relatives works for a company that sells meat to the school district’s food services. What all this means is that the board does not have a majority of members able to vote on Ritacco’s issues unless it passes a special “doctrine of necessity” that says there is a conflict, but the member needs to participate so that school district business can be conducted. In other words, nepotism is so rampant that business can’t be conducted without ignoring it.
    Barbara Martinez, Wall Street Journal, June 15, 2010
    Matthew McGrath, Asbury Park Press, June 22, 2010

  • Former burlesque queen later New Jersey deputy mayor Leona Beldini (formerly Hope Diamond, Gem of the Exotics) told U.S. District Judge Jose Linares that she was afraid to go to jail. Her attorney said Beldini, now 75, has health problems and has lost her job, her business and her community’s admiration. Beldini and her lawyer wanted Linares to go easy on the former deputy mayor of Jersey City who was convicted of taking $20,000 in bribes. A jury ruled that she agreed to use her official influence to help a development project in exchange for the $20,000 in illicit campaign contributions. Assistant U.S. Attorney Sandra Moser called for jail time: “The scourge of corruption strikes at the very heart of our democratic system of government.” And Linares agreed. He sentenced her to three years in a federal prison.  Now that’s a message New Jersey’s public officials can ponder. Judge Linares gets it.  You can read more good things about him in Chapter 10 of The Soprano State.
    Joe Ryan, Star Ledger, June 14, 2010,
    U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, June 14, 2010

  • When you are in the news business, you can spot those who dig for the facts a mile off. That’s why New Jersey’s State Commission of Investigation stands out in The Soprano State. For decades the state agency has shed light on the mob, on corruption, on government waste.  “You’d think that a man who paved his way to the governor’s office as a tough U.S. Attorney would have a better appreciation for the SCI,” said co-author Bob Ingle.  As hard as it is to believe, Gov. Chris Christie wants to slash the SCI’s budget and put it under the state Comptroller’s Office. The SCI is attached to the Legislature, and it’s a good thing that Sen. President Steve Sweeney and other lawmakers, like Sen. Barbara Buono, intend to keep it that way. As Ingle pointed out, the SCI told us how politics resulted in a state emissions testing fiasco (Chapter 2). The SCI told us how mob capo Angelo Prisco went back to running his mob crew after the state Parole Board let him out early (Chapter 8).  But the SCI, created after the connection between the mob and New Jersey government came into public focus, has told us about more than the mob. When others were afraid to speak out or were too tied to the system, it told us about wasteful spending and government corruption. And the SCI has more to tell New Jersey. So it should continue to speak to what’s wrong in The Soprano State.  Gov. Christie Whitman, a former GOP governor who oversaw the state emissions testing along with her transportation chief James Weinstein, did some damage to the SCI’s power. Now, under Gov. Christie, we see another attack on the SCI, along with the appointment of Weinstein as New Jersey Transit director.  Taxpayers must be thinking that no matter who is governor, the beat goes on in Trenton. While the Legislature appears unwilling to compromise on the SCI, the governor apparently has the power to eliminate funding for the SCI by slashing it from the Legislative budget. What a terrible legacy that would be for Christie, who has been know for battling corruption, to leave behind.
    Bob Ingle, Gannett, June 3, May 23, 2010
    Matt Friedman, Star-Ledger, June 2, 2010, April 22, 2010

