John Bencivengo, the mayor of Hamilton, took cash from a contractor who did business with the school district. Now he faces the prospect of going to prison. The Republican mayor, first elected in 2007, resigned Nov. 21 after being convicted in federal court of extortion, money laundering and violating the Travel Act in connection with his shady dealings.
The case has implications far beyond Hamilton’s borders, including an odd Ewing connection.
The government’s case hinged on secret recordings made by the Hamilton school district’s insurance broker, Marliese Ljuba. Ljuba spied on Bencivengo and testified against him in return for not being prosecuted for her part in the cash-for-influence scheme. She had been giving money to the politically influential Bencivengo and in return, he had been wielding his political power to ensure Ljuba kept her no-bid contract with the school district, a deal worth half a million dollars a year to her.
The prosecution played a 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 organization 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. Prosecutors 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 Capodanno, a former Hamilton Township councilman, who works at The Arc Mercer. (Capodanno, for his part, denies ever acting in this manner for Bencivengo.)
“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 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 Nov. 19, Cook said he never got a visit from The Screw Guys.
On the stand, Warney — Bencivengo’s best friend and former head of engineering for the township — 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.
Bencivengo’s attorney, Ballarotto dismissed the Screw Guys tape as “loose, ridiculous talk.”
It turns out the only people who got screwed were the taxpayers.
Governments all over New Jersey, including Ewing, can and should strengthen their anti-corruption laws in the wake of the scandal. Voters elect politicians to be public servants, not to enrich themselves at the expense of taxpayers and give no-bid contracts to their cronies.
The Screw Guys tape may not have had a great impact on the trial, but it does reveal the power of a good OPRA request. If it had been answered truthfully, the request would have hinted at the special relationship Ljuba had with the school board. The prospect was so threatening to Bencivengo that it had the mayor, the head of a police force, talking like a character on The Sopranos.
The entire trial is a reminder of the power that citizens, and the press, truly wield. Bringing in The Screw Guys may have been an empty threat, but the OPRA request wasn’t. Criminal schemes depend on secrecy, and when the criminals are also politicians, their worst fear is that someone will find out what they’re up to.
That’s why good politicians, the ones with nothing to hide, should make it easy for citizens to get access to public records. Government at all levels should prioritize digitizing as many public records as possible and putting them on the Internet for all to see.
And we should ask questions about any government body that resists doing this. If they don’t want an ethics committee, why not? If they don’t want to honor OPRA requests, what are they hiding?
I would like to believe that Bencivengo was the only politician, and Ljuba the only contractor, who traded paper bags full of cash in backroom deals.
But that seems a bit screwy.