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11 Officials in New Jersey Snared After 4-Year Operation by F.B.I.

EWARK, Feb. 22 – Eleven elected and appointed officials in Monmouth County, including three mayors, were arrested on Tuesday on federal corruption or money laundering charges growing out of a sting operation run by the F.B.I. and spanning more than four years.
According to federal criminal complaints, all of the officials were caught on videotape or audiotape taking bribes of up to $5,000 at a single meeting, and as little as $1,000, from a contractor who wanted the officials to steer public contracts, which did not require public bidding, to him.
The contractor was cooperating with F.B.I. agents, who set up the sting after earlier investigations in Monmouth County that led to the convictions of five officials in 2002 on corruption-related charges.
The United States attorney for New Jersey, Christopher J. Christie, said that in at least one case an elected official accepted a free paving job on his driveway, instead of money, in return for promises to help the contractor get work in Asbury Park.
In one case, according to the complaint accusing him of extortion, Paul Coughlin, the mayor of Hazlet, was brought into a bribery arrangement by an unnamed official, who assured him that it was safe because “nobody watches, nobody hears, nobody sees.” According to court papers, Mr. Coughlin replied, “I’m on board.”
Another official laundered money by writing checks in exchange for cash to help the contractor, who also claimed to be in the loan-sharking business, a criminal complaint says.
The conversations, from the tape transcripts included in the criminal complaints filed here in United States District Court, portray officials cavalierly accepting bribes and, in some cases, treating the passing of money as a routine part of their jobs.
In one case, Raymond O’Grady, a Middletown committeeman, casually dismissed an undercover agent’s question to him on tape about whether he feared being caught by the police, according to the criminal complaint. “I can smell a cop a mile away,” Mr. O’Grady bragged to the undercover agent who was taping the conversation, according to the complaint.
Mr. O’Grady was charged with taking a total of $6,000 in bribes to help the contractor get work. Mr. Christie, commenting on the case during a news conference on Tuesday, said, “Mr. O’Grady should have his olfactory senses tested immediately.”
Ten of the officials were charged with extortion; the 11th was charged with money laundering. All appeared in court on Tuesday, but were not indicted or given an opportunity to enter pleas.
Mr. Christie said his office has indicted or convicted some 76 elected and appointed officials for corruption-related charges in the last three years, often using the federal Hobbs Act. The act prohibits robbery or extortion affecting interstate or foreign commerce, but is often used in cases involving public corruption. Tuesday’s roundup and arrests were unusual in that rarely are there 11 arrests at once. Even rarer are such large-scale F.B.I. stings.
Mr. Christie characterized the cases as yet another chapter in the state’s “epidemic of corruption in which people sell their offices for envelopes of cash.”
“These complaints,” he continued, “portray a shocking eagerness and ease with which these public officials engaged in criminal activity, to trade contracts for cash or even to be involved in money laundering.”
The arrests of the officials came in a series of morning raids by nearly 100 F.B.I. agents. The Newark special agent in charge, Joseph Billy Jr., said the agents went in teams of six or eight to the suspects’ homes, rousting many of them from bed to take them into custody. The arrests, he said, went without incident.
By Tuesday afternoon, the accused were sitting together in a jury box in a federal courtroom here looking – but for the handcuffs and leg irons – like a gathering of middle-aged Rotarians. Businessmen, baseball coaches, insurance company employees, they crowded into the courtroom with lawyers and family members. They stood one by one looking dazed as United States Magistrate Ronald Hedges detailed the charges each faced, which carry a maximum of 20 years in prison. Each was released on a $50,000 personal recognizance bond.
The officials charged comprised six Republicans, two Democrats, one who was elected in nonpartisan elections and two midlevel appointed county officials.
The contractor who assisted in the cases was not identified by Mr. Christie, nor would he say whether his cooperation was in exchange for leniency in any other case. Mr. Christie would only say that his business was based in Florida and Alabama, although he was known to regularly do business in New Jersey.
