Attorney General Paula T. Dow and Criminal Justice Director Stephen J. Taylor announced that former Perth Amboy Mayor Joseph Vas and a longtime aide have pleaded guilty to corruption charges, including charges that they solicited an illicit payment of $58,000 from a city vendor and illegally funneled money into Vas’ congressional campaign via straw donors to evade campaign funding and reporting rules.
According to Director Taylor, Vas, 55, of Perth Amboy, pleaded guilty yesterday evening to two counts of second-degree pattern of official misconduct, and one count each of theft by unlawful taking and financial facilitation of criminal activity (money laundering), both in the third degree, before Superior Court Judge Anthony J. Mellaci Jr. in Monmouth County. In pleading guilty, Vas admitted that he engaged in a series of corrupt schemes charged in two state grand jury indictments obtained by the Division of Criminal Justice in March 2009 and May 2009.
Under the plea agreement, the state will recommend that Vas, who was also formerly a New Jersey state assemblyman, be sentenced to eight years in state prison, including five years without possibility of parole. He is permanently barred from public employment and is jointly and severally liable with his co-defendants for paying a total of $222,833 in restitution.
“Former Mayor Vas and his longtime aide pleaded guilty to illegally pumping funds into Vas’ congressional campaign and having a city vendor pay an unauthorized $58,000 catering bill for a city gala, among other things,” said Attorney General Dow. “All of this was about Vas corruptly seeking to build his war chest and his political stature.”
“The corrupt conduct of Mayor Vas was shocking both because of its brazenness and because it took so many forms,” said Director Taylor. “He pleaded guilty to five different illegal schemes. This is a man who did not let the law, his oath or any code of ethics stand in his way.”
Earlier yesterday, Vas’ longtime mayoral aide, Melvin Ramos, 54, of Perth Amboy, pleaded guilty to charges of second-degree conspiracy and third-degree financial facilitation of criminal activity before Judge Mellaci. Under Ramos’ plea agreement, the state will recommend that he be sentenced to seven years in state prison. He is permanently barred from public employment in New Jersey and is jointly and severally liable with Vas and three co-defendants for payment of $58,006 in restitution to Perth Amboy.
On Oct. 8, Vas and Ramos were convicted of federal corruption charges filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey. They are scheduled to be sentenced in federal court in January. Their state prison terms will run concurrently with the terms they will serve in federal prison. Judge Mellaci scheduled sentencing for Vas and Ramos for Jan. 28, 2011.
Deputy Attorney General Dianne C. DiGiamber Deal and Supervising Deputy Attorney General Susan Kase took the guilty pleas yesterday for the Division of Criminal Justice Corruption Bureau.
Deputy Attorney General Pearl Minato also prosecuted the case.
The investigation was conducted by Deputy Attorney General Deal, Sgt. Dino Dettorre and Detective Benjamin Kukis. They were assisted by Lt. Daniel O’Brien, Sgt. Robert McGrath, Detective Lee Bailey, Detective Melissa Calkin, Detective Lisa Cawley, Detective Shaun Egan, Detective Kiersten Pentony, Detective Robert Stemmer and Civil Investigator Joseph Salvatore. Deputy Attorney General Asha Vaghela and former Assistant Attorney General Lewis Korngut also worked on the case. They were supervised by Assistant Attorney General Boris Moczula, Deputy Director of the Division of Criminal Justice, and Deputy Attorney General Christine Hoffman, Chief of the Corruption Bureau.
Vas and Ramos pleaded guilty to charges contained in a May 21, 2009 state grand jury indictment stemming from an investigation by the Division of Criminal Justice Corruption Bureau. The 19-count indictment also charged two corporations that were city vendors and two owners of one of the corporations. All of the defendants in that indictment have now pleaded guilty. Vas also pleaded guilty to charges in a March 11, 2009 state grand jury indictment.
In pleading guilty, Vas and Ramos admitted that between January and July 2006, they solicited city employees and others to make fraudulent contributions to Vas’ 2006 campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives for the 13th Congressional District. Ramos admitted he paid cash to the people he solicited to reimburse them for writing personal checks payable to “Vas for Congress.” Vas and Ramos are guilty of money laundering because by structuring funds into the campaign through people who falsely appeared to be making personal contributions, they sought to avoid applicable state and federal currency transaction reporting requirements in connection with deposits into the campaign’s account at Commerce Bank.
Vas and Ramos also admitted that they participated in a fraudulent scheme with a city contractor, Imperial Construction Group Inc. of Pine Brook. On Aug. 3, the owners of the company, Frank Dominguez, 47, of Chester, and Richard Briggs, 50, of Long Valley, pleaded guilty to third-degree misconduct by a corporate official for submitting a false invoice to the City of Perth Amboy. The company pleaded guilty to third-degree submission of false payment claims under a government contract.
Dominguez and Briggs admitted that they submitted a false invoice for Imperial Construction at the direction of Vas and Ramos, so that they could obtain payment from the city secretly reimbursing them for a $58,006 catering bill they paid at the mayor’s request. The bill, which was not authorized, was for a ribbon cutting ceremony on April 19, 2008 at the new Perth Amboy Public Safety-Court-Community Complex. The state will recommend that Dominguez and Briggs each be sentenced to five years of probation. They are scheduled for sentencing on Feb. 18. The two men and Imperial Construction will be barred from public contracts in New Jersey for five years. Those three defendants are jointly and severally liable with Vas and Ramos for paying restitution to the City of Perth Amboy of $58,006.
In addition, Vas admitted that between May and November 2002, he accepted approximately $25,000 in masonry and paving work at his home, free of charge, from a city vendor, Jenicar Builders Contractors Co., Inc. On Aug. 26, Jenicar pleaded guilty to third-degree conspiracy to commit official misconduct. The company must pay a $45,000 fine.
In connection with the May 21, 2009 indictment, Vas also admitted illegally obtaining $5,926 from the city by unlawfully authorizing the submission to the city and approval of payment of a personal medical bill for $5,322 he received from the Mayo Clinic of Jacksonville, Fla., and a personal eyeglasses bill for $604 he received from LensCrafters.
In connection with the March 2009 indictment, Vas admitted that he conspired with city employees from 2003 to 2007 to fraudulently obtain payment of approximately $5,000 from the Perth Amboy Recreation Department for his personal expenses. In addition, Vas admitted that he rigged a public lottery so that his driver, Anthony S. Jones, 49, won the opportunity to buy an affordable home through the Perth Amboy Home Program. Jones was also named in the indictment. The charges against Jones are pending and he is presumed innocent until proven guilty.