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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—The Corruption Bureau of the state's Division of Criminal Justice secured indictments against two longtime city workers on September 29.
The two indicted public officials, meter reader William Ortiz and clerk Joseph DeBonis are both 55 years old and have been with the city's water utility since the 1990's.
“Ortiz and DeBonis took bribes to manipulate water bills at both ends of the billing process: at the meter and in the database used to generate bills,” said Elie Honig, the Director of the Division.
Authorities believe that the duo "conspired to reduce a customer’s water and sewer bills" by about 90% in exchange for a $4,200 bribe, and also solicited a $1,000 bribe "in exchange for replacing the customer’s water meter with a defective meter that would not register water usage."
The indictments came as a result of a case presented to a state grand jury by Deputy Attorneys General Anthony Robinson and Samantha McCluskey. The indictments mean that a majority of the 23 grand jurors decided there was enough evidence to put the men on trial.
“Ortiz and DeBonis had a duty to ensure water customers were properly billed based on accurate readings, but we allege they corruptly solicited bribes in return for falsifying bills and meter readings,” said Attorney General Christopher Porrino.
The AG's statement about a "faulty meter" nicknamed "the thief" appears to support allegations first reported by New Brunswick Today about the use of non-working meters as a way to help certain customers illegally save money on their bills.
That report led to New Brunswick Police Department (NBPD) securing a controversial search warrant to sieze a water meter from this newspaper's office.
Both Ortiz and DeBonis now face the prospect of a trial on the following charges:
- conspiracy (2nd degree)
- official misconduct (2nd degree)
- bribery in official and political matters (2nd degree)
- tampering with public records or information (3rd degree)
If convicted, each of the second-degree charges could lead to between five and ten years in state prison, including a mandatory period of five years of parole ineligibility, and a fine of up to $150,000. The tampering charge is punishable by three to five years in state prison, including a two-year period of parole ineligibility, and a fine of up to $15,000.
The four-count indictment states that the officials' alleged crimes date back to "on or about August 15, 2014" and continued through "on or about November 23, 2016."
DeBonis, who often manned the front desk at the utility's office in the basement of City Hall, had been with the City since 1994 and was reportedly paid $42,108 per year.
According to the AG's statement, "Ortiz allegedly arranged the bill reductions through DeBonis, who had access as a senior account clerk to the city’s water and sewer database."
Though he is listed as a "pumping station repairer" in official city records, William Ortiz's position mostly involved working with the city's thousands of water meters.
He reportedly earned a salary of $46,864 per year, and has been with the city since 1998.
Mayor James Cahill said that both men "remain suspended without pay in response to our notice to terminate their employment, which process must wait until the conclusion of the criminal proceedings."
Both have multiple family members working in public positions within city institutions. DeBonis has a brother who is a Detective on the NBPD, while Ortiz gets his juice from his three brothers in local government, including Board of Education member Benito Ortiz.
It's not the first time that the state Attorney General has investigated wrongdoing at the New Brunswick Water Utility (NBWU).
In 2015, the embattled agency saw its longtime treatment plant operator imprisoned for covering up problems with the drinking water over the course of several years.
The utility provides drinking water to New Brunswick, Milltown, and parts of Franklin Township.
On more than a half-dozen occassions between 2010 and 2013, O'Rourke failed to notify regulators and the public about problems with the drinking water that should have prompted "water boil" alerts.
O'Rourke also admitted to failing to do required testing for water contaminants, and falsifying paperwork to cover up the crime.
These egregious violations, which led to a rare public corruption conviction, occurred while the city was without a qualified Water Director.
In 2007, Business Administrator Thomas Loughlin III was asked by Mayor Cahill to accept the Acting Water Director position after the previous Director Shawn Maloney, abruptly took his own life amid a federal investigation into a bribery and kickback scheme.
Cahill put his Loughlin in charge of the utility in under a "temporary" appointment that lasted over five years.
It has been subjected to multiple scandals in recent years, and went through several short-lived Directors—including the Mayor himself on two separate occasions—in 2014 and 2015, the same years that it operated under a controversial privatization agreement with New Jersey American Water.
