TRENTON – Former Hamilton Mayor John Bencivengo was sentenced Wednesday to serve more than three years behind bars for accepting $12,400 in bribes.
U.S. District Judge Anne Thompson referred to the case as “a tragedy,” saying Bencivengo “has thrown away so much for $12,400.” However, Thompson agreed with prosecutors who argued Bencivengo violated the public trust.
“The nonchalant way he seemed to think it was perfectly fine to take that money showed that he [lacked integrity],” she said.
Despite facing up to 20 years behind bars, sentencing guidelines recommended Bencivengo be sentenced between five and six years of jail time. Thompson sentenced him to 38 months for each of the five counts.
Bencivengo was also ordered to serve three years supervised release following jail time. He has 45 days to report to jail, according to the sentence.
A jury found the disgraced mayor guilty on five criminal counts in November following about four hours of deliberation.
Arrested in April, the Hamilton Republican was accused of taking bribes from insurance broker Marliese ‘Maria’ Ljuba in exchange for aiding Ljuba in maintaining the contract with the Hamilton Township school board. The money was laundered through another township employee under the guise of a furniture purchase. Bencivengo maintained that the money was a loan.
Ljuba, who was at one time a close friend of Bencivengo, became a cooperating witness for the FBI, wearing a wire to ensnare Bencivengo in the bribery probe.
“I take responsibility for my actions,” an emotional Bencivengo said to Thomspon prior to her handing down his sentence.
“I was never one to blame others,” he said, apologizing to the judge that this matter ever had to come before the court.
Prior to Bencivengo’s statement, his daughter asked Thompson to show mercy, saying her father was a hard-working man who had his life destroyed by this misstep.
Bencivengo could be seen wiping his eyes during his daughter’s emotional plea for leniency.
Earlier during the hearing, Bencivengo’s defense attorney, Jerome Ballarotto, argued the former mayor learned his lesson.
“There’s nothing left to do,” said Ballarotto, adding the criminal case has wiped Bencivengo out of his savings and pension, as well as having torn apart his relationship with his family.
“His life has been destroyed,” he said. “He has nothing left.”
Ballarotto once again argued in the courtroom that the $12,400 was a loan – not a bribe.
“He never violated the trust of the people of Hamilton Township as mayor,” he said. “[Ljuba] manipulated him.”
Ballarotto also called on a forensic psychologist to offer testimony about the former mayor.
The psychologist, Gerald Cooke, told the court Bencivengo began suffering from depression in 2001 and that the condition later turned into “severe depression.” Cooke told the judge Bencivengo’s depression impaired his ability to see the connection between Ljuba’s bribes.
“When an individual is depressed … he becomes preoccupied,” said Cooke, explaining Bencivengo’s depression stemmed from failed relationships with his ex-wife and from a former girlfriend.