(Updated 11/20/2012, 10:39 p.m.)
Hamilton Township mayor John Bencivengo sat, expressionless, as the head juror, in a pink shirt read the verdict.
“Guilty,” she repeated five times, as Bencivengo was convicted of five counts of corruption.
Bencivengo was found guilty, in the court of Anne E. Thompson, of taking $12,400 from Delaware resident Mary Louise “Marliese” Ljuba in exchange for using his official influence to preserve Ljuba’s lucrative contract as the insurance broker of the school board.
During the trial, Ljuba testified that she gave Bencivengo a $5,000 check through a middleman in May of 2011. Later, she turned FBI informant and videotaped herself handing $7,400 in cash to the mayor in return for his help manipulating the school board, which controlled Ljuba’s contract.
Thompson is set to sentence Bencivengo Feb. 22. Until then, he is free on bail and as of press time had not resigned as mayor of the township. Bencivengo, 58, faces up to 20 years in prison for his crimes.
The verdict, read on Nov. 20 was the end of a four-day trial that brought down the once-popular mayor and, along the way, exposed a shady side of Hamilton politics.
The testimony of the government’s star witnesses, Ljuba and Rob Warney, painted a picture of a township that operated on the trading of favors, jobs, cash and contracts, all at the expense of the taxpayer.
Politically connected Hamiltonians partied in Atlantic City, received paper bags full of cash, went on cruises and even took cocaine in exchange for keeping taxpayer money flowing to Ljuba. High-level posts in Hamilton and Robbinsville went not to the most qualified candidates, but to those who were friends with Bencivengo and Ljuba, according to the court testimony.
Ljuba’s illegally donated cash fueled Republican candidates for mayoral and council races, as well as Republican-affiliated school board candidates, she testified.
Cash in a brown paper bag
Ljuba testified that she has known Bencivengo since 2004, when he was the owner of a landscaping company, Benco, and, not insignificantly, the head of the township Republican party.
She was an insurance broker. As an insurance broker, Ljuba dealt with insurance carriers on behalf of clients such as school districts and municipalities. Her firm, Allen Associates, was paid a percentage of the premium that the client paid to the carrier, usually around 10 percent. Although the brokerage firm’s check was cut by the insurance carrier, Ljuba’s money, anywhere from 25 to 45 percent of Allen Associates’ commission, ultimately came from the client.
Ljuba’s clients included the townships of Plainsboro, Robbinsville and Hightstown and the school boards of Hamilton and Robbinsville and Clayton.
Ljuba’s business with the Hamilton School Board was by far her best contract. In return for arranging health insurance for the district’s 1,450 full-time employees, Allen and Associates received anywhere from $940,000 to upwards of $1 million a year, of which Ljuba claimed 45 percent — almost half a million dollars a year.
Assistant U.S. Attorney, Dustin Chao asked Ljuba how she got the contract in 2006, when she switched from Madison Consulting Group to Allen Associates.
“I bribed school board members Anthony Coluccio and Robert Warney $10,000,” she replied.
Bencivengo, the politician and Ljuba, the insurance broker, became close friends. Ljuba testified that she prompted the mayor to run for Mayor against Glen D. Gilmore in 2007.
When Bencivengo accepted his party’s nomination, Ljuba was backstage. The defense showed several pictures of Bencivengo and Ljuba mugging for the camera together on that and other occasions.
The Bonnie and Clyde of bribes
Ljuba said she began bribing public officials in Hamilton at least eight years ago. Ljuba testified that Bencivengo approached her in 2004 and asked her to contribute to the council campaign of Tom Goodwin, Dave Kenny and Dennis Pone. Kenny and Pone are current council members.
Ljuba said she gave the campaign $11,000 in cash, in a brown paper bag, through an intermediary, former school board member and current Robbinsville Township business administrator, Joy Tozzi.
“I wanted to support the Republican slate to further my career and gain power,” she said.
She did not report the contribution to ELEC, as is required by law, she said, because it was far above the legal amount. Ljuba said she gave more money to Republican candidates in 2007 when Bencivengo ran for mayor, between $8,000 and $15,000.
“I had a very lucrative contract with the school district, and I never wanted to lose that contract,” she explained.
Ljuba also was the unofficial head of the finance committee for Bencivengo’s 2007 campaign. In addition to her illegal “straw” cash contributions, made through intermediaries, she said she held fundraisers.
On the stand, Ljuba said she also gave thousands of dollars and gifts to Tozzi. She took Tozzi on shopping trips, bought Christmas gifts for her children, took her whole family to Disneyland and helped her get a deal on a new minivan. Ljuba said she gave Tozzi $2,000 to bring her mortgage up to date.
