A Mercer County grand jury returned an indictment Nov. 13 charging Hamilton Township health officer Jeff Plunkett with animal cruelty and official misconduct.

Plunkett was indicted on two counts of third-degree animal cruelty and one count of second-degree official misconduct, according to a press release from the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office. Plunkett resigned earlier this year as Hamilton Township director of health and recreation. He still serves as the township’s health officer.

Hamilton Township health officer Jeff Plunkett speaks to the media on Oct. 10, 2014 during a press conference at the HamStat training center, next to the township golf center on Samuel Alito Way. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)

In May, Plunkett, 63, and Todd Bencivengo, 57, 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. Bencivengo was accepted into the pretrial intervention program on Oct. 23, according to the MCPO’s release.

The county prosecutor’s Humane Law Enforcement Unit began an investigation in August 2018 after two complaints were referred to the office by the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice. The investigation allegedly showed that between Jan. 1, 2016 and Oct. 1, 2018, 236 cats and 93 dogs were euthanized before the state-mandated seven-day waiting period had expired.

While the HLEU’s investigation of the animal shelter uncovered multiple examples of mismanagement, there was insufficient evidence to establish any additional criminal charges, the MCPO said.

The township council launched its own investigation into the animal shelter, issuing a 43-page report that also depicted a facility run without rules or oversight. The animal shelter became a major issue in the campaign for mayor between Republican incumbent Kelly Yaede and Democratic challenger Jeff Martin, who serves as council president. Martin defeated Yaede Nov. 5, and takes office in January.

Plunkett also faces the potential loss of his health officer license, after receiving notice July 10 that the New Jersey Department of Health intended to revoke it. DOH cited a failure to ensure safe and sanitary conditions at restaurants and the animal shelter in the township. Plunkett appealed the decision. No hearing had been scheduled yet, according to the state Office of Administrative Law.

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Rob Anthes
Rob Anthes is managing editor at Community News Service, and also serves as the editor of the Hamilton Post. Rob's writing has been honored by the New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists, the Keystone Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Association of Free Community Papers, most recently in 2020. He was a 2019 fellow at the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting, based at the University of Rhode Island. A Hamilton native, Rob is a graduate of Steinert High School and Syracuse University.