TRENTON – Embattled Hamilton Mayor John Bencivengo appeared before a federal court judge today and pleaded not guilty to bribery and extortion charges.
The serving mayor’s appearance comes after being charged in April with soliciting $12,400 in bribes to help an insurance company retain a contract with the township’s school district. Judge Anne Thompson set a jury trial date for Nov. 5.
Pretrial proceedings are slated for September and Thompson left the mayor’s bail unchanged. Bencivengo is free on $100,000 unsecured bond and is required to report weekly to a court official.
Bencivengo stood next to his attorney, Jerome Ballarotto, for the length of the brief proceeding. He did not speak during the arraignment and declined to speak with reporters following the hearing.
Prosecutors filed 25 tapes with the court produced by the fed’s cooperating witness, Ballarotto said. The tapes contain recorded conversations between Bencivengo and the cooperating witness.
Twenty additional tapes are expected to be submitted as evidence in the near future, Ballarotto added.
Ballarotto, addressing reporters after the hearing, declined to give any details of his client’s defense other than to say “he’s not guilty of the charges.”
“He took a loan from this woman,” said Ballarotto, referring to his client’s actions with the cooperating witness.
“He did not take a bribe from this woman,” he said. “End of story.”
Bencivengo, who was flanked by U.S. federal agents at the time of his first court appearance, was initially charged with one count of attempted obstruction of commerce by extortion under the color of official right related to the alleged bribes.
Last month, a federal grand jury returned a five-count indictment on charges including extortion and money laundering. The indictment added 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 and using a facility in interstate commerce in aid of the bribery scheme; and one count of money laundering.
The mayor’s most recent court appearance comes a short time after a former Hamilton official admitted to being the intermediary in the alleged bribery scheme.
Rob Warney, who stepped down last month as the township’s director of community planning and compliance, acknowledged he funneled bribes to Bencivengo.
Ballarotto said his client has no intentions of resigning, adding, “There’s been no talk of a recall election.”
“He’s doing his job,” Ballarotto said.
If convicted, the maximum penalty for each of the five counts could put Bencivengo behind bars for up to 70 years, prosecutors said.
The November trial date could serve to end speculation over Bencivengo’s future. Democrats have called for his resignation, but the mayor has so far resisted. Should he resign before Sept. 6, a special election would be held this year to fill the spot. A post-Sept. 6 resignation would push the special election off to next year, which would likely be a preferable situation for Republicans because of Gov. Chris Christie’s presence at the top of the ticket.