When Tozzi got a new job as the assistant to Mayor Dave Fried of Robbinsville, Ljuba gave her $2,000 to buy new clothes.
“I gave her those things for her support as a board member to make sure I remained broker at the school district and then later on, at Robbinsville,” Ljuba said.
Ljuba said she also plied Christopher Tozzi, Joy’s brother-in-law, with trips and favors when he was a school board member, around 2006. She took him to dinner, sporting events and a strip club, for his support on the insurance contract.
Ljuba said she gave Anthony Coluccio money for a lawyer after he was a school board member.
“I gave him that money in case I needed to use him elsewhere,” she said. “With things like straw contributions.”
She said she also gave additional money to Robert Warney, including legal fees, money to pay child support and money to buy cocaine. Ljuba said she paid for Warney to go on two cruises and trips to Mexico and Bermuda.
Without naming anyone else, Ljuba said she made straw donations for different political campaigns.
Ljuba also said she gave $3,000 and later on $3,500 to current School Board President Patricia DelGuidice to fund her successful re-election campaign in 2011.
Later in her testimony, Ljuba said she gave a total of between $12,000 to $14,000 to the slate of Del Guidice, Stephanie Pratico and Joe Malagrino. She did not specify whether or not this included the $6,500 she claimed to have given to DelGuidice.
Prosecutors said she also gave gifts to school district business administrator Joe Tramontana and his wife Cathy, who was Ljuba’s best friend. Cathy Tramontana was the health and recreation director for the township.
Joe Tramontana was put on administrative leave Nov. 19, and Cathy Tramontana was fired Nov. 20, following the revelations. Tozzi was placed on administrative leave Nov. 13.
Ljuba said Allen Associates wined and dined school board members and even made cocaine available to people at League of Municipalities parties, and that school board members partook of it.
The FBI agreed not to prosecute Ljuba for her many admitted crimes, in exchange for her wearing a wire and testifying against Bencivengo. So far, Bencivengo and Warney are the only Hamilton politicians charged in connection with Ljuba’s long-running scheme.
Warney had pled guilty to money laundering in connection with the $5,000 check, and testified in exchanged for a reduced sentence.
Ljuba’s immunity was a point brought up by Bencivengo’s lawyer, Jerome A. Ballarotto, in his spirited defense of his client.
“They didn’t prosecute her for a single dollar, a single theft she committed,” Ballarotto said in his opening statement to the Jury. “They didn’t prosecute her husband, who was also up to his eyeballs in this. The two of them were to paying bribes what Bonnie and Clyde were to bank robbery. It was system. It was a way of life.”
Pacing in front of the jury, Ballarotto compared Bencivengo’s treatment to that of Ljuba, who admitted to millions:
“She got what we call a pass! A do-over! A mulligan! A walk! A complete walk. Not even so much as a parking ticket!” he said.
Jobs with friends
If the testimony of Ljuba and others is true, key positions in Hamilton and Robbinsville went to residents who were friends with Ljuba and Bencivengo.
Ljuba said her ally Tozzi got her job in Robbinsville because she and Bencivengo asked Fried to hire her.
Rob Warney said he was hired by Bencivengo’s administration to be director of Planning and Compliance in 2007, in charge of 40 employees and earning $112,000 a year, despite having no prior experience with zoning and engineering. According to evidence presented in the case, Bencivengo was the best man at Warney’s wedding. Warney said Bencivengo also did construction work for him.
Lauren Auletta, 30, an employee of the recreation department, received a promotion during Bencivengo’s tenure. She was also Bencivengo’s girlfriend at the time. The prosecution showed records indicating that Bencivengo was paying for Auletta’s rent and car payments.
Ljuba said she paid for Bencivengo to take Auletta on shopping trips and for the gown she wore to the Mayor’s Ball in January 2011.
Kathy Tramontana, whom Ljuba described as her best friend, was appointed the head of the Recreation Department by Bencivengo in 2008.
The cherry bedroom set
In May 2011, Ljuba’s husband Rob wrote a check to Rob Warney’s wife, Tracey, for $5,000 with the memo, “cherry bedroom set.”
This check would turn out to be a major piece of evidence in the government’s case against Bencivengo.
As Ljuba and Warney testified, there was never a cherry bedroom set, and the money didn’t go to the Warneys. The money really came from Marliese Ljuba, and Rob Warney gave it all to Bencivengo by withdrawing a few hundred dollars at a time and handing the cash to the mayor.
What Ljuba didn’t know at the time was that the FBI was closing in on her. Earlier in the year, they had investigated her former boss and lover, Frank Cotroneo, for bribes he made to other New Jersey school districts.
