A municipal judge tossed a criminal case against Hamilton Mayor Kelly Yaede Sept. 20, dismissing disorderly person charges lodged by the Mercer County Prosecutor earlier in the month.
Yaede and her campaign manager, Dan Scharfenberger, had been accused of disclosing the expunged arrest records of David Henderson, Yaede’s challenger in June’s Republican primary for mayor.
Ewing Township municipal Judge Roger Haley made the decision to clear Yaede the morning of Sept. 20. Due to Haley’s decision, the charges against Scharfenberger also have been dismissed. The Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office has accepted the result, and will not appeal, MCPO spokesperson Casey DeBlasio said.
Yaede’s lawyer Robin Kay Lord wasted no time going on the offensive, sending to county prosecutor Angelo Onofri just hours after Haley’s ruling. In the letter obtained by the Hamilton Post, Lord calls on Onofri to publicly apologize to Yaede, saying the Department of Justice has a long-standing policy of not filing charges against a politician close to an election out of fear of interfering with the electoral process.
Yaede, a Republican, faces Democratic council president Jeff Martin in a race for mayor Tuesday, Nov. 5. Lord, in her letter, claimed the charges have “unleveled” the playing field and hurt Yaede in her re-election bid.
“Despite protestations to the contrary, your office continued to prosecute my client for an offense that does not exist under the law,” Lord wrote. She later continued, “I am dumbfounded as to why your office continued this frivolous prosecution of Mayor Yaede in the face of clear precedent identifying it as baseless.”
Yaede herself struck the same notes when reached by the Hamilton Post via text message.
“The timing of this bogus charge prior to an election is suspicious at best,” Yaede said. “I look forward to getting back to the business at hand and serving my constituents of Hamilton into the next term without distractions from politically motivated sham investigations. I am certain that the people of Hamilton will not be fooled by this nonsense. The same vigor that led me to prevail against these groundless allegations will continue in my commitment to the citizens of Hamilton.”
Martin, meanwhile, said that the prosecutor’s investigation still uncovered information that about Yaede’s conduct that—while not illegal—should concern Hamilton residents.
“What this case really showed us is the lengths Kelly Yaede will go to lie and mislead the public,” Martin said in a statement. “We learned that Mayor Yaede conspired and directed her campaign to intentionally lie and mislead voters and the public at large.”
The charges became public Sept. 3, when the county prosecutor’s office confirmed it had investigated and issued a complaint against Yaede. It alleged that Yaede—in the heat of her primary battle against Henderson—revealed Henderson’s legal records with knowledge that the records had been expunged or sealed. The prosecutor’s office pointed to a post on a pro-Yaede blog called “Hamilton Spotlight” and a subsequent post on Yaede’s public Facebook page that contained the records.
The prosecutor’s office, in its Sept. 3 statement, alleged that Scharfenberger was the blog administrator, and all content was controlled by him and Yaede.
The prosecutor’s Sept. 3 statement also said an investigation revealed that Yaede’s chief of staff, Marty Flynn, anonymously filed a public records request for the police records involving Henderson. The Open Public Records Act paperwork had been left on the counter of the Hamilton Township Clerk’s Office Feb. 7 by an unknown person.
The prosecutor’s office cleared the Hamilton Police Division of wrongdoing for responding to the OPRA request and releasing the records. Investigators determined that, in 2008, Hamilton Township Police Deputy Chief George Zimmer was responsible for expungement orders, and it appears that Henderson’s notice of expungement was received by the Hamilton Police Division, but not appropriately delivered to the records clerk due to Zimmer’s death by suicide on July 1, 2008.
Even with the disorderly person charges dismissed, Yaede and her administration continue to deal with scandal as the election draws near. In May, the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office charged two township employees—Jeff Plunkett and Todd Bencivengo—each had been charged with two counts of third-degree animal cruelty and one count of second-degree official misconduct. Bencivengo retired in March as the supervisor of the Hamilton Township Animal Shelter. Plunkett resigned this summer as the township’s recreation and health director, but remains employed as the municipal health officer.
On July 10, the New Jersey Department of Health notified Plunkett of its intent to revoke his license, citing a failure to ensure safe and sanitary conditions at restaurants and the animal shelter in the township. Plunkett appealed the decision.
Then, on Sept. 11, officers from MCPO entered the municipal building on Greenwood Avenue, and removed three computers as evidence in an undisclosed, ongoing investigation.