This is what United States District Judge Anne E. Thompson called the aftermath of former Hamilton mayor John Bencivengo’s trial, and it was hard to argue with her. Between the public unraveling of the ex-mayor’s life, the lingering questions about ethics in township government and the free pass the government gave its star witness against Bencivengo, the trial’s revelations have caused plenty of turmoil and destruction.
Bencivengo appeared in Courtroom 4W at the Clarkson S. Fisher U.S. Courthouse in Trenton March 13 for his sentencing hearing, the seeming end of a yearlong ordeal. He was there because he made a poor choice, of his own volition. He knowingly accepted $12,400 from the school district’s health insurance broker in exchange for his influence, and he will pay for his crime with a 38-month jail sentence and a $3,000 fine. He’ll report to prison April 29, one year and three days after first surrendering to the FBI on extortion charges.
But Bencivengo last month appeared far from the supremely confident and popular mayor who marched down Nottingham Way during the St. Patrick’s Day parade March 2012, cane in hand, smiling and waving all the way. In the courtroom, he sobbed from time to time and looked weary and worn.
Trials, in the name of justice, rip open a person’s life in an attempt to access the truth. During the course of a weeklong trial in mid-November 2012 and again at the March sentencing, details about Bencivengo’s life surfaced that paint a far different portrait than what had been portrayed in public. Testimony depicted Bencivengo as a man with personal and marital issues, someone who had nowhere to spend Christmas 2010 and no one to share a celebratory meal with after Election Day 2011. It showed him as struggling with finances, years behind on paying his taxes and a target of the Internal Revenue Service.
Attorney Jerome Ballarotto added to all this at the sentencing, revealing Bencivengo suffers from depression—and has since 2001.
It seems life was spinning out of control for Bencivengo at the time he took the bribes. His employment depended on a popular vote, his stable home life had vanished and his personal life revolved around an on-and-off romance with a 20-something township employee and a friendship with another woman who happened to be the Hamilton school district insurance broker.
Only Bencivengo knows exactly why he chose to take the $12,400, but he seemed to be acting out of desperation. He didn’t want to lose everything, and Marliese Ljuba—the star witness and school insurance broker—offered a way out. Now, Bencivengo really has lost everything—his marriage, his pension, his life savings and his freedom—and his fall from grace is tragic, no matter how one spins the saga.
Ballarotto begged Thompson for leniency during the sentencing hearing last month, arguing a strict ruling would be overkill and only damage a psychologically vulnerable Bencivengo.
“What more do you need to do to deter John Bencivengo from committing a crime?” Ballarotto said. “His life has been destroyed … He has nothing left.”
Thompson later agreed, saying “He has thrown away so much for $12,400,” and she went light on the ex-mayor. The recommended sentence for Bencivengo, using court guidelines, was 63-78 months in prison; he received half of that.
It did seem that Thompson felt bad for Bencivengo, as did others within the court system. As Thompson deliberated her ruling, she read an excerpt of a letter written by a government employee who analyzes offenders and the risk they pose to society.
“There’s something about Bencivengo that separates him from the typical corrupt public official,” the letter said, going on to say the ex-mayor displayed genuine anguish for his actions and their results.
But this point did not override the fact that Bencivengo still was a public official, and the court clearly felt Bencivengo was part of a larger problem it had to stem. The prosecution tried to emphasize that New Jersey has no shortage of public officials who drift on the wrong side of the law, and Hamilton isn’t an exception if testimony from Bencivengo’s trial is to be believed.
Ethics has been an issue ingrained in the public discourse of Hamilton Township for a number of years now. It is yet another tragedy from this saga that the questions raised by the public could have prevented the legal issues and mass distrust of the past year, if only the queries weren’t widely ignored by officials.
It’s just as clear that simply because Bencivengo is scheduled to be locked away doesn’t mean the culture that allowed the crimes to occur in the first place has been jailed, too. Some strides have been made, but the culture has been around too long to be erased by a month’s worth of ordinances and motions.
Thompson took Bencivengo to task for aiding this culture when he attempted to block a public records request that would have revealed how much the school district paid Ljuba. She expressed horror at his role in protecting Ljuba’s contract with the school district. And she finished by targeting governance in Hamilton as a whole, seemingly decrying the culture that forsook public bidding and allowed Ljuba to do what she pleased.
“In terms of good government, open government, government we can be proud of, that’s really bad,” Thompson said.
But as Bencivengo strives to rebuild his life and Hamilton residents their government, there’s something else that’s “really bad.” As a reward for assisting the prosecution, Ljuba can merely disappear with the millions she dishonestly earned in Hamilton. She has lost her job, her broker’s license and her credibility, but aside from a $75,000 fine from the state, she won’t have to repay anyone for anything she did and she won’t have to serve a single second in prison.
All this wasn’t lost on Ballarotto as he stood outside the Trenton courthouse March 13 after the sentencing hearing. He talked to the media for three minutes, pleading Bencivengo’s case one last time. A disgusted look flashed across the attorney’s face as he spoke.
“I said to Judge Thompson, ‘Doesn’t it bother you just a little bit that Marliese Ljuba’s sunning herself in some Caribbean destination after having stolen more than $10 million from the people of Hamilton Township?’ … You know, the government, it’s their responsibility to be the first guarantor of fair treatment in this country, and I’m sorely disappointed in what the FBI did in this case with the U.S. Attorney’s office … They let her play him, and they shouldn’t.”
She played all of us, actually. The government got its guy, but what did we get? A ruined life, a shellshocked government and a wealthy, crooked insurance broker.
In other words, a tragedy.