NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—A prosecutor and a judge quickly lost their patience with a young man who did not go along with the questions asked of him about his role in a scheme involving his position as a valet for the New Brunswick Parking Authority (NBPA).
The case stems from a scam allegedly run by several NBPA valets who pocketed cash from customers in exchange for allowing them to park in an abandoned parking garage that the NBPA had sold to Middlesex County.
As we reported, this is at least the second criminal case involving NBPA workers and bribes to keep quiet about theft since 2010.
The Wolfson parking garage was sold at the end of 2015, but on Valentine's Day 2016–a busy day for the restaurants where the four men worked as valets–someone made the decision to open up the closed deck and use it for valet parking.
One year later, it's still unclear when the NBPA obtained permission from the County government to re-open the abandoned deck, and offficials at both agencies have been hesitant to answer any questions about the matter while the case plays out in court.
Slated to be transformed into a small park, the aging parking deck has never re-opened since the scandal became public in April 2016. The long-awaited demolition of the facility finally began in February 2017.
County Counsel Thomas F. Kelso said that, during the time period in question, the deck had been re-opened under an "interlocal agreement" worked out betweeen the county and the NBPA.
"I guess people committed a crime and they are now being prosecuted for it, and it seems like the county was a victim of that," said Kelso.
The four men charged in the scandal were hoping to secure a sentence of probation in exchange for pleading guilty to lesser crimes at their pre-indictment conference on January 9.
But Judge Alberto Rivas ultimately referred the case of Ferrad West, and three other ex-NBPA valets, to a grand jury for potential indictment, after their plea deals fell apart in open court.
The other three defendants, including one who is the son of a high-ranking official at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH), has hoped to put the matter behind them.
But those men each faced more serious charges than West: bribery, conspiracy to commit bribery and conspiracy to commit theft.
West is only facing charges of conspiracy to commit theft, apparently because authorities believe his only crime was taking a cut of the ill-gotten gains to keep quiet about the scam.
The three other defendants include 26-year-old Karran Buchhan of Somerset, as well as 25-year-old Joshue Castillo-Mendoza and 19-year-old Atis Mir-Merced, both from Kendall Park.
Mir-Merced is the son of Mariam Merced, RWJUH's Director of Community Health Promotions Programs, and Claudio Mir, a program coordinator at Rutgers University who was recently appointed to the New Brunswick Community Arts Council by Mayor James Cahill.
Cahill, who has been the city's Mayor since 1991, said he did not know if the NBPA had undertaken its own internal investigation in the matter.
"The point is that it is still an ongoing investigation and being handled the prosecutor's office and what action will need to be taken by the Parking Authority would be dictated by the results of what the investigation of the prosecutor's office reveals," said Cahill in an exclusive interview on June 28, 2016.
Giving a similar explanation to what he has said in the past when his city employees have been charged with crimes, Cahill explained that the government is "somewhat stymied" in what it can do while law enforcement is conducting an investigation.
"If there is a simultaneous criminal and governmental review going on, we are somewhat limited in what we can do so we don't infringe upon the criminal investigation, which takes priority," explained Cahill.
"So we will go through our internal record reviews. We will be turning them over," said Cahill. "But you don't have the ability to talk to the employees as the government because they have the right against self-incrimination, so you're somewhat stymied, nor can you necessary plow ahead with your disciplinary action while the criminal case is pending."
However, in this case, all four employees, who are not unionized or covered by civil service regulations, were terminated by the NBPA within weeks of the thefts.
Cahill told New Brunswick Today that it was possible the bribes involved were exchanged only between the four men charged, after we asked what would happen to remaining NBPA workers who took bribes in exchange for their silence.
"It's not impossible that one [of the defendants] paid the other for their silence, and then that person became a part of [the conspiracy]," said Cahill.
About a month earlier, City Councilman Kevin Egan, who serves as liason to the NBPA and ran with Cahill for election in 2010 and 2014, also could not say for sure if anyone who took a bribe at the NBPA kept their job.
"When you're dealing with cash, in all walks of life, sometimes people have a tendancy to make their own deals," said Egan at the June 1 Council meeting. "We can't control people's human nature."
Egan's statements came in response to NBToday's questions about this being the second bribery scandal to befall the NBPA in just six years.
"It's a sad thing it's happened twice now at the Parking Authority," continued Egan, noting that he did not believe the back-to-back scandals were "any reflection on the Parking Authority."
"I still think [the NBPA is] a well-run vibrant thing for the City of New Brunswick, certainly a great part of what we need to do business here in New Brunswick," Egan said.
"It's unfortunate and the people that were guilty will be trialed or whatever by the law, and that's the way the cookie crumbles," said Egan.
Prosecutors had reached deal to avoid a trial with the private attorneys representing Mir-Merced, Castillo-Mendoza, and Bucchan, and the public defender's office took the unusual step of assigning a public defender to represent West, who had not yet retained his own attorney.
