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Operation Bid Rig 3 Update: Ex-Assemblyman Van Pelt arraigned January 5, 2010

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Daniel Van Pelt, a former state assemblyman and Ocean Township committeeman, appeared in federal court today to be arraigned on corruption charges.  I’m still on the fence as to whether or not he will go to trial on the one count indictment of attempted extortion under color of official right.

With no disrespect to his attorney, Robert Fuggi, information I had was that he was going to get another attorney.  Either that information was bad, he has given up on that route or that will happen later.  His attorney is rather vocal compared with the other OBR3 defense attorneys; most of which have said little to nothing.  Of course, you don’t try your case in the media so whose to say if it makes sense to speak to the media in the first place.

The problem with Van Pelt’s case is that there are several facts beyond change.  First, Van Pelt was a powerful politician in Southern Ocean County. Second, he met with Dwek several times.  Third, they discussed Dwek’s plans to build in Waretown.  So, any defense must accept these facts.

In addition, you have the incredible success rate of the US Attorney’s Office and the fact that NJ residents hate politicians.  I also don’t know if Al Santoro will testify against him.  It seems like he could and there seems to be some quid pro quo between Santoro and Van Pelt. 

Keep an eye out for a new indictment against Van Pelt in a few months.  If one comes down, that should make it clear that the case is going to trial.

Story is here.

Quick plea in Atlantic City ballot fraud case is a good deal October 19, 2009

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New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram announced last week that a worker for the unsuccessful 2009 mayoral campaign of Atlantic City Councilman Marty Small pleaded guilty to engaging in fraud involving messenger absentee ballots during the June Democratic primary.
Ronald Harris of Atlantic City, pleaded guilty to a charge of third-degree conspiracy to commit absentee ballot fraud before Superior Court Judge Robert Neustadter in Atlantic County.  Under the plea agreement, the state will recommend that Harris be sentenced to a term of probation, conditioned upon him serving up to 364 days in the Atlantic County Jail. He may face a fine of up to $15,000.  I doubt he’ll do any jail time.

Harris was charged in a 10-count state grand jury indictment returned on Sept. 3, which also charged Councilman Small and 12 other campaign workers and operatives. The indictment resulted from an investigation led by the Division of Criminal Justice Corruption Bureau and the State Police Official Corruption Bureau South Unit.

In pleading guilty, Harris admitted that he conspired with others involved in Small’s mayoral campaign to submit false documents related to the procurement, casting, or tabulation of messenger absentee ballots in the Democratic primary in Atlantic City.

This seems like a pretty good deal as it keeps him out of prison and I doubt he’ll see any time.

Klause Cars and Trucks, Ocean City Car Dealership Raided September 6, 2009

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Opening in 1984, Klause Cars and Trucks seemed to have a good reputation in the Ocean City area.  After this week’s events however, customers may soon  change their minds.  On Tuesday, the FBI raided the car dealership and hauled away dozens of boxes of documents. 

The owner Harry Klause and his attorney, William Hughes Jr. either have no idea as to what is going on or pretended that they didn’t when questioned by the press.  As the owner of a car dealership, Klause would clearly have an attorney on retainer most of the time.  Hughes does practice criminal law but he also handles other matters for a big firm so you can’t read anything into the fact that he has an attorney or his choice of attorney. 

Since he does not sell new cars from what I can tell, this does not seem to be  related to the cash for clunkers program.  One aspect of this story is important: the raid by way of the search warrant.  First of all, if the FBI is involved, this is serious and is not simply ripping off a customer on one transaction.  Instead, the allegation must involve some major fraud here.  Second, the fact that the FBI sought and obtained a search warrant indicates that there is at least some evidence that criminal activity has occurred (or is occurring). 

Third, the fact that the FBI raided the place and did not just send out a subpoena shows that the FBI is taking this very seriously and they are afraid that these documents could be destroyed.  So, my guess is that this involves some type of bank fraud issue.

Story is here.