That June, Ljuba was called into the FBI office in Hamilton. Confronted with evidence of her bribery, she agreed to turn on Bencivengo. Interviewed again the next day, Ljuba told FBI agents the $5,000 was in exchange for Bencivengo’s help defending Ljuba’s lucrative contract against a school board member who threatened it.
Ljuba testified that board member Stephanie Pratico had been advocating putting the insurance broker contract out to bid instead of awarding it to Ljuba as had been done in the past. She wanted Bencivengo to lean on Pratico to not intervene with the broker appointment, she said.
Prosecutor Dustin Chao played a tape of that Ljuba secretly recorded of herself and the mayor discussing Pratico June 29:
“You help me with Pratico, you’ve got anything. ‘Cause you know I’m gonna need that down the road,” Ljuba said.
“I’m helping you as much as I can. I helped you so far,” Bencivengo replied.
Ljuba said it was Warney’s idea to write “bedroom set” to make the check look like a purchase, and that it was her idea to embellish it by adding, “cherry.”
This transaction formed the basis of two counts of the five-count federal indictment.
Ballarotto pointed out the one-day gap between Ljuba first talking to the FBI and when she brought up Pratico to build his version of the story: that Ljuba, who was highly motivated to please the feds, concocted the Pratico angle to make an innocent loan between friends appear to be a bribe in exchange for influence.
“She took the target off of her back, and put it on John’s,” he said.
He also pointed out that the mayor has no official duties with the school district.
However, Assistant U.S. attorneys Chao and Harvey Bartle said Bencivengo wielded power not directly, but by influencing other decision makers, such as school board members.
That idea would come into play again when they discussed the tapes of Bencivengo taking cash from Ljuba in his Hamilton apartment and in a hotel room in Atlantic City.
After she began working with the FBI, Ljuba made audio and video recordings of some of the conversations she had with Bencivengo.
In one, recorded July 16, she told Bencivengo she was having problems with DelGuidice, and wanted her to run for Assembly so she would be off the school board and out of Ljuba’s way.
“If she runs for it, I want her off the board, OK? I want to replace her,” Ljuba said.
“With who?” Bencivengo replied.
“I know a girl, all right? A Republican and a mom. I want to put her in, and she’s a nobody. She’s the sister of the Amerihealth rep,” Ljuba said.
“You got it,” Bencivengo said. “I’ll approve.”
Ljuba testified that it was common in Hamilton for school board candidates to get the blessing of the mayor before running for office. School board elections are officially nonpartisan.
Days later, Ljuba recorded herself and Bencivengo discussing Bencivengo’s money problems over appetizers at Rat’s Restaurant. Bencivengo told Ljuba he needed $7,400 to pay state, local and federal back taxes.
“All right, 7,400 is definitely doable as long as you got my back with Pratico,” Ljuba said. “Come January she’s gonna want to go out to bid. You’ve got to definitely get to her. That and if Patty should win, I need my person in there.”
“When have I never not had your back?” Bencivengo replied.
Ljuba recorded a conversation June 29 at Spigola, in which Bencivengo mentioned an upcoming trip to Atlantic City: “We’re going to Atlantic city and maybe that would be a way to …” he said.
Ljuba said that was a suggestion to use a trip to Atlantic City to provide a cover story for how he got the money she was about to give him.
On July 21, Ljuba recorded herself giving $2,400 to Bencivengo. He sat in an armchair and counted out the bills. Later that month, Bencivengo, the Warneys, Fried, Ljuba and her husband and Bencivengo’s friend Deanna Nelson traveled to Atlantic City. Ljuba bought hotel rooms, dinner and drinks for Bencivengo and was reimbursed by the FBI.
Ljuba also recorded herself giving Bencivengo $5,000 in cash.
Rob Warney testified that Bencivengo later told him he had won the $5,000 at the roulette table when the ball landed on black 13 times in a row.
In the hotel room, when Ljuba was handing over the money (also provided by the FBI), the two discussed what Bencivengo had said to Pratico. He said he had talked with the recalcitrant board member.
“I told her, ‘you have to support those who support you,’” he said. “‘There are people in the organization that will sponsor you and do all this stuff, but you have to be loyal to them.’”
Ljuba, on the stand, explained that “The Organization” was a group of people who were close to Bencivengo who supported the Republicans in Hamilton. She did not say who else was in “The Organization.”
The Screw Guys
The prosecution played another recording to show the lengths Bencivengo was prepared to go to to protect Ljuba’s income.
Ljuba said on the tape that she and Bencivengo were discussing an Open Public Records Act request filed by activists Constance Silakoski and Steven Cook. Cook is the executive director of The Arc Mercer, a nonprofit in Ewing Township that serves developmentally disabled clients with day care, housing and activities.
