TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — The mayor of New Jersey’s largest suburb pleaded not guilty in federal court Thursday to charges of extortion and money laundering.
Federal prosecutors allege Hamilton Township Mayor John Bencivengo took $12,400 from a cooperating witness in exchange for using his influence over a health insurance contract with the township’s school district.
Bencivengo’s lawyer said the money was actually a loan from a friend. The mayor remains free on $100,000 bond and is scheduled to stand trial Nov. 5.
Federal prosecutors said Thursday they will present numerous audio and video recordings as exhibits at the trial. Bencivengo’s lawyer, Jerome Ballarotto, said he’s so far received 25 tapes from prosecutors and is expecting about 20 more.
Ballarotto said he may make some motions concerning whether evidence fits charges, but he expects the trial to begin on time. He said the defense will likely call character witnesses to speak in support of Bencivengo.
Prosecution witnesses are expected to include Robert Warney, the township’s former director of community planning and compliance, who pleaded guilty in June to money laundering in connection with the case. Ballarotto said he isn’t worried about the prospect of Warney testifying against Bencivengo, however.
Warney admitted to taking a $5,000 check on behalf of Republican Bencivengo from a cooperating witness whose employer provided health insurance brokerage services to the township schools. Warney said he gave Bencivengo the proceeds of the check in cash increments.
Bencivengo also asked the cooperating witness to provide $7,400 to pay his taxes, the U.S. attorney’s office said. In return, Bencivengo agreed to speak to a school board member about voting to renew the health insurance brokerage contract instead of putting it out to bid, authorities said.
Prosecutors also allege Bencivengo agreed to let the cooperating witness choose the replacement for another school board member if that board member decided to run for the state Assembly.
Bencivengo, a Republican, became mayor of the Mercer County community of about 90,000 in 2008 and was sworn in to a second term in January. Republican Gov. Chris Christie has called on him to resign, but Bencivengo’s lawyer said Thursday there’s no reason to.
Bencivengo faces up to 70 years in prison and fines over $1 million for the five counts against him. The U.S. Attorney’s Office has not identified the school board members, the insurance broker or the cooperating witness.
New Jersey politicians are no strangers to corruption charges. Between 2002 and 2008, more than 130 officials were convicted in federal courts in New Jersey. Since 2009, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has prosecuted more than 100 cases involving alleged wrongdoing by New Jersey officials — many with multiple defendants.
(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)