  • As we have said at a number of book signings, there are some heroes in The Soprano State.  Count New Jersey juries, of late, among them.  It took the jury of seven men and five women 11 hours over three days to convict former Assemblyman Daniel Van Pelt of bribery and extortion. Van Pelt, who was among the 44 arrested in a corruption roundup last July, accepted $10,000 in cash from a purported developer at an Atlantic City steakhouse. Van Pelt took the envelope of $100 bills and put it in his doggie bag. A member of the Assembly and the Ocean Township government council, Van Pelt agreed to help the developer obtain environmental permits. Van Pelt and his lawyers tried to muddy the waters by saying he was acting as a consultant, and he had clearance from a lawyer at the Office of Legislative Services to do the consulting. But the jury, to its credit, didn’t buy it.  The jury knew cash in an envelope is a no-no for politicians, even in New Jersey. One of the problems for Van Pelt was that the cash exchange was on video tape because the man handing him the money was working with the FBI. (The camera was in a button on the clothing of supposed developer Solomon Dwek.) Another problem for Van Pelt was that when the lawyer for the Office of Legislative Services took the stand, she said that she gave no such permission and knew nothing about the cash, which had already exchanged hands. Van Pelt could be a case study in The Soprano State.  In addition to being an elected lawmaker and local councilman, he was the township administrator for Lumberton. He was grandfathered into the multiple office-holding, after a law was passed against it. Van Pelt deposited the $10,000 into his bank in two portions, thereby avoiding the scrutiny of a larger deposit.  Prosecutors also pointed out that he and his wife were nearly $900,000 in debt. It is interesting to note that Van Pelt’s wife is a lawyer and a former municipal judge and Van Pelt was a Criminal Justice major at the College of New Jersey.  But in the end, it boiled down to this: “The conviction should remind public officials that no matter what you call it, a bribe is a bribe,” said U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman. Of the 44 arrested in the 2009 sweep, Van Pelt was the 19th conviction, including guilty pleas and two jury verdicts.  The U.S. Attorney’s Office now has earned more than 150 public corruption convictions in eight years.
    U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, May 19, 2010
    Erick Larsen, Asbury Park Press, May 12, May 19, 2010
    Angela Delli Santi, Associated Press, May 14, 2010
    MaryAnn Spoto, Star-Ledger, May 13, May 19, 2010
    Van Pelt’s legislative Web page, Jan. 22, 2008.

  • Just when the public may have thought CEOs would be shamed into taking smaller salaries, the news comes that the CEO of Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey took home $8.7 million in 2009. At the state’s largest health insurance company, nine executives took home $24.3 million in salaries and bonuses in 2009, an increase of $15 million over 2008. The company is officially a nonprofit and enjoys the tax benefits of that status. The company said the payments included compensation from past years. Michael Kornett, CEO of the Medical Society of New Jersey called it outrageous. Margaret Bell, an administrator at Monmouth Hematology and Oncology in West Long Branch, called it a sin.
    Michael L. Diamond, Asbury Park Press, May 17, 2010
    Bob Ingle, Gannett, May 20, 2010

  • Federal Judge Dennis Cavanaugh said that a prison sentence or house arrest would have been “too punitive” for Leonard Kaiser, the former mayor of North Arlington (as well as former executive director of the Bergen County Utilities Authority and former commissioner of the New  Meadowlands Commission, which brought us the Encap debacle, also under investigation) and his wife Barbara Kaiser. Leonard and Barbara Kaiser were each sentenced to a year probation for attempted tax evasion, a crime that could have meant five years in prison and typically would have meant six to 12 months in jail or home arrest. Here is what they did: After Leonard lost his bid for re-election as mayor, the two issued checks totaling nearly $30,000 out of his campaign fund to Barbara. Many of them were marked “salary,” but the two acknowledged that even though they knew state law prohibited the personal use of campaign funds, they did not report the amounts on campaign finance forms and did not report the income to the IRS.  When the two pleaded guilty, U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman said, “The misappropriation of campaign funds and attempts to conceal such activity poses a significant threat to the political process. Contributors to an election fund expect that their contributions will be used for the intended purpose, and not to personally enrich the candidate.” But at the sentencing, Judge Cavanaugh (who already made The Soprano State’s Chapter 9) said, “This is simply a tax evasion case that’s been resolved.” Defense attorney Samuel Moulthrop said the judge reportedly relied on the numerous letters people wrote in support of the Kaisers. (You also have seen that before in The Soprano State.) This is not the first time Leonard Kaiser has been in the news. In 2008, the FBI executed a search warrant at his home, and when Joseph Ferriero, chairman of the Bergen County Democratic Organization, and Dennis Oury, former Bergenfield borough attorney, were indicted, the indictment listed an “individual 1,” whose profile fit Kaiser.  According to the indictment, “individual 1” was involved in discussions to formulate the company Governmental Grants Consulting. Kaiser was not charged in that case.  Ferriero was convicted under what is called the honest services law for conspiring with Oury to obtain a government grant without disclosing his interest in the consulting company that profited from the grant, Governmental Grants Consulting. Oury pleaded guilty. (It should be noted that the sentencing of Ferriero and Oury is on hold until the U.S. Supreme Court rules this summer on the honest services law, which also was used to convict former Newark Mayor Sharpe James and former Sen. Wayne Bryant.)
    U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, May 17, 2010
    Susan C. Moeller, The Leader. May 17, 2010
    Brian Anderson,, May 17, 2010
    Associated Press, Jan. 22, 2010
    Carmine DeMarco,, Jan. 21, 2010
    John Soltes, The Leader, Nov. 13, 2008
    Joe Ryan, Star-Ledger, Dec. 17, 2009

