Hamilton Township Mayor Convicted of Extortion, Bribery, Money Laundering
|U.S. Attorney’s Office November 20, 2012|
TRENTON, NJ—A federal jury today convicted Hamilton Township, New Jersey Mayor John Bencivengo in connection with $12,400 in bribes he solicited and accepted in exchange for his official influence to assist a health insurance broker maintain her contract with the township’s school district, U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman said.
The jury returned the guilty verdicts against Bencivengo, 58, following a five-day trial before U.S. District Judge Anne E. Thompson in Trenton federal court. Bencivengo was convicted of obstruction of commerce by extortion under color of official right, attempted obstruction of commerce by extortion under color of official right, two counts of violating the federal Travel Act for causing the interstate travel and using facilities in interstate commerce in connection with the bribes that he accepted, and one count of money laundering.
“With today’s guilty verdict, we add another name to the list of New Jersey public officials who have chosen to sell their influence,” U.S. Attorney Fishman said. “Mayor Bencivengo betrayed the people of Hamilton Township and all of the honest public servants in New Jersey who take their oaths and their responsibilities seriously. His conviction is another in a series of reminders that the public trust is not for sale.”
“Today’s conviction reaffirms the FBI’s commitment to combat public corruption in New Jersey and serves as a stark reminder that those who seek to violate public trust and improperly enrich themselves will be held accountable,” FBI Special Agent in Charge Michael B. Ward said.
According to documents filed in this case and evidence at trial:
While serving as mayor between May 2011 and July 2011, Bencivengo accepted payments totaling $12,400 from a cooperating witness, Marliese Ljuba, the health insurance broker for the Hamilton Township School District. In exchange for the payments, Bencivengo agreed to use his official assistance, action, and influence to assist Ljuba retain the position as health insurance broker for the Hamilton Township School District. Bencivengo agreed to assist by (1) speaking to a member of the School District’s Board of Education (identified in the indictment as “School Board Member No. 1”) about retaining Ljuba as the school district’s health insurance broker instead of putting that position out for public bid; and (2) agreeing to let Ljuba choose the individual to replace another member of the school board if that member left the board to run for the New Jersey Assembly.
Bencivengo received the $12,400 in multiple payments. The first payment was a $5,000 check that Ljuba passed to Bencivengo through Warney. Bencivengo had informed Ljuba that he was having financial difficulties and that he needed the her assistance. Bencivengo agreed to accept payment from Ljuba in exchange for Bencivengo’s assistance with School Board Member No. 1, who had advocated putting the school district’s health insurance broker position out for public bid instead of retaining Ljuba. On May 12, 2011, Ljuba traveled from another state to Hamilton Township to make that payment to Bencivengo. Bencivengo directed her to make the check payable to Warney’s wife to conceal the payment and to put a notation on the check that it was to pay for a “Cherry Bedroom Set.” After receiving the check, Warney deposited the check and distributed the proceeds to Bencivengo in cash increments over several weeks. Warney previously pleaded guilty to money laundering and is awaiting sentencing.
Bencivengo received the remaining $7,400 in two cash payments from Ljuba in July 2011, after she began cooperating with law enforcement. In a recorded conversation on June 29, 2012, Bencivengo again told Ljuba that he was having difficulty paying his taxes and bills. In response to Ljuba’s question about what Bencivengo was going to do when the taxes came due, Bencivengo replied, “You’re probably going to have to help me.” When Ljuba told Bencivengo that “you help me with [School Board Member No. 1], you got anything, ‘cause you know I’m gonna need that down the road here,” Bencivengo responded, “I’m helping you as much as I can....I helped you so far.” Bencivengo also suggested that Ljuba could give him a cash payment during an upcoming trip that they were taking to Atlantic City later in July.
On July 11, 2012, in another recorded conversation, Bencivengo complained to Ljuba that he had received a letter from the IRS stating that he owed $5,200 in income tax. Bencivengo was informed by Ljuba that she could help him pay those taxes but that she needed Bencivengo’s help in return. In response to Bencivengo’s query as to what Ljuba needed, Bencivengo was advised by Ljuba that if School Board Member No. 2 decided to leave the school board and run for a seat in the New Jersey Assembly, Ljuba wanted to pick the person to replace School Board Member No. 2 on the school board. Bencivengo responded: “You got it.”
On July 20, 2012, another recorded meeting between Bencivengo and Ljuba took place. At that meeting, Bencivengo told her he needed $7,400 to pay his outstanding taxes. Ljuba responded, “$7,400 is definitely doable, as long as you got my back with [School Board Member No. 1],” to which Bencivengo responded, “When have I ever not had your back?” When Ljuba said that “come January, [School Board Member No. 1 is] gonna want to go out to bid. You got to definitely get to [School Board Member No. 1],” Bencivengo responded, “I’m gonna.” Ljuba also reminded Bencivengo that if School Board Member No. 2 was elected to the assembly that Ljuba needed to pick the person to replace School Board Member No. 2 on the school board.
During a recorded July 21, 2011 meeting, Bencivengo accepted $2,400 in cash from Ljuba. Bencivengo counted the money and told Ljuba, “Thank you.” Bencivengo and Ljuba also discussed that Bencivengo would obtain the remaining $5,000 when they went to Atlantic City the following weekend. At a recorded meeting in Atlantic City on July 29, 2011, Bencivengo accepted from Ljuba the remaining $5,000 in cash. After accepting the $5,000, Bencivengo told Ljuba that he had spoken to School Board Member No. 1 about Ljuba, without mentioning her name, and told School Board Member No. 1, “You have to support those who support you.” Bencivengo told Ljuba he did so in order to “plant the seed right now.” Bencivengo also told Ljuba that when he returned from Atlantic City, he was going to contact School Board Member No. 1 to see if he could convince School Board Member No. 1 to run for the New Jersey Assembly in order to “get rid of [School Board Member No. 1] off the School Board, which,” according to Bencivengo, “would be huge.”
Bencivengo’s convictions on the extortion and attempted extortion counts each carry a maximum potential penalty of 20 years in prison and a fine of $250,000 or twice the gross gain or loss from the offense. The convictions on the Travel Act charges each carry a maximum potential penalty of five years and a fine of $250,000 or twice the gross gain or loss from the offense. The money laundering conviction carries a maximum penalty of 20 years and a fine of $500,000 or twice the gross gain or loss from the offense. Sentencing is currently scheduled for February 27, 2013.
U.S. Attorney Fishman credited special agents of the FBI’s Trenton Resident Agency, Newark Field Office, under the direction of Special Agent in Charge Ward, for the investigation leading to the convictions.
The government is represented by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Harvey Bartle and Dustin Chao of the U.S. Attorney’s Office Special Prosecutions Division.