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TRENTON, NJ—Former Middlesex County Sheriff Joseph Spicuzzo spent his 70th birthday in state prison on July 29, after the NJ State Parole Board denied his request to leave the facility he was first admitted to on September 20, 2013.
In their July 7 decision, the parole board said Spicuzzo “does not take responsibility for his crime” and “continues to blame others who were subordinate to him.”
“It’s disappointing,” Spicuzzo’s attorney Steve Altman told NJ.com. “He’s legally blind and has other medical disabilities that prevent him from participating in other activities open to inmates.”
Spicuzzo won’t be eligible for parole again until September 2016. He can never hold public office again, and was required to forfeit his $57,890 annual pension.
The convicted criminal was once of the top officials in Middlesex County’s Democratic political machinery, serving as the party chairman for 17 years, and was for a time the state’s only Sheriff with no actual police experience.
Governor Brendan Byrne appointed the unknown Spotswood Mayor to serve as Middlesex County’s sheriff, just months before Spicuzzo squeaked by his Republican opponent in the same election where Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter.
Spicuzzo went on to win ten straight countywide elections to keep the Sheriff job despite scandal after scandal.
But even before the State Police investigation that took him down, it was no secret that Spicuzzo and the organizations he led were corrupt to the core.
As the Star-Ledger reported in January 1997, “talk of employees paying for jobs runs rampant through the Middlesex County sheriff’s department.”
During his reign as Sheriff, Spicuzzo sold police jobs in exchange for expensive bribes, and regularly gave other public positions to his political allies and their relatives, while some of his closest associates were investigated and jailed for corruption.
“Cronyism and nepotism pervade Spicuzzo’s payroll,” the state’s largest newspaper reported some 15 years before Spicuzzo was finally charged with the jobs-for-cash scheme.
“Well-connected applicants got jobs even when their credentials were questionable or their backgrounds were marred by criminal charges or poor driving records.”
Spicuzzo took advantage of a law passed in 1987 that gave Sheriffs a free hand to hire whoever they wanted to 15% of the positions on the force.
While many counties used that 15%, known as “investigator” jobs, to hire people with specialized skills and experience, Spicuzzo hired people who were often so young they could not legally buy alcohol, and still more than a third of them had seen their driving privileges suspended at some point.
After interviews with 150 individuals, including a six-hour sit-down with the Sheriff himself, the Star-Ledger reporters released their three-part series, including numerous sources stating unequivocally that Spicuzzo was charging money of the people he hired as investigators.
“Spicuzzo has assembled a crony corps of generally inexperienced investigators, most of whose scores on competitive hiring tests are so low they had no chance at getting hired except through an appointment not covered by civil service regulations,” reads the first part of the series.
Still, the county’s prosecutor, Robert Gluck, failed to fully investigate the widespread rumors, effectively killing the case after one of his investigators conducted a single interview.
Gluck also assured Spicuzzo that he wouldn’t “go anywhere with it,” at the time.
“I called Joe about it. I said, ‘Joe, here’s what I’ve heard,'” Gluck told the reporters. “I said, ‘I have no reason to do anything now, but I’ll let you know what I’ve heard and what do you have to say about it?’ And he said, ‘It’s absolutely untrue.’ And I said, ‘Well look, there’s nothing but a rumor here, so I’m not going to go anywhere with it.”
Gluck, who passed away in 2014, did not re-open the case, even after the rumors were aggressively reported in the state’s largest newspaper.
In another case, the same prosecutor violated the confidentiality of a four-month investigation, by telling the Sheriff about a drug raid scheduled to go down at his brother’s house.
“In hindsight, maybe it wasn’t the greatest idea,” Gluck said, recalling that he told the Sheriff about a day or so before the raid was executed.
Spicuzzo’s brother Robert, a signmaker for the NJ Highway Authority, was arrested in the raid, but had no illegal substances in his possession at the time of the bust.
Robert Spicuzzo was charged with conspiring to possess cocaine, and admitted into a pre-trial intervention program, which would enable him to have the charge dismissed after completing 12 months of probation.
Among the 21 people arrested in the same bust was Patrick Daley, the brother of Middlesex County Sheriff’s Officer Matthew Daley. Matthew Daley was known for making “fast-food chicken deliveries to various apartments in New Brunswick where Spicuzzo stayed during a decade he was separated from his wife,” according to Ledger.
But two years after the bust, as journalists interviewed Spicuzzo, the longtime Sheriff spilled the beans about the tip-off.
In the six-hour interview with reporters Malinconico and Gallotto, Spicuzzo casually admitted that Middlesex County Prosecutor Robert Gluck had given him a “courtesy” tip that there was going to be a drug raid at his brother’s house.