  • With a new indictment of 34 reputed members and associates of the Lucchese crime family, it’s a good time to take a look at how the family is faring.  The Soprano State points out the interesting relationship that this New York based family has with New Jersey.  As you may recall, the imprisoned Michael Taccetta is the real life Tony Soprano. His brother, Martin Taccetta was among those named in the recent indictment. The family has had an up and down relationship with New Jersey prosecutors. In 1988 the family’s hierarchy was found innocent, only to face a successful prosecution in 1991.  Thus it has been with Martin Taccetta, whose racketeering conviction was overturned leaving him free until last July when the state Supreme Court said he should return to jail to serve his life sentence. The Philadelphia based Scarfo family also has an interesting relationship with New Jersey and the Luccheses. Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo, serving a long prison sentence for racketeering, arranged for his son, Nicodemo S. Scarfo, to enter the ranks of the Lucchese family, according to law enforcement. The younger Scarfo was among the 34 recently indicted and charged in connection with a $2 billion international sports betting operation. The indictment also alleges that a corrections officer, a high-ranking member of the Bloods and the Lucchese family teamed together to smuggle drugs and pre-paid cellphones into East Jersey State Prison.  The investigation, which dates back to 2006, resulted in arrests in 2007 and now the indictments.  (In The Soprano State’s Chapter 8, you can find interesting reading about ties between the Lucchese family and the state Parole Board and Corrections, while in Chapter 9, you can read about the Bruno/Scarfo family’s connections to Atlantic City.)  George Anastasia, an Inquirer staff writer and expert on the Philadelphia mob, said that the investigation leading to the recent indictments resulted in hundreds of secretly recorded conversations, including a mob “making” ceremony and discussions by the family about mob protocol and the family’s internal workings.  The recordings also indicate that the younger Scarfo was replaced as a mob capo by Ralph V. Perna (also listed in the recent indictments) because the family was worried about media speculation that the younger Scarfo was plotting to take control of the Philadelphia-South Jersey criminal organization once headed by his father, Anastasia said.
    George Anastasia and Mike Newall, Philadelphia Inquirer, May 15, 2010
    Mary Fuchs, Star-Ledger, July 30, 2009
    Chris Megerian, Star-Ledger, May 14, 2010
    Charles Webster, Asbury Park Press, May 14, 2010
    Attorney General Paula Dow, May 14, 2010

  • Do you want to know why the little guy in New Jersey doesn’t believe any politician who says he or she sides with taxpayers? Listen to this story about a law that lawmakers in this state passed and Gov. Christie signed: You are a hard-working New Jersey citizen trying to make ends meet. You are overburdened with high property taxes and all the other federal, state and local taxes that reduce your paycheck. Now into your town comes a developer who wants a tax abatement of more than $350 million. Someone shows up at your door and wants a signature on a petition that would allow you to go into the voting booth and vote on whether or not you want such a development (with tax breaks) in your town. Of course you want a say. So you sign the petition. But wait! The Legislature and the governor learn that you want a say. And more than that, that you might not like this tax abatement idea. So what do they do? They take away your right to have a say in the matter. The Legislature passes a law, with Democratic Sen. Ray Lesniak cheering it on, and GOP Gov. Chris Christie signs it. The new law removes the requirement that towns must sign off on state redevelopment grants for a local project. So if towns have no say, then a ballot question on the issue is meaningless. The bottom line is that if the state wants to give a developer a big tax break, the locals have no say in the matter. What that means in the real world is that Atlantic City residents have no say in the state’s decision to give a casino project $350 million in tax abatements. Assemblyman Albert Coutinho, a Democrat, said what the new law did was remove a “possible impediment.” Now taxpayers know the name politicians of all political stripes, from the top to the bottom, call them in Trenton. According to the Press of Atlantic City, the A.C. project is being reconfigured. But the damage to taxpayers’ rights is already done.
    Bob Ingle, Gannett, May 9, 2010
    Michael Clark and Juliet Fletcher, Press of Atlantic City, May 5, 2010