New Jersey Division of Taxation investigator indicted for stealing $6,630. August 28, 2009

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Attorney General Anne Milgram announced that a former investigator with the New Jersey Division of Taxation was indicted today on charges he used his access to taxpayer accounts in state computers to steal a total of $6,630.  The Division of Criminal Justice Corruption Bureau obtained an indictment charging Joseph Stack, of Toms River, with official misconduct (2nd degree), computer theft (2nd degree), theft by unlawful taking (3rd degree), tampering with public records or information (3rd degree), and falsifying or tampering with records (4th degree).

The charges are the result of an investigation by the New Jersey State Police Official Corruption Bureau and the Division of Taxation’s Internal Security Unit. The investigation originated as a result of an audit performed by the Division of Taxation’s Inheritance Tax Audit Unit.  It is alleged that between Aug. 1, 2005 and Aug. 31, 2006, Stack used his access to computer records of the Division of Taxation to steal money by making three unauthorized transfers of funds from the business accounts of two taxpayers – one deceased and one living – into the taxpayer accounts of his own deceased mother and a living relative.  The transfers totaled $6,630.12.

Making matter worse, Stack allegedly prepared state income tax returns on behalf of his deceased mother and the other relative claiming that the amounts transferred represented taxes that they pre-paid.  There is no word as to whether there is any pending IRS investigation as well. 

Stack’s employment with the Division of Taxation was terminated in March as a result of the investigation.  Thus, he clearly had an idea that this was going to come down.  Based upon my own experience of getting great result before indictment, I always wonder why these cases actually get indicted.  In other words, did he have an attorney working hard on this case?  Hopefully he did and there was nothing that attorney could do to prevent the indictment. 

Undercover operation results in arrests of 8 unregistered contractors August 28, 2009

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 “Operation Hammer Time,”  as the sting was called, operated out of a house in Brick, which is owned by Brick Township.  Between February and July, prosecutor’s Sgt. Kimberly Milana posed as a woman who wanted to renovate the property.  Investigators targeted unregistered home-improvement contractors who advertised their services.

Milana asked them to go to the Brick house to give her estimates for various work on the house.  In New Jersey, home improvement contractors must be registered with the state Division of Consumer Affairs. Failure to register is a fourth-degree crime which carries a potential prison term of 18 months.

The contractors charged in indictments with being unregistered are: David Nichols, of Lakewood; Thomas J. Smith, of Tuckerton; Stephen J. Sente, of Berkeley Township; James Hamilton, of Toms River; Nenad Brezanin, of Howell; Guy Gambarony, of Brick; James MacMillan, of Stratford; and Orlando Escobar, of Keyport.

Nichols and Smith also were charged with tampering with public records.  They both allegedly made false statements on applications for a home-improvement registration. Smith was also charged with theft by deception of $7,000 from a customer.

Sente was charged in another indictment with four counts of theft, unregistered home-improvement contracting and electrical contracting without a permit.  That indictment stemmed from an investigation that was underway before the prosecutor’s office started this operation.  

For the guys facing just the one charge, a good attorney should be able to handle this case with little expense.  For the other guys however, the cases are a little more complex.  While I can easily deal with the theft charges, the fact that they are also unregistered creates an added problem.  A good attorney would file a 404b motion to separate the charges and the State will argue that they are all part of the same scheme. 

Story is here.

And yet another New Jersey politician with legal problems August 27, 2009

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While you can say this is get ridiculous with all of these stories, I think this case itself is ridiculous.  I really don’t understand the waiver of indictment without a specific deal here unless he applied to PTI and he knows he will get it.  That’s the only thing that makes sense and is my guess for what is going on here.

I would take this case to trial in a second.  There is clearly no criminal intent here, even in the press release.  However, a case like this is won or lost during jury selection.  With all of the stories about New Jersey politicians, you have to make sure that the jurors you choose have no bias; not even a hint of it.  Good luck finding that here though and you better hope that you get a judge  that allows you conduct your own voir dire.