Silakoski had requested the name of the school’s insurance broker and what her commission was. Chao said the request would have revealed Ljuba’s lucrative contract to the public.
On the tape, Bencivengo denounced someone, whom Ljuba identified as Cook.
“I would f*** with him bad,” Bencivengo said. “I’ll call Wayne.”
Ljuba said he was referring to Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo (D-Hamilton), who is on the board of The Arc Mercer.
“I can unleash Vinnie on him,” Bencivengo said.
Ljuba said he was referring to Vinnie Capadano, a former Hamilton Township councilman, who works at The Arc Mercer.
“I hate this f*****,” Bencivengo continued.
“I can get Rob Warney to have him have a visit from The Screw Guys.”
Ljuba asked Bencivengo, “Who are The Screw Guys?”
“They’re They’re construction workers. They’re Russians,” Bencivengo said. “They’ll put a couple of screws in his knees if he doesn’t f****** stop. He’ll get on his hands and his f****** knees and beg. Only thing is it could cause a problem. I want to stay away from that s***. …”
Reached by phone , Cook said he never got a visit from The Screw Guys.
Warney said Bencivengo probably heard about The Screw Guys from him. Warney said he had heard talk of the thuggish construction workers from his sports bookie, and that he had joked in a “serious tone” with Bencivengo about them, and that Bencivengo may have taken it seriously.
Warney said he didn’t know how to get in touch with them.
Ballarotto dismissed the Screw Guys tape as “loose, ridiculous talk.”
Jeez, it looks pretty bad
For a few days, Bencivengo was an FBI informant too.
FBI agent Stephen Montgomery said Bencivengo’s cooperation started in March 2012, when the FBI showed up at his house and started probing his relationship with Ljuba.
Montgomery testified that after seeing the FBI knew about the money he had taken, he said, “Jeez. It looks pretty bad,” and admitted the cherry bedroom set check was designed to conceal that he had traded money for influence.
Bencivengo agreed to wear a wire against Warney, his best friend, and recorded a conversation between the two of them at Longhorn Steakhouse talking about the check. However, that was the only recording he made for the feds. After that, he stopped cooperating with the FBI and got a lawyer. He was arrested in April.
Ballarotto questioned the credibility of Montgomery’s testimony, noting that the FBI, despite all the surveillance technology available to them, had not recorded Bencivengo’s confession and that Montgomery had not even written down Bencivengo’s exact quote where he described trading money for influence.
Friendship is magic
Another key argument for the defense was that Ljuba and Bencivengo were such good friends that money was no object between them.
Ballarotto suggested to the jury that the money Ljuba gave Bencivengo were nothing more than loans to help him get through hard times, and that Bencivengo intended to pay her back.
Ballarotto pointed to the numerous photos of Bencivengo and Ljuba together. Ljuba said Bencivengo spent Christmas with her family in 2010 when he was going through a divorce, and no one in his own family wanted him. She stayed with him and spent the night at his house, helping him recover from shoulder surgery.
However, she turned out not to be a very good friend to Bencivengo, they argued, throwing him under the bus at the first opportunity to save herself.
Ballarotto called her a puppetmaster.
“She manipulated the entire situation. She manipulated John. She manipulated the tapes. She manipulated the FBI and she had them saying and doing whatever she wanted. She rewrote history,” Ballarotto said.
In the prosecution’s rebuttal to the defense’s closing statement, Chao told the jury there is no reason they couldn’t have been criminals together as well as friends. They also challenged the defense’s proposition that Ljuba bribed many powerful people, but not Bencivengo.
“She’s terrible and a thief with everyone else, but with John it’s true friendship?” Chao said.
After the lawyers completed their arguments Nov. 19, the jury went home for the night. They returned Tuesday morning and deliberated for four and a half hours.
Bencivengo, accompanied by Ballarotto, waited. He swiveled in his chair and looked around the gallery for allies, waving and nodding to a few people. He walked around with a coffee cup, with the word, “JOY” written on it. He went out to lunch with his friend, Nelson. Then, he was summoned back to the courtroom.
Thompson told the gallery to remain silent no matter the verdict.
The jury forewoman, a middle-aged woman, read the charges one by one: Extortion: guilty. Attempted extortion: guilty. Two violations of the Travel Act: guilty. Money laundering: guilty.
Ballarotto looked dejected. Bencivengo’s face was a mask.
They rode an elevator down to the courthouse steps with two reporters.
“I’m not gonna say anything at this time,” Bencivengo said.
But he did have one more thing to say to the press as he and his lawyer drove off in Nelson’s car.
“I’m going to miss you,” he said.