  • While the new governor is slashing spending everywhere, his office personnel have not come under the knife. Research by Gannett’s numbers meister Michael Symons showed that while Christie’s office had a three-person decline when compared with Corzine’s, the number of highly paid staffers increased. Thirty-three of Christie’s staff, compared with Corzine’s 23, are paid $100,000 or more. Overall costs are up by $186,000 to $8.7 million. Symons rightfully did not include the salary of the governor or lieutenant governor. And Symons reported something else: Even after criticizing financial disclosure standards as a candidate and pledging more disclosure, Christie largely kept the same standards in place for those in state government who need to reveal their financial interests. (That’s so citizens and news reporters can determine where personal interests reside.) Christie expanded the number of positions requiring the disclosure forms, but failed to require the more detailed disclosure  (like the federal forms) that he touted as a candidate.  His spokesman said that’s coming later. We will be watching. And if you think that Republicans are not joining their fellow Democrats in hiring family members, think again. Christie hired Bob Schwaneberg, husband of Associate Justice Helen Hoens, as an advisor at the cost of $100,000 a year. The wife of GOP Assembly leader Alex DeCroce, BettyLou, is now deputy commissioner at the Department of Community Affairs. Her salary? $130,000 a year.  As you can see, the beat goes on in Trenton.
    Michael Symons, Gannett, May 6 and April 20, 2010
    Bob Ingle, Gannett, May 6, 2010

  • Maybe under Chris Christie, you thought this wouldn’t happen. Think again. The Board of Public Utilities (check out previous shenanigans in chapter 7) approved the sale of 1,350 acres of environmentally precious land in Millville. Did the BPU listen to the state’s own ratepayer advocate and the NJ Department of Environmental Protection and approve the sale of the land for $3.5 million to the state’s own Green Acres program? No.  It allowed Atlantic City Electric to sell the land to a developer for $4 million. The Green Acres program would have paid within 45 days. The developer will pay $300,000 with the rest due in four years. Jeff Tittel, of the NJ chapter of the Sierra Club, accused the BPU of giving in to an influential developer. According to The Star-Ledger, Tittel was referring to one of the project partners, Lakewood attorney Lawrence E. Bathgate II, a former GOP national finance chairman. “This is a dirty deal to build senior housing and a golf course in the middle of one of the most ecologically important areas,” Tittel said. When Brian Murray of Ledger tried to reach Bathgate, he was in Florida and unavailable for comment.
    Editorial Board, Star-Ledger, April 26, 2010
    Brian T. Murray, Star-Ledger, April 14, 2010

  • Former Hoboken Mayor Peter Cammarano, the guy who was going to have zero tolerance for corruption, pleaded guilty to accepting $25,000 in bribes. Cammarano is one of the 44 rounded up in the July 2009 raid by the FBI.  As a councilman running for mayor, Cammarano accepted three bribes totaling $15,000.  After being elected mayor, he took another bribe for $10,000. Cammarano is 32. “This case serves as an unfortunate example of how pervasive public corruption can be considering the fact that someone so young in his political career can succumb to such enticements,” Michael Ward of the FBI said.
    Paul Fishman, U.S. Attorney, April 20, 2010

  • Former state Assemblyman Neil Cohen pleaded guilty to distributing child pornography from a state computer. He admitted using the computer at his Union Township legislative office to print photos of an underage girl in various stages of nudity and then placing the photos in the desk drawer of the female receptionist. Prosecutors are recommending five years in jail. Cohen, who is a lawyer, is likely to lose his law license. He will be barred from public employment and will be registered as a sex offender under Megan’s Law.
    Chris Megerian, Star-Ledger, April 12, 2010

  • Former Asbury Park deputy mayor and councilman John Hamilton Jr. was sentenced to three years and five months in federal prison. Hamilton, 60, was convicted of a laundry list of Jersey-style crimes. Hamilton accepted driveway paving and a $2,000 bribe from someone he believed was in demolition work, construction, money laundering and loan sharking.  Unfortunately for Hamilton, the purported contractor was working with the feds. After taking the bribe, Hamilton lied to the FBI and then tried to tamper with a witness to hide the bribery.  Hamilton is the last to be convicted of 11 Monmouth County officials charged in 2005 as the result of an undercover sting by the feds.
    U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, April 12, 2010

  • The New Jersey Casino Control Commission took another hit for giving a casino license to Bayshore Rebar of Pleasantville. The state Division of Gaming Enforcement called the decision “a travesty.” That’s because the division believes Commissioner William Sommeling, acting as a hearing officer, ignored evidence that the owners of the concrete reinforcing company have ongoing contact with organized crime figures. The company’s owners are Joseph N. Merlino and his mother Phyllis. Joseph N. Merlino is the cousin of “Skinny Joey” Merlino, the jailed Philadelphia mob boss. The Division of Gaming Commission said the hearing officer ignored telephone calls to and from organized crime figures. A final decision on the license will be made by the commission, which rarely overturns the decisions of hearing officers.  For a history of the Casino Control Commission’s behavior, see Chapter 9.
    Associated Press, April 5, 2010