TRENTON – Attorney General Anne Milgram announced that Roselle Borough Council President Jamel Holley was charged today by accusation with illegally filling out a portion of the absentee ballots of voters in the 2006 Democratic primary for Borough Council.

According to Criminal Justice Director Deborah L. Gramiccioni, Holley, 29, of Roselle, was charged by accusation with violating the state’s absentee voting law, a third-degree crime. Holley waived his right to be indicted by a grand jury and agreed to be charged by accusation. The accusation was entered before Superior Court Judge Robert Billmeier in Mercer County.

The accusation charges that Holley tampered with absentee ballots by completing portions of the absentee ballots of at least 20 voters, contrary to the absentee voting law, which seeks to ensure the secrecy of balloting and prevent any improper influencing of voters. The charge is the result of an investigation by the New Jersey State Police Official Corruption Bureau.

Holley campaigned for candidate Rosemarie Bullock. His support included registering voters and encouraging them to vote by absentee ballot. The investigation revealed that Holley contacted prospective voters to see if they had received their absentee ballots. If they had, Holley went to their homes and allegedly illegally assisted them in completing the ballots.

 Holley allegedly filled out the inner envelopes of a number of ballots, which is prohibited by law. A number of these ballots were later thrown out by the Appellate Division of New Jersey Superior Court.

Assemblyman Anthony Chiappone and His Wife Charged with Official Misconduct August 26, 2009

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Another day in New Jersey, another politician indicted.  As a politician myself and a white collar crime attorney, I pay special attention to these cases.  Some people come up with amazing schemes while other people just make mistakes. I don’t know Chiappone, but this doesn’t seem like a big scheme.  Are you seriously going to throw away everything for $8000?

I really want to know how this campaign operated.  I am sure there was a treasurer that handled all of the money.  That person seems to be missing from this  press release.  In any campaign, there are many people involved and all of them need to be interviewed.

In addition, I would want to see all bank records from this campaign, other campaigns as well as personal bank accounts.  As an attorney, you not only need to know the entire scope of the case but you need to see if another hammer is going to drop at some point.  If all of the records show that this was an isolated incident, it is more likely that this was a paperwork snafu and not a big scheme to pocket money. 

Should be an interesting case, especially since Chiappone refuses to step down.  I am really skeptical about his wife’s participation in this.  In my own practice, I’ve seen the “squeeze play” before where the wife is indicted in hopes that the husband falls on the sword to save her.

TRENTON – Attorney General Anne Milgram announced that New Jersey Assemblyman Anthony Chiappone and his wife were indicted today on charges they conspired to funnel more than $8,000 in state-issued paychecks for a legislative aide and a purported aide into their own personal bank accounts and Chiappone’s 2005 Assembly campaign.

They allegedly had $7,532 in paychecks issued to one legislative aide, who donated all of his checks to the campaign. The defendants allegedly diverted $4,299 of those checks into their bank accounts for personal use, as well as a $629 paycheck issued to a woman they claimed was another legislative aide.

While the remaining checks from the male aide did get deposited into the campaign’s bank account, the defendants allegedly failed to include those contributions in reports filed with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC). Chiappone, who was first elected to the Assembly in 2003, lost the Democratic primary in June 2005, but was elected to the Assembly again in November 2007. He is running for re-election in November.

“We charge that Assemblyman Chiappone and his wife conspired to have the state issue more than $8,000 in paychecks for legislative aides, knowing that the money was really destined for the couple’s own pockets or his re-election campaign,” said Attorney General Milgram. “This indictment chronicles a betrayal of the public trust by this elected official.”

According to Criminal Justice Director Deborah L. Gramiccioni, Assemblyman Chiappone, 51, of Bayonne, who represents the 31st Legislative District, and his wife, Diane Chiappone, 54, were charged in a seven-count state grand jury indictment with conspiracy (2nd degree), two counts of official misconduct (2nd degree), theft by deception (3rd degree), tampering with public records or information (3rd degree), falsifying or tampering with records (4th degree), and concealment or misrepresentation of contributions or expenditures (4th degree).

