NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Middlesex County’s longtime Sheriff Joe Spicuzzo plead guilty to bribery earlier today in Monmouth County Courthouse today after two years of limbo, where it seemed for a while that he might get off.
Instead, under a plea agreement with the Attorney General’s Office, the 67-year-old will serve up to nine years in state prison, but will become eligible for parole after two years.
The former sheriff has surprised many when he plead guilty to charges that he sold the investigator positions for up to $25,000 each, collecting $112,500 in bribes since 1996.
For months, it appeared Spicuzzo may beat the charges on a technicality, due to an oversight by the Attorney General’s Office.
Articles written since the bombshells in 1997 detailed his department’s skyrocketing overtime, abuse of sick days, and a difficult relationship with one of its employees’ union.
In 2004, after suffering complications from gastric bypass surgery, Spicuzzo was hospitalized for five months, did not campaign, yet still won re-election to an eighth consecutive term.
After backing down from a campaign for an eleventh term as sheriff in 2010, Spicuzzo supported then-Freeholder Mildred Scott to take his place. Scott narrowly won a vote of the county’s Democratic Committee to secure the party endorsement in a close vote.
On March 7, 2011, Spicuzzo surrendered to authorities, facing charges of bribery. He quickly resigned from his posts as a member of the state’s sports and exposition authority (NJSEA) and chairman of the county Democrats.
As the Star-Ledger reported this afternoon:
Spicuzzo admitted that between February and March 2008, [Investigator Paul] Lucarelli approached him about hiring Daniel Link, who was interested in a position as a sheriff’s investigator.
Spicuzzo said he told Lucarelli, “it would require $25,000.”
Spicuzzo admitted Lucarelli returned with the cash and Link was hired. He said Link was already employed by his department as a communications officer, but wanted to become an investigator.
Sheriff’s investigators serve at the pleasure of the sheriff. The are not civil service positions.
[Investigator Darrin] DiViasi admitted he acted as a go-between for two men who wanted jobs as sheriff’s investigators. Both Eric Strachan and Nicolas Decibus paid $12,500 each for their jobs, DiViasi said.
Sentencing was set for September 20. That day, Judge Anthony Mellacci will decide whether to accept Spicuzzo’s deal.
ALLEGATIONS WERE MADE PUBLIC NEARLY TWO DECADES AGO
A series of articles that appeared in the state’s largest newspaper in January 1997 exposed Spicuzzo as a corrupt political boss who abused his police powers and blended them with his political role as the head of Middlesex County’s Democratic Organization, a post he occupied from June of 1994 until he surrended to authorities in March 2011.
The Star-Leder’s first bombshell article alleged that it was common knowledge at the department that Spicuzzo sold badges, hiring unqualified young candidates to serve as investigators even if their scores on civil service tests were low, or if they had criminal histories or poor driving records.
The very same allegations were central to the criminal case against Spicuzzo.
The Star-Ledger’s accounts gave substantiation to serious rumors that Spicuzzo had sold the jobs for thousands of dollars, and that the investigator jobs often went to children or relatives of Spicuzzo’s personal and political associates.
They also reported that the county’s prosecutor had investigated nearly identical accusations years earlier, but closed the case after asking the sheriff if he was guilty and being satisfied with his response.
Spicuzzo was also scrutinized for being one of the few sheriffs in the state with no police experience. He was not qualified to carry a gun.
A second article in the Star-Ledger explained how Spicuzzo hired the wife of a man who was indicted for fraud one month later.
The man, who was sentenced to serve a term in prison, had helped Spicuzzo obtain numerous loans from two banks, many of which the sheriff defaulted on.
The stories characterized the sheriff as a deadbeat who borrowed money from his subordinates and never re-paid them, a guest who overstayed his welcome in a friend’s house, and a man who ultimately spent more than a decade bumming around various New Brunswick apartments, including one where he stayed rent-free through political connections, while separated from his wife.
But, a third article in the Star-Ledger included the most scathing development in the saga: a crime Spicuzzo confessed to journalists, allegedly without provacation.
According to the Ledger, the sheriff told reporters Joe Malinconico and Anthony Galloto that the county’s prosecutor, the only man that outranked him in county law enforcement, had tipped him off well in advance of his brother’s drug arrest.
This casual revelation led to Prosectuor Robert Gluck’s departure from the position a year later.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate, a community organizer, and a former independent candidate for mayor of New Brunswick.