  • Alfonso Santoro, 70, a former Ocean County Democratic Party official, was sentenced to a year of home confinement after he pleaded guilty to accepting a $5,000 bribe in exchange for offering his assistance in a bribery scheme. In exchange for his own bribe, Santoro agreed to make introductions and help bribe public officials in Ocean County.  What he didn’t know at the time was that he was making the agreement with an undercover operative for the feds. Federal Judge Joel Pisano issued the sentence of home confinement because Santoro has bladder cancer and diabetes. This is the second time we have seen a federal judge go easy on New Jersey corruption because the defendant had an illness. (Developer Anthony Spalliero was sentenced to a year of home confinement.) What’s needed is a federal prison with medical facilities, so even sick criminals can serve their time.
    U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, March 26, 2010

  • Public employee pension reform and New Jersey. Some of us thought it could never happen. But it did. And it is a start. Three new laws bring much needed changes to pensions and benefits for New Jersey’s public workers.  For future hires, part-time workers will not be a part of the pension system. If they make more than $5,000, they will have a 401 (k)-style plan. The new laws roll back a 9 percent increase, granted in 2001, to pensions for future workers. Pension payments will be based on one job, and there is a $15,000 cap on the payments future  retirees can take with them for unused sick and vacation time. Public workers will pay at least 1.5 percent of their salaries toward their health insurance premiums.
    Matt Friedman and Lisa Fleisher, Star-Ledger, March 22, 2010

  • Even for New Jersey, it was a stretch. Former Sen. Wayne Bryant, jailed on corruption charges, wanted to use his campaign funds to pay his legal bills. Bryant’s lawyers argued that the law allows campaign funds to be used for “ordinary and necessary” expenses, which in NJ meant defending against a criminal indictment. The state Supreme Court was unanimous in its decision, written by Justice Barry Albin. “We have yet to reach the point when it can be said that defending against a federal or state criminal indictment alleging corrupt practices is an ordinary expense of holding public office,” Albin said.
    Jonathan Tamari, Inquirer, March 9, 2010

  • Bernie Kerik has been sentenced to four years in prison. New York City’s former top cop, who was nominated for federal homeland security director in 2004, pleaded guilty to cheating on his taxes, lying about apartment renovations by a New Jersey contractor and failing to put that information on his application for security director. Kerik told the White House he had no financial dealings with firms looking for business in New York. He was charged with accepting apartment renovations from Interstate Industrial Corp., a company looking to do business with the city even though it had been banned from doing business in New York by agencies that cited the firm’s association with organized crime. 
    Associated Press, Feb. 18, 2010
    Jonathan Dienst, NBC New York, Nov. 5, 2009

  • Robin Wheeler-Hicks, a field worker with the state Department of Community Affairs, has been sentenced to seven years in jail. Mercer County Judge Robert Billmeier, who did the sentencing, understood the seriousness of the Wheeler-Hicks crime. She stole more than $800,000 from a program that assists people, like fire victims, who are threatened with homelessness. She admitted filing 428 false applications to the Homelessness Prevention Program. The bogus applications reported that applicants were homeless due to house fires and even included made-up fire reports. Unbelievable. Even for New Jersey.
    Acting Attorney General Paula Dow, Feb. 16, 2010

  • Just to prove that you can’t make this stuff up, a former burlesque queen turned NJ deputy mayor has been convicted of bribery.  A federal jury convicted Leona Beldini (formerly Hope Diamond, Gem of the Exotics) on two counts of bribery. Beldini was convicted of taking $20,000 in illegal campaign contributions from a federal undercover man. Her trial was the first for the gang of 44 arrested on federal corruption charges last July. This is good work on the part of the feds --- and every-day citizens who sit on juries and say, enough is enough. Beldini promised to use her official influence to help the real estate development projects of the man who arranged for the campaign contributions, Solomon Dwek, an informant cooperating with federal investigators. Beldini was acquitted on four other related charges.  Now a 74-year-old grandmother, Beldini was inducted into the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas in 1995. According to Dixie Evans of the Hall of Fame, Beldini was a big name on the burlesque stage in the 1950s and ‘60s and performed from Buffalo to Toledo.
    U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, Feb. 11, 2010
    Associated Press, Feb. 11, 2010
    Jersey Journal, Jan. 24, 2010