“I told him, Bobby, I appreciate your calling me. Obviously, this is a very confidential phone call and I certainly won’t divulge this call to anybody,'” Spicuzzo said.
The revelation about the highly questionable conversation eventually led to a reprimand from the state’s Attorney General, and to Gluck losing his position as prosecutor.
That same year, the Middlesex County Democratic Organization voted to pay Spicuzzo $5,000 for his service as party chairman, an amount increased to $20,000 with little fanfare three years later.
Spicuzzo has been accused of pressuring his officers to donate to Democrats, to put up campaign signs during election season, and to volunteer at events he liked such as boxing matches.
He has also admitted to driving without a driver’s license for years, spending more than three times the amount allotted for his department’s budget in 1995, and costing taxpayers thousands in legal fees when he sued the county’s Board of Freeholders.
Spicuzzo also reportedly had a habit of borrowing money from friends and co-workers and never paying it back, and that he defaulted on three separate loans given to him by Montgomery National Bank before it was forced the close.
Spicuzzo had gotten the loans thanks to Michael Schneiderman, who went to jail for his involvement in the bank. While he was in jail, Spicuzzo hired his wife as a clerk, according to published reports.
In July 1992, the bank that took over Montgomery National got a court order to garnish 10% from Spicuzzo’s paychecks to repay his debt on the loan.
Spicuzzo was also accused of lying under oath in a deposition, to avoid being served with an order to garnish his wages in the early 1990’s.
According to the Ledger’s reporting, the sheriff’s department also lost the court order, and it took more than half a year for Spicuzzo to finally get served.
More than once, Spicuzzo has been accused of sexual harassment by his employees, costing the county government more than $1 million in settlements and legal bills.
He famously brought in a cake to celebrate when then-Lt. Angelo Falcone, one of his closest underlings, avoided paying a penalty in a 1989 sexual harassment case.
Spicuzzo’s opponents also charged that he leveraged the lease on the sheriff’s office to help satisfy a car loan he had defaulted on, and for a time in the 1990’s, he was living rent-free in a New Brunswick condominium thanks to a major real estate company.
The Sheriff responded by saying that he repaid Hampton Club’s owners, Roseland Management Corp., for the rent.
Meanwhile, he also faced claims that he attempted to use his ability to influence the lease agreement for his own office as a way to help make it up to Montgomery National, the bank he had defaulted on.
Until recently, Middlesex County Sheriff’s Officers worked out of a building on Livingston Avenue that was still named after the disgraced elected official.
The Joseph C. Spicuzzo Building was built by one of the city’s most notorious developers, Omar Boraie.
As the Star-Ledger reported at the time, Middlesex County officials approached the developer, who has since become famous for obtaining $4.8 million in Hurricane Sandy funding towards the construction of a luxury building.
“Boraie said county officials approached him to provide new space for the sheriff,” wrote the Ledger’s Diane Walsh.
“The Livingston Avenue building was a former cabinet factory, which Boraie said he bought because he could see the ‘potential’ for the 1.5-acre property.”
The late Middlesex County Freeholder Director David Crabiel said the county “sought out Boraie because ‘you’ve got to go to somebody with a vision and Omar has a vision for the city.'”
So far, the Boraie company has made more than $4 million renting the 2-story building to the county, and the ten-year agreement has apparently continued in the first of two additional five-year renewal options.
Crabiel also told the newspaper that New Brunswick Mayor James Cahill, who is still in office today, lobbied for the Sheriff’s headquarters to be located in the Hub City, instead of at a new building on Apple Orchard Lane in North Brunswick.
“Crabiel said New Brunswick Mayor James Cahill successfully argued against the move from the county seat in New Brunswick,” wrote Walsh. “Cahill hailed it as a ‘unique law enforcement facility,’ which will provide a ‘centralized home base’ for the sheriff.”
But, even with unwavering support from the Middlesex County Democrats, Spicuzzo still experienced opposition within his department.
His opponents said the he had clearly favored the members of one union over another, and was caught on tape saying that he gave harsher punishments as payback after one of the union officials ran against him.
Spicuzzo fiercely retaliated against his political opponents, including those within the Sheriff’s Department and the unions that represent the workers there.
Facing a Republican who worked for him as a Sheriff’s Officer in the 1995 election, he made his opponent’s personnel records public, and attacked him for nearly allowing a prisoner to escape during a hospital visit earlier that year.
In another matter, an officer was searched by Spicuzzo’s Chief Warrant Officer Falcone to make sure he wasn’t recording a conversation, but he was.
Spicuzzo allegedly ripped the the tape recorder from the officer’s breast pocket and threw it against a wall, and it was entered into evidence in a New Brunswick municipal court case in five separate pieces.
