NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—A bizarre chapter in Hub City corruption history has concluded, about one year after four young men were first caught selling parking spaces in an abandoned parking deck that had been slated for demolition.
All four worked as valets the New Brunswick Parking Authority (NBPA), the notorious agency that runs eight public parking decks, handles on-street parking enforcement, plus rents and manages several pieces of commercial real estate in downtown.
It's the NBPA's second theft scandal involving its own workers since 2010, when several men were sentenced to prison terms in a much more wide-ranging investigation.
"The four had been charged with plotting to take cash payments from New Brunswick Parking Authority customers to park cars illegally between January 1, 2016 and March 4, 2016," read a press release from the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office (MCPO).
The agency has an annual budget in excess of $32 million, and is also more than $230 million in debt, so this scandal is just a drop in the bucket for them.
The man who exposed this scandal was also rumored to be the same whistleblower responsible for sparking the criminal case almost six years earlier. But instead of getting a promotion, he has since left the authority.
This time around, it was only small-time crooks that were caught up in the criminal justice system.
"As far as that incident… we are the people who found out that they were doing that, so we were self-monitoring ourselves," said NBPA Executive Director Mitch Karon.
"Other than making sure that they have close supervision… we've already implemented a lot of the changes," said Karon referring to new security and cash handling protocols established after the 2010 scandal. "We feel that they are very tight, and you know, we'll just keep improving as much as we can to make it as tight as possible."
NBPA Vice Chairman Louis Garlatti said "the controls that are in place are functioning and we review them on a regular basis."
The authority has been advertising that it is currently hiring valets, some of whom may end up parking cars for patrons of restaurants like The Frog & The Peach and Delta's, at the same post where the four accused men worked.
Like the scandal that came before it, the resolution of the criminal cases comes under a cloud due to the appearance that at least one of the defendants may have received favorable treatement from the MCPO.
One man, 19-year-old Atis Mir-Merced, got a better deal than his three co-defendants for reasons that have not been fully explained.
"Mir-Merced, 19, of the Kendall Park section of South Brunswick, pleaded guilty to the conspiracy charge, but will be permitted to enter the Pre-Trial Intervention program for first offenders," read the MCPO press release.
Pre-Trial Intervention (PTI) is a popular diversion program that allows those accused of a crime to keep a clean record if they comply with the requirements of probation. It's typically considered the best possible outcome for many defendants in Superior Court.
The lucky young man who got into the PTI program is the son of Mariam Merced, a high-ranking official at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, where she works closely with Kevin McTernan, who also serves as the Chairman of the NBPA's Board of Commissioners.
He is also the son of Claudio Mir, who was recently appointed to the New Brunswick Community Arts Council by Mayor James Cahill.
MCPO spokesperson James O'Neill failed to respond to multiple inquiries about the plea deals, including a simple question about why Mir-Merced was allowed into PTI while his co-defendants were not.
The other three defendants, Karran Bucchan, Farrad West, and Joshue Castillo-Mendoza, were all sentenced to probation by Judge Alberto Rivas. But their records won't be "clean," even if they successfully complete probation.
As we reported, the men were prepared to take plea deals in January, but those deals fell apart in open court when the first of the four men to go before Rivas declined to admit to the facts prosecutors, and his own lawyer, were attempting to prove.
Specifically at issue was the amount of the thefts, and whether or not that amount exceeded $500.
Despite the hiccup, the defendants were essentially given a do-over on March 6, where Judge Rivas approved the agreement between the accused and those prosecuting them.
The MCPO press release did not indicate how long the four defendants will be on probation, but it did make clear that they will be forever barred from public employment in New Jersey and that each must also pay the NBPA $200 each in restitution.
Middlesex County Prosecutor Andrew Carey said in the official statement that the former employees "will be placed on probation for stealing more than $500 in parking fees from the city agency."
Carey credited New Brunswick Police Department Detective Harry Lemmerling with determining that the four men "conspired to sell parking spots to motorists, whose cars were parked at the Wolfson parking deck."
It's unclear what role the county government played in re-opening the parking deck, which closed after the county purchased it from the NBPA. The structure is now undergoing demolition.
The three men who did not get into the PTI program are scheduled to be sentenced to probationary terms on May 22 in Rivas' courtroom.