  • The feds’ star witness and undercover man, Solomon Dwek, said $40,000 of the bribes he paid were intended for longtime New Jersey pol Joe Doria. A former Bayonne mayor and former Assembly Speaker, Doria resigned from his post in Gov. Corzine’s cabinet after federal agents raided his home and office. The raid came as 44 were arrested in a federal sting.   Dwek’s courtroom testimony about Doria came during the trial of Jersey City deputy mayor Leona Beldini, one of the 44.  Asked about Dwek’s testimony, Doria told The Jersey Journal, “I know nothing about it.” Doria’s lawyer, John Azzarello, said Doria met with political operative Jack Shaw and Dwek, but Doria took no money. Shaw, another of the 44, died of a Valium overdose shortly after his arrest.
    Michaelangelo Conte, The Jersey Journal, Feb. 1, 2010

  • You may recall from chapter six that Monmouth County developer Anthony Spalliero pleaded guilty to paying more than $100,000 in bribes to Marlboro Township Mayor Matthew Scannapieco. And you may be as disappointed as we are with the sentence ordered by U.S. District Judge Anne Thompson. Thompson sentenced Spalliero to three years probation, including one year of home confinement. Spalliero’s lawyer said Spalliero, 67, is sick and cannot go to prison.  The judge agreed.  But this case has involved a long and difficult investigation, and the feds argued for a prison medical facility. We join those who say he should have been sentenced to a prison with medical care. Spalliero has yet to face the charge that he tried to kidnap his 22-year-old girlfriend in a parking lot at a community college in 2005.  According to the indictment, he stuck a gun in her ribs and threatened to kill her if she did not follow orders. He has pleaded not guilty.
    U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, Jan. 29, 2010

  • New Jersey’s long-suffering taxpayers deserve better. Newly sworn-in Gov. Chris Christie said it took him two hours to learn that instead of a $500 million surplus, he was inheriting a $1 billion revenue deficit for the budget year ending June 30. The kicker is that Gov. Corzine, also in his last week, sent by wire transfer $121 million in special municipal aid to five cities. Add that to the news that in his final week, Corzine transferred $1 million to the Legislature. Most of the money, $800,000, went to the Democratic controlled Assembly where salary accounts had been overspent in 2009.  This kind of behavior is what cost the Democrats the governor’s seat.
    Michael Symons, Asbury Park Press, Jan. 24 and Jan. 20, 2010

  • Lee Solomon stepped down from a county judgeship to become president of the Board of Public Utilities. Solomon has worn a lot of hats over the years: assemblyman, Camden County freeholder, county prosecutor, and first deputy U.S. attorney. The Soprano State (chapters 5,6 and 7) does not have warm and fuzzy things to say about Solomon. But this is his chance to make a difference, to end globetrotting at the BPU, to scrutinize its bank accounts, its audits and its files and to hold people accountable. It’s time to give citizens of New Jersey some confidence in the board that regulates utilities. Seems like a judge and a prosecutor would be the perfect person to do it.  We shall all see if Solomon fits the bill.
    Bob Ingle, Asbury Park Press, Jan. 22, 2010

  • Don Norcross, brother of South Jersey political boss George Norcross, has leapfrogged into a state Senate seat.  When Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts decided to depart, Norcross got his Assembly seat. As soon as Norcross was sworn in, he was tapped for the Senate seat left vacant by the departure of Sen. Dana Redd, who became mayor of Camden. Don Norcross said he’d draw from the experiences and advice of Roberts and new Senate President Steve Sweeney. The message to taxpayers: nothing is going to change.
    Jeremy Rosen, Courier-Post, Jan. 19, 2010
    Bob Ingle, Asbury Park Press, Jan. 18, 2010

  • An autopsy has determined that Jack Shaw, the Democratic consultant found dead in his Jersey City home, died of an overdose of the tranquillizer Valium. The autopsy could not determine if the death was suicide or accidental.  Shaw was among the 44 arrested in July in a corruption sweep. He was charged with taking a $10,000 bribe from an FBI undercover informant. A longtime political operative, Shaw had reportedly begun to cooperate with federal investigators before his death.
    Joe Ryan, Star-Ledger, Jan. 5, 2010
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