In September, I spoke with Hamilton Township Board of Education president Patty DelGiudice.
I wanted to hear what she had to say about the school board’s connection to the federal government’s corruption charges against Hamilton Mayor John Bencivengo. Before I could ask her about her personal involvement, she volunteered the following:
“No, I never was offered any money.”
Sworn testimony by a government witness told a different story last month. Former school district insurance broker Marliese Ljuba spent two days on the witness stand in the district court in Trenton, revealing the names of all those in Hamilton Township to whom she had given money or gifts. DelGiudice was on that list, and was among the more mentioned names in the courtroom during the course of the trial.
She was the board member alluded to in June’s grand jury indictment who considered a run for state assembly. It was her BOE seat Bencivengo allegedly promised to fill with a Ljuba-picked candidate had DelGiudice ran for and won state office. More importantly, though, Ljuba claims she provided thousands of dollars in straw contributions to DelGiudice’s 2011 BOE slate, and that DelGiudice knew all about it because she had reached into Ljuba’s pocketbook before.
DelGiudice continues to deny she took a single cent, and I don’t mean to pick on DelGiudice when there are so many others to mention. But it steams me to think an elected official may have had the temerity to so blatantly mislead not just a reporter, but a lifelong Hamilton resident, a product of the school district she serves and a voter in this township. In a way, she represents me on that school board. And, if court testimony is golden, DelGiudice didn’t respect any of us enough to simply tell the truth.
I may be naive to think politicians shouldn’t be so bold in their freedom with facts. But it bothers me. And it should bother you, too.
This is the real point in the whole Bencivengo mess: we’ve all been lied to, Hamilton. Right to our faces. And if an insurance broker earning yearly six-figure commissions thanks to the taxpayers of Hamilton Township hadn’t gotten more greedy than she already was, the whole cast of characters—Bencivengo, Rob Warney, Joy Tozzi, Cathy and Joe Tramontana—would still be living high on the hog without regard to the responsibilities they inherited when they accepted taxpayer-funded and/or elected positions. Their ethical duty was to us, not a “friend” with a lot of cash.
As few as five BOE members allegedly benefited from Ljuba’s generosity. These are names like Warney, Tozzi, DelGiudice and Anthony Coluccio, all of whom—according to Ljuba’s testimony—received varying amounts of cash, vacations or both to remain in Ljuba’s pocket for later use. Taking into account the still-unnamed “several members” of the Hamilton BOE who partook in cocaine at parties sponsored by Ljuba’s company at League of Municipality conventions in Atlantic City, the number could be higher than five.
Then there’s Joe Tramontana, who was the school district’s business administrator until school superintendent James Parla put him on leave Nov. 14. Tramontana is not elected, but he has worked for the school district since 1998 and managed the district’s health benefits for 12 years. He is a former school board member and also well connected politically. Bencivengo appointed Tramontana’s wife, Cathy, as the township’s recreation director in 2008. Cathy Tramontana, at least according to Ljuba, also is “best friends” with the insurance broker. Ljuba said, in one instance, she paid for the Tramontanas to go on vacation to “the islands” with her and her husband.
In exchange, it appears Tramontana, along with the school board, was more than fine to let Ljuba play with our money. This was clearly the case in 2006, when Ljuba selected Horizon for the school district’s insurance without a regard to pricing mainly because it promised her employer a 10-percent commission. That rate is more than twice industry norms.
“Hamilton was a huge account, and they saw an opportunity to get it, so they sweetened the deal and gave us 10 percent,” Ljuba said in her Nov. 14 testimony.
The testimony painted a sickening picture of widespread corruption in Hamilton Township. Yet, for the optimists, there is a slightly wounded hero in all of this: board member Stephanie Pratico.
Pratico belonged to that 2011 DelGiudice slate, which allegedly benefited from thousands of dollars in straw—AKA illegal—contributions from Ljuba. That appears to be just a glancing blow in all of this because it seems Ljuba never wanted to help Pratico. In fact, Pratico is the reason for this case. She was the board member Bencivengo promised Ljuba he’d “get rid of,” the target of his alleged “official influence.”
In his testimony, retired FBI special agent William Monks recalled an interview he had with Ljuba. During the conversation, Ljuba said she panicked when Pratico won re-election in April 2011. Pratico had a reputation for wanting to put Requests For Proposals out on contracts, essentially asking for bids for school district contracts. This would have put Ljuba in danger of, at the very least, losing the Hamilton contract she valued so much.
Pratico wasn’t doing anything spectacular when she wanted to put the school district’s contracts out to bid. She was merely following the most transparent—and legal—means for awarding government contracts. It’s what all the school board members should’ve been doing all along. But they weren’t. And we’re forced to celebrate someone who was doing merely what her job prescribed.
It’s sad we’re in that position, but Bencivengo’s trial has made something abundantly clear. At this point in Hamilton’s history, elected officials doing the bare minimum ethically would be considered progress.
And that’s no lie.
Connect with Hamilton Post senior community editor Rob Anthes at facebook.com/robanthes.