Among those charged were John J. Merla, 43, the mayor of Keyport, who in December was defeated in his bid to fill a vacancy on the Monmouth County Board of Freeholders. Mr. Merla, a co-founder of the Monmouth County G.O.P. Alliance for Change, which led the fight last year to oust the county’s longtime Republican chairman, was said by prosecutors to have accepted a total of $11,500 in bribes in 2003 and 2004 from the contractor. Subsequently, according to investigators, the contractor received two town contracts.
Also charged was Keyport Councilman Robert L. Hyer, 63, also a Republican, who according to the criminal complaint accepted a total of $5,000 in payments. At one point, according to a recording included in the criminal complaint, he told the contractor, “We’ll do whatever you want. I know the game.”
Others charged included West Long Branch Mayor Paul Zambrano and town Councilman Joseph DeLisa, both 48 years old. Mr. Zambrano, a Little League coach in his town since 1969, is said by prosecutors to have taken a total of $9,000, with the most recent payment made in November. Mr. DeLisa is accused of accepting a total of $3,000 from the contractor. Both men are Democrats.
The Hazlet mayor, Mr. Coughlin, 40, an employee of an insurance company and a Republican, is charged with taking a total of $3,000 in bribes.
Mr. O’Grady, the Middletown township committeeman, accepted a total of $6,000, with the most recent payment made on Thursday, according to the criminal complaint.
Richard Iadanza, 50, deputy mayor of Neptune and a Republican, is accused by investigators of accepting a total of $3,000. Joseph McCurnin, the operations manager for the county Division of Transportation, is charged with accepting $1,000 in bribes.
Also charged was Thomas Broderick, 51, a former Marlboro councilman and county undersheriff who is a supervisor in the Monmouth County Division of Highways. He is accused of accepting a total of $10,000 from the contractor as payment for assisting in laundering money that Mr. Broderick was told were loan-sharking proceeds, according to the complaint.
Councilman John J. Hamilton Jr., 55, of Asbury Park, was charged with having the contractor install a driveway, valued at between $5,000 and $6,000, at his home in exchange for a promise to steer contracts his way. Mr. Hamilton, who was elected in nonpartisan elections, later sought a phony receipt for $1,000 from the contractor, in case he had to explain the new driveway, Mr. Christie said.
Patsy Townsend, the deputy Monmouth County fire marshal as well as code enforcement chief in Neptune Township, is charged with accepting $1,000 in bribes. The complaint says the deal took place in Atlantic City during a reception arranged as part of the sting and hosted by the contractor during the 2004 convention of the New Jersey League of Municipalities.
For the public, news of the sting and arrests brought expressions of both resignation and disgust.
“New Jersey is a wonderful state to live in if you are a politician,” said John Ketelsen, an Ocean Township resident. “I’m just glad they are cleaning it up.”
State Senator Joseph Kyrillos of Monmouth County, who is the former chairman of the state Republican Party, put out a statement calling it a sad day for Monmouth County and added that, if proved in court, the charges show a breadth of corruption that is “shocking and cannot be tolerated.”
Some who had worked with and knew some of the men charged, such as Kathy R. Shaw, executive director of the Keyport Business Alliance, said that they were worried about how the charges might affect the image of the municipalities where there are plenty of people “doing the right thing.”
Mr. Christie pursued the federal corruption case after the Monmouth County prosecutor, John Kaye, objected in 2002 to Mr. Christie’s characterization of the county as corrupt.
At the time, Mr. Christie had just announced the indictment of the Ocean Township mayor and four Asbury Park officials, said publicly that the county was awash in official corruption – an observation which he promised would be proved within a year or so of additional investigations by his office and the F.B.I.
Mr. Kaye, the state’s longest serving county prosecutor, took issue with the statement, countering that the county’s officials were “the least corrupt in the state” and “honest by an extraordinary measure.”
Mr. Christie did not forget Mr. Kaye’s remarks, saying Tuesday at his news conference: “Two plus years later, I ask you, make a judgment who was correct.”
Mr. Kaye did not respond to repeated messages left with his deputy.
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