NORTH BRUNSWICK, NJ—Michael Vitanza may soon be back to working at the Township's Department of Public Works, more than a year after being arrested for buying drugs while on the job.
Vitanza, age 58, worked as a laborer until he was charged with "conspiracy to distribute a controlled dangerous substance" in December 2013, as part of a State Police investigation known as "Operation: Smoke Screen."
The State Police claimed that the operation "dismantled" a large drug distribution network, announcing ten different men had been arrested, three of them public employees.
But so far, two of those three public employees have negotiated favorable plea deals that will most likely keep them out of jail.
"Michael Vitanza is alleged to have obtained drugs while working," read the January 2014 press release from the NJ State Police. "He was arrested at his place employment and charged with CDS offenses including Conspiracy to Distribute."
But by December, the NJ Attorney General's Office had agreed to lower the charge to a fourth-degree offense.
"Michael Vitanza pled guilty on Dec. 22 to fourth-degree conspiracy to possess marijuana," confirmed Attorney General's Office spokesperson Peter Aseltine.
It is not immediately clear what sentence Vitanza has received though it is possible he will still retain his public job.
"If that is a misdemeanor… I believe they do expect him to come back to work," said Janice Larkin, confidential secretary to North Brunswick Mayor Francis Womack.
Larkin was surprised to learn of Vitanza's December 22 guilty plea.
"He's still suspended without pay," Larkin said. "That's been ongoing since the whole thing started."
As we reported, the investigation also led to a guilty plea from Michael Mahony, New Brunswick's former Chief Housing Inspector.
Mahony plead guilty to third-degree "possession with intent to distribute." He was sentenced to three years probation last week, but can never again work a government job in New Jersey.
Unlike the case against Vitanza, Mahony's case was moved to a different county to avoid a conflict of interest involving the city's Elks Lodge, where Mahony is the Treasurer.
"Mahony belonged to a club or fraternal organization whose members include certain judges in Middlesex County, so his case was moved to avoid any conflict, real or perceived," said Peter Aseltine.
One of those judges, Bradley Ferencz, was responsible for handling Vitanza's case. Ferencz approved the plea deal shortly before retiring from the bench last month.
A third public employee charged in the operation, Middlesex County Sheriff's Office Dispatcher Scott Campion, was facing charges of loitering to commit a controlled dangerous substances (CDS) offense, and conspiracy to possess CDS.
But now the Attorney General's Office says there is only one "disorderly persons" offense that Campion faces, and that the case may proceed in municipal court.
"Campion is charged with a disorderly persons offense and his case is now being handled by the county prosecutor's office," said Aseltine. "It might be venued in New Brunswick Municipal Court since it is disorderly persons case."
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 and a community organizer, and was an independent candidate for Mayor of New Brunswick in 2018.