However, despite the explosive newspaper articles, frequent clashes with the county’s Freeholder Board, and strong opposition from one of the unions representing the men and women in his department, Spicuzzo kept winning the countywide elections and appeared to be immune from prosecution.
Meanwhile another convicted criminal who helped Spicuzzo rise to power, the former State Senator and New Brunswick Mayor John Lynch, is once again a free man after being released from federal prison in 2009.
Lynch had been favored to become New Jersey’s Governor 25 years ago, until it was revealed that his brother-in-law Louis Aurrichio Jr. was indicted and convicted of killing a mafia rival, as well as an assortment of other racketeering acts that included extortion, arson and assault.
He continued to serve in the State Senate for another decade and is credited with helping notoriously corrupt Governor James McGreevey achieve the state’s highest office.
Lynch is still considered one of the many powerful political bosses of New Jersey, even after he plead guilty to one of several allegations of influence-peddling.
The crime he admitted to was using his office as State Senator to help a private “consulting” client, the Dallenbach Sand Mining Company of South Brunswick, secure government approvals from agencies such as the NJ Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP).
Lynch’s time served amounted to less than three years, after a favorable plea deal negotiated with future Governor Chris Christie, who prosecuted the case. The former New Brunswick Mayor now lives in a mansion in Lawrence Township.
More than 200 people, including the current leaders of the New Brunswick City Council, Board of Education, and the men who would later serve as Spicuzzo’s lawyers, signed letters to the judge asking for leniency in Lynch’s corruption case.
After winning his first four full terms as Sheriff, Spicuzzo ran for Chair of the Middlesex County Democratic Organization (MCDO) unsuccessfully in 1991, losing to Bob Smith, who went on to replace Lynch in the NJ State Senate.
Spicuzzo had bowed out of the race, and conceded to Smith as the ballots were being counted. Smith ended up winning 296-197.
But in 1992 it was Harry Pozycki who came out victorious against the Lynch-supported candidate, Monroe Mayor Richard Pucci, to succeed Smith as the party’s Chairman.
Pozycki ushered in a new Constitution that gave more power to the party’s 1,000+ committee members, and once again won the Democratic Chairmanship in 1993, after Spicuzzo’s efforts to materialize a challenge failed.
But Spicuzzo narrowly defeated Pozycki in the June 1994 contest for Chairman, and he went on to retain the position each year until the day he turned himself into authorities on corruption charges in 2011.
Pozycki went on to earn the support of the MCDO to become a Freeholder after the abrupt departure of James Phillips in 1995.
From that position, Pozycki launched an investigation into Spicuzzo’s spending on overtime, as well as many of the issues reported on by Malinconico and Gallatto, which rocked the county like few scandals in recent memory.
But eventually the pressure died down, and Spicuzzo outlasted most of his enemies, at least by some measures.
After suffering a stroke in 2004, the result of complications that arose during bariatric weight loss surgery, Spicuzzo spent seven months in St. Peter’s University Hospital, but still won re-election to a ninth term.
“I am almost blind,” he told a reporter in 2005. “I had a stroke.”
Still, Spicuzzo stayed on as Sheriff for another five years despite suffering from the debilitating effects of the stroke.
Spicuzzo was re-elected to an unprecedented tenth term as sheriff in 2007.
Spicuzzo even picked up another public position when Governor Jon Corzine appointed him to the NJ Sports and Exposition Authority’s (NJSEA) board
Even after losing his re-election campaign, outgoing Governor Jon Corzine tried to re-appoint to Spicuzzo to the NJSEA, something that he was criticized for by incoming Governor Chris Christie.
In 2010, he surprised a lot of people by announcing his intent to run again for an eleventh term, before being sidelined by more allegations of sexual harassment and the threat of a challenger from within his own party.
Even after leaving the Sheriff job, Spicuzzo stayed on as the powerful Chairman of the Middlesex County Democratic Organization, a post he held until his March 2011 arrest.
Rather than face a trial, Spicuzzo pleaded guilty and was sentenced to nine years in prison by a Monmouth County judge.
Ironically, in 1995, he had spoken out in support of giving repeat offenders sentences that would keep them in prison until they are beyond the age at which most felons commit crimes.
“When a person is 65, would you expect them to come out and commit these crimes? The answer is you would not,” Spicuzzo said at a community meeting in New Brunswick, according to the Star-Ledger.
Spicuzzo was first imprisoned at age 68, and if he serves the full sentence, he will be released when he is 77.
Editor’s Note: The author of this article worked with Joe Malinconico at PatersonPress.com, one of several journalism projects started by the Citizens Campaign, a non-profit that advocates for good government and civic engagement. The author of this article worked for the Citizens Campaign during 2010 and 2011, and the organization was started and continues to be led by Harry Pozycki.
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 an independent candidate for Mayor of New Brunswick.