Thursday, June 21, 2012

Hamilton Township Mayor Indicted for Alleged Extortion, Bribery, and Money Laundering Offenses

A federal grand jury returned an Indictment today charging the mayor of Hamilton Township, New Jersey in connection with $12,400 in bribes he allegedly solicited and accepted in exchange for his official influence to assist a cooperating witness in maintaining the position of health insurance broker with the township’s school district, U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman announced.

John Bencivengo, 58, of Hamilton, was originally charged by complaint in April 2012 with one count of attempted obstruction of commerce by extortion under the color of official right related to the alleged bribes. The indictment adds a count of obstruction of commerce by extortion under the color of official right; two counts of violating the federal Travel Act, for allegedly causing the interstate travel of a cooperating witness (the “CW”) and using a facility in interstate commerce in aid of the bribery scheme; and one count of money laundering.

According to the indictment and other documents filed in this case:

While serving as mayor between May 2011 and July 2011, Bencivengo accepted payments totaling $12,400 from the CW. In exchange, Bencivengo agreed to use his official assistance, action, and influence to assist the CW and the CW’s employer—identified in the indictment as the “Insurance Broker”—to retain the position as health insurance broker for the Hamilton Township School District. Bencivengo agreed to speak to a member of the School District’s Board of Education—identified in the indictment as “School Board Member No. 1”—about retaining the CW as the school district’s health insurance broker instead of putting that position out for public bid; and agreed to let the CW choose the individual to replace another member of the school board—identified in the indictment as “School Board Member No. 2”—if that member left the board to run for the New Jersey Assembly.

Bencivengo received the $12,400 in multiple payments. The CW passed a $5,000 check to an intermediary who accepted it on Bencivengo’s behalf. Bencivengo, the intermediary, and the CW later agreed to make the check payable to the intermediary’s spouse to further conceal the payment. In addition, Bencivengo, the intermediary, and the CW agreed to put the notation “cherry bedroom set” on the check, agreeing that if anyone asked about the payment, they would say that the CW bought a bedroom set from the intermediary’s spouse. After receiving the check, the intermediary deposited the check and distributed the proceeds to Bencivengo in cash increments over several weeks.

In one of the meetings recorded during the course of the investigation, Bencivengo told the CW that he needed $7,400 to pay his outstanding taxes. The CW 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 the CW said, “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.” The CW also reminded Bencivengo that if School Board Member No. 2 was elected to the Assembly, the CW needed to pick the person to replace School Board Member No. 2 on the board.

Bencivengo subsequently received $7,400 in cash from the CW in July 2011, broken into two payments.

The extortion and attempted extortion counts charged in counts one and two 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 violations of the Travel Act contained in counts three and four each carry a maximum potential penalty of five years in prison and a fine of $250,000, or twice the gross gain or loss from the offense. Count five, which charges money laundering, carries a maximum potential penalty of 20 years and a fine of $500,000, or twice the value of the property involved in the transaction. The indictment also seeks forfeiture of the $12,400 in alleged bribe payments.

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 Michael B. Ward, for the investigation leading to the charges.

The government is represented by Assistant U.S. Attorney Harvey Bartle of the U.S. Attorney’s Office Special Prosecutions Division in Trenton.

The charges and allegations made in the indictment are merely accusations, and the defendant is considered innocent unless and until proven guilty.

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