The indictment alleges that in 2005, Anthony and Diane Chiappone conspired to have 13 state paychecks totaling $7,532.96 issued to a man who was a legislative aide to Assemblyman Chiappone, knowing that the checks would actually be deposited into the personal bank accounts of the couple or the 2005 Chiappone for Assembly campaign account.

The aide, who is not named in the indictment, donated all of the paychecks he received to the 2005 Chiappone for Assembly campaign. However, instead of depositing all of the checks into the campaign’s bank account, Anthony and Diane Chiappone allegedly deposited eight of the checks totaling $4,299.32 into their own bank accounts for their personal use.

The defendants did deposit the other five paychecks totaling 3,233.64 into the 2005 Chiappone for Assembly campaign account. However, those checks were not reported in the campaign contribution and expenditure reports they filed with ELEC. Moreover, it is alleged the defendants falsely certified that contributions to the campaign did not exceed ELEC limits, even though the aide’s checks exceeded the limit of $2,600 for contributions from a single individual.

The indictment further alleges that in April 2004, Anthony and Diane Chiappone conspired to have a state paycheck in the amount of $629.47 issued to a woman who they claimed was a legislative aide to Chiappone. In fact, the woman, who is not named in the indictment, did not work as his aide. The woman endorsed the check, and the defendants allegedly deposited it into their own joint bank account.

Atlantic City Councilman gets into PTI over the State’s objection August 24, 2009

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This is an interesting situation.  The State AG’s office did not want Atlantic City Councilman John Schultz to get into the Pre-Trial Intervention Program but the Atlantic County Prosecutor was ok with it and the Judge let him in.  You don’t see too many disputes between the AG’s office and the local county prosecutor in New Jersey. 

Schultz was set to go to trial next month with regard to an alleged scheme orchestrated by former Atlantic City council President Craig Callaway to blackmail Councilman Eugene Robinson, who was lured to a motel room and secretly taped having sex with a prostitute. Callaway’s brothers — Ronald Callaway, and former city public works director David Callaway — and Floyd Tally were also charged.  Craig Callaway pleaded guilty and is serving a three-year sentence.  The others maintain their innocence.

Callaway admitted that he and others hired a prostitute to lure Robinson to a motel in neighboring Absecon where they had hidden a clock radio with a hidden video camera connected to a recorder in the next room.

The others will stand trial and Schultz will testify against them.  This set up will actually work out great for the State because it will be tough for the defense attorneys to argue that his testimony is skewed by his desire to get  good deal.

Story is here.

State Warehouse Employee May Avoid Prison for Misappropriating Computer Equipment August 19, 2009

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These probation with 364 deals are mostly for show.  Putting someone in jail for 364 days for non-violent offenses is a waste of tax payer money and everyone knows it.  New Jersey needs more creative sentences.  A thousand or so hours of community service would serve New Jersey much better than taking up another bed in the jail.  But since it is either prison, probation with jail or probation with no jail, the State likes probation with jail because it looks good and then they can lay off the blame on the judge when the defendant doesn’t get jail. 

TRENTON – Attorney General Anne Milgram announced that a suspended state warehouse employee pleaded guilty today for his role in misappropriating computer equipment from the Department of Treasury’s First Avenue Warehouse in Hamilton.

According to Criminal Justice Director Deborah L. Gramiccioni, Thomas Sundstrom, 67, of Southampton, pleaded guilty to third-degree official misconduct before Superior Court Judge Robert Billmeier in Mercer County.

Under the plea agreement, the state will recommend that Sundstrom be sentenced to 364 days in the county jail as a condition of a term of probation. Sundstrom was required by the state to forfeit his state job and will be permanently barred from public employment in New Jersey. He could face a fine of up to $15,000.

Judge Billmeier scheduled sentencing for Sundstrom for Oct. 29. Deputy Attorney General Anthony Picione, deputy chief of the Division of Criminal Justice Corruption Bureau, and Deputy Attorney General David M. Fritch prosecuted the case and took the guilty plea.