Public defenders typically don't get assigned to cases prior to indictment, but that office apparently made an exception in an effort to avert a trial in this case, a trial that could shine an even greater spotlight on the activities of the controversial NBPA.
However, when West, the first of the four defendants to be called before the Judge, wasn't ready to admit certain facts that were necessary for the Judge to allow him to plead guilty, the deal was thrown out.
Judge Rivas asked West if he had had the chance to speak with his attorney, and if he understood his right to a trial, before proceeding with what looked like it would be a successful guilty plea.
"You've done your own personal cost-benefit analysis and you have concluded that it's to your benefit to take this plea as opposed to going to trial?" asked Rivas.
"Yes," responded West.
But then Andrew Mann, the public defender assigned to represent West, started questioning his client to establish the required "factual basis" for the plea deal to be approved.
After confirming West worked for the NBPA at the time in question, Mann asked about the conspiracy.
"Did you enter into an agreement with several individuals… an agreement to make a theft by unlawfully taking money from the patrons of the New Brunswick Parking Authority?" asked Mann.
"Personally, no," responded West, forcing his attorney to backtrack.
"Did you take money that did not belong to you?" Mann followed up, mentioning the three co-defendants. "Did you take money from them that did not belong to you?"
"Yes," responded West.
"And that was in your capacity as an employee of the New Brunswick Parking Authority, is that corect?"
"Yes," responded West.
"And it was over $500?"
"No," responded West, stunning several observers in the courtroom.
"Judge, I think I can clarify," interjected Assistant Prosecutor Christine D'Elia.
At this point, D'Elia took over for Mann, a highly unusual move that allowed the prosecutor to question the defendant about the accusations against him.
D'Elia's questioning of West only led to more problems for the plea deal, as West contradicted D'Elia on the issue of whether or not the Wolfson Parking Garage was not opened to the public at the time of the scam.
"Wolfson was closed down for the public, period… So it was just for us," said West, correcting the prosecutor.
The rest of the conversation went as follows:
D'ELIA: Some of you guys are taking money from the public and pocketing it, correct?
D'ELIA: And you know that they can't do that, right?
D'ELIA: And as part of your group that's doing this, Karran Bucchan, was, as you said to police, breaking off some money for you, correct?
D'ELIA: So you were getting some of the illegal proceeds from this, correct?
D'ELIA: And you knew what they were doing, correct?
WEST: Not fully, no.
D'ELIA: Sir, it's a closed parking lot. You're there in your New Brunswick Parking Authority attire. You're taking–They're taking money from patrons as if they were doing it at the behest of the Parking Authority. You knew that that was wrong, right?"
WEST: I didn't physically see the cars, but like I said I did take money from them.
D'ELIA: And you have told police you understood that–In fact, you actually even told one of the other employees to keep their mouth shut, correct?
WEST: I had a conversation with them.
D'ELIA: Sir, this is a guilty plea. If you're not going to tell the truth under oath in a guilty plea, then we can't go forward, so I'm going to ask you again: Did you know what was going on as far as the scheme to take money from patrons?
D'ELIA: And you benefitted from that, correct?
D'ELIA: Okay, and so you were part of this conspiracy or agreement to commit this theft?
D'ELIA: And the total theft, of all the nights that everyone was doing this, you would agree, would have been over $500?
D'ELIA: Then there's no–
RIVAS: We don't have a guilty plea. Set it down for indictment.
D'ELIA: That's fine Judge. Then they all go down for indictment because they're all contingent.
RIVAS: Apparently they're all contingent folks. Matter will be referred to a grand jury within 30 days.
Rivas then pointed out that the men could face trial on charges of official misconduct, which comes with a mandatory minimum five-year state prison sentence.
The issue of whether or not to charge the defendants with official misconduct brings back memories the NBPA's 2010 bribery scandal.
In that case, NBPA supervisor Lawrence Sorbino went to jail for taking approximately $5,000 in bribes, while an even higher-ranking NBPA official, Financial Operations Manager Michael Lapidus was allowed to work out a plea deal for probation, as part of an agreement where he re-paid approximately $24,000 to the authority.
Several low-level employees were also charged, including two who were eventually convicted after a trial for official misconduct, allegedly for failing to report their co-workers' thefts.
Since-retired Judge Bradley Ferencz, who was the county's Presiding Criminal Judge before Rivas, initially threw out the official misconduct conviction because he said the NBPA "security guards" were not able to commit that crime because they had no explicit duty to report the misdeeds of their co-workers.
Ultimately, convictions against the security guards were re-instated by an Appellate court after an appeal by the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office.
In the wake of the first scandal, the authority also changed its approach to the position held by the two low-level employees convicted, changing its personnel manual and renaming its "security" division to the "parking services" division, re-framing the guard position as a customer service job.
On his way out of the courthouse, West said that questions about the scandal would be better directed to his co-defendant, Karran Buchan, and that Andrew Mann was not likely to remain his lawyer for much longer.
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.