In pleading guilty, Sundstrom admitted that he gave computer equipment from the warehouse to people who were not entitled to receive it at the direction of the supervisor of the warehouse, David Winkler, 47, of Bordentown. Sundstrom said he gave computer equipment to a co-worker, Dominick Mangine, 45, of Jackson, who previously pleaded guilty in the case, and also gave computer equipment to juveniles who were assigned to the warehouse as part of a work study program of the Juvenile Justice Commission.

Winkler and Sundstrom were indicted on Nov. 20, 2008. The indictment charged that Winkler and Sundstrom misappropriated computer equipment for the personal use of other individuals, including other warehouse employees. Winkler was also charged with running a scheme in which he and other employees illicitly sold more than $24,000 in scrap metal and divided the proceeds between July 2005 and April 2007. Winkler and Sundstrom were suspended from their state jobs after their arrests on April 10, 2008.

Three other former warehouse employees have pleaded guilty in connection with the scrap metal scheme. They are James Mate, 49, of Yardville; Mangine; and William Gawroski III, 33, of Hamilton.

The charges resulted from a year-long investigation by the New Jersey State Police that commenced when Treasury officials obtained information that Gawroski was taking illegal payments from a recycling company in return for helping the company to secure more valuable equipment in auctions of surplus state computer equipment. The probe quickly expanded to include allegations that employees at the warehouse were taking home state-owned computers and that Winkler and other employees were taking surplus metal equipment to a non-approved recycler, selling it for cash as scrap metal, and splitting the money. The surplus metal items sold as scrap included desks, filing cabinets and other furniture and equipment.

The investigation was conducted and coordinated by Lt. Keith Dangler, Detective Sgt. 1st Class John Cappetta and Detective Sgt. Vincent Greene of the State Police State Governmental Security Bureau Investigations Unit, and Deputy Attorneys General Picione and Fritch.

Mate pleaded guilty to second-degree official misconduct and was sentenced on March 26 to three years in state prison. He and his co-defendants who pleaded guilty in the scrap metal scheme are responsible for full restitution for the thefts of $24,292. All of them forfeited their state jobs.

Mangine, who held the job of storekeeper at the warehouse, pleaded guilty to a charge of third-degree pattern of official misconduct and was sentenced on Feb. 26 to 364 days in the Mercer County Jail as a condition of two years of probation. He also was ordered to perform 50 hours of community service.

Gawroski pleaded guilty on April 11, 2008 to third-degree pattern of official misconduct. He faces probation.

The charges are pending against Winkler, who is free on $25,000 bail. The indictment charges him with conspiracy (2nd degree), two counts of official misconduct (2nd degree), theft by unlawful taking (3rd degree), and misapplication of entrusted property and property of government (3rd degree).

Fifth Teresa Ruiz Campaign Worker Charged with Falsifying Absentee Ballots in 2007 race August 18, 2009

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This case is really starting to heat up.  After almost six months of having  just one defendant, four others have been added in just the past few weeks.  I really hope Ruiz has a good attorney that is taking proactive measures right now to interview witness to lock them into a story, review documents and prepare for the worst case scenario. 

Right now, there is no evidence that Ruiz did anything or had any connection  with any of these people.  However, it is clear that these five people were working together and that someone orchestrated all of this. (of course, this assumes guilt only for the purposes of writing this post)  The person that did that had to be in to reward these people with something as I am sure they were not risking prison time just to achieve good government. 

Anyone associated with this campaign needs an attorney because we are at five people when the last four have just started.  If and when some of these people plea out, this case is really going to move.

TRENTON – Attorney General Anne Milgram announced that another person was indicted today for election fraud in connection with absentee ballots she collected and submitted as a worker for the 2007 campaign of Teresa Ruiz for the New Jersey Senate in the 29th District. Four other campaign workers for Ruiz were charged in three prior indictments.

According to Criminal Justice Director Deborah L. Gramiccioni, Rocio Rivera, 49, of Lebanon Township, an employee of the Essex County Sheriff’s Office, was charged in a state grand jury indictment with election fraud (2nd degree), absentee ballot fraud (3rd degree), tampering with public records or information (3rd degree), and forgery (4th degree).

The indictment stems from an ongoing investigation by the Division of Criminal Justice Corruption Bureau and the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office.

Rivera is charged with tampering with documentation for messenger ballots, which are absentee ballots intended for use by homebound voters. She is charged with fraudulently submitting such ballots as votes in the Nov. 6, 2007 general election.

“We are continuing our investigation into allegations of fraud in the November 2007 general election in the 29th District,” said Attorney General Milgram. “We will prosecute anyone found to have tampered with the election and disenfranchised voters.”

“This alleged voter fraud was brought to our office’s attention by the Essex County Superintendent of Elections,” said Essex County Prosecutor Paula Dow. “Voting is a fundamental privilege that all American citizens have a right to exercise without any form of meddling. The Essex County Prosecutor’s Office will not tolerate any attempt to manipulate elections of any kind.”

Messenger ballots are for use only by those who are homebound due to illness, infirmity or disability. Such persons can complete an application designating a messenger or bearer who is a family member or a registered voter in the county. The bearer is thereby authorized to obtain an absentee ballot from the county board of elections, take it to the voter, and return a completed ballot to the county board.

Rivera allegedly solicited applications for messenger ballots from individuals not qualified to receive them and fraudulently designated herself as the authorized messenger or bearer. She allegedly obtained messenger ballots from the county board of elections, and submitted them to the board of elections as votes on behalf of voters who, in fact, never received or voted the ballots.

The investigation was led by Deputy Attorney General Vincent J. Militello, Sgt. James Scott and Sgt. Lisa Shea of the Division of Criminal Justice Corruption Bureau. It was conducted for the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office by Assistant Prosecutor Brandon Minde, Detective David Sanabria and Detective Elizabeth Bazan. Deputy Attorney General Militello and Assistant Prosecutor Minde presented the case to the state grand jury. Attorney General Milgram also thanked Deputy Attorney General Perry Primavera, Analyst Kathleen Ratliff, all of the detectives in the Division of Criminal Justice Corruption Bureau North, and the agents and detectives of the New Jersey Regional Computer Forensics Laboratory for their work on the case.

Essex County Superintendent of Elections Carmine Casciano and his staff cooperated fully in the investigation.

Second-degree crimes carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $150,000 fine, while third-degree crimes carry a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $15,000 fine. Fourth-degree crimes carry a maximum sentence of 18 months in prison and a $10,000 fine.

The indictment was handed up to Superior Court Judge Linda R. Feinberg in Mercer County, who assigned the case to Essex County, where the defendant will be ordered to appear at a later date to answer the charges. The indictment is merely an accusation and the defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty. The indictment is linked to this press release at www.njpublicsafety.com.

On Aug. 4, a state grand jury returned two indictments charging three other campaign workers for Ruiz with tampering with documentation for messenger ballots and fraudulently submitting such ballots as votes in the Nov. 6, 2007 general election.

One charged Gianine Narvaez, 36, of Belleville, a data processing technician for the Essex County Commissioner of Registration and Superintendent of Elections, with official misconduct, election fraud, absentee ballot fraud, tampering with public records or information, and forgery.

The second indictment returned on Aug. 4 charged Angel Colon, 46, of Newark, an employee of the City of Newark Office of Affirmative Action, and Colon’s fiancée, Sorinette Rosario, 31, of Belleville, an employee of the Newark Welfare Department, with election fraud, conspiracy to commit election fraud, absentee ballot fraud, conspiracy to commit absentee ballot fraud, tampering with public records or information, and forgery.

On March 23, another Ruiz campaign worker, Antonio Santana, 58, of Newark, was indicted on charges he fraudulently changed votes on absentee ballots during the election. That indictment alleges that Santana changed the votes on three absentee ballots that he collected from members of one family in October 2007.

The charges against Narvaez, Colon, Rosario and Santana are pending.