Since the water quality cover-up story first broke, the city has increased the alloted funding for NBWU capital improvement projects to bring the utility's infrastructure back to good condition after years of deferred maintenance.
But it has also repeatedly raised the rates that homeowners and businesses pay for their water, as we reported.
This time around, the state's investigation focused on the utility's billing division.
The Water Utility cases have attracted major attention, and seen some jaw-dropping turns of events.
First, the case led to a dust-up between city police and this newspaper over a water meter given to us by a source who alleged it was part of one of Ortiz's schemes.
City police, with the blessing of a Superior Court Judge, siezed a water meter that this reporter had alleged might be related to Ortiz's schemes.
The use of a search warrant, as opposed to a subpoena, ran afoul of a 1980 federal law passed to protect the news media and their sources.
The reaction was fierce from the journalism community, with several large media outlets covering the story, and the NJ Society of Professional Journalists condemning city police for their overreach.
"It is the nature of journalism that reporters sometimes receive leaked information. Sometimes that material is illegally obtained by a third party. However, that does not make it illegal for journalists to use it," wrote the organization.
"In the New Brunswick case, the 'leaked information' is an old water meter. By calling the old water meter 'stolen property,' the New Brunswick police found a pretext that allowed them to use the court system to muzzle Kratovil."
Tensions quickly heated up between the city and this newspaper, and the government began to be much more secretive about issues at the embattled Water Utility, as well as any issues involving city employees.
The cases against DeBonis and Ortiz were eventually transferred out of Middlesex County due to at least one conflict of interest, but only after NBToday raised the issue.
Initially, the cases were assigned to Judge Benjamin Bucca, perhaps the only Superior Court Judge in the state that worked for the City of New Brunswick for longer than the two defendants.
Benjamin Bucca became a Superior Court Judge last summer after being nominated to the prestigious position by Governor Chris Christie.
As we reported, Judge Bucca had demonstrated "a pattern of not recognizing when he has a conflict of interest" during his time as New Brunswick's Planning Board attorney, but that didn't keep him from getting the job or being initially assigned this important case for his prior employer.
"You need to connect the dots," wrote one anonymous source, who sent us a letter at PO Box #3180 in New Brunswick.
"William Ortiz's wife is the secretary for Judge Craig Corson, Yolanda Ortiz," the writer continued. "Why is this case in Middlesex County where everyone is tied to the Democrat party and the defendant's wife works for a judge in the same court house?"
Before he was assigned to Middlesex County, Corson made headlines in Mercer for his own violation of press freedoms, as he famously issued an un-Constitutional order to prohibit The Trentonian from publishing information found in court documents that were given to Isaac Avilucea, one of their reporters.
The order was eventually overturned, and Avilucea filed a $1 million lawsuit against the AG's Office for pursuing the much-maligned order in bad faith.
Meanwhile, the Water Utility cases were finally transferred to Union County on February 10, the same day that the New Brunswick Today Show reported on the rampant conflicts of interest.
That morning, we asked the Attorney General's Office if they would try to get the case moved out of Middlesex, but they declined to comment.
"We do not have any comment," said Peter Aseltine, a spokesperson for the AG's Office. "There is not anyone you can speak to. I did forward your email to the bureau handling the case."
Ultimately, the case was booted out of Middlesex County, but not because of Bucca's conflict. It was reportedly the issue involving Ortiz's wife working for Judge Corson that led to the change of venue.
TapInto New Brunswick's Jack Murtha reported that "the criminal assignment office transferred their cases to the Union County Courthouse in Elizabeth upon learning that Ortiz is related to a 'judiciary employee' of Middlesex," citing the criminal division manager for Middlesex County's court.
"[The criminal division manager] said the nature of the relationship between Ortiz and the unnamed court staffer is confidential," reported Murtha.
The September 29 indictment announcement marked the first time the Attorney General has commented on the case, which has been in the works since at least November 2016.
The new details offered, however, don't paint the full picture of the case, or how explain investigators came upon the corruption in the first place.
The AG's public announcement on the case does not mention a third defendant who quietly admitted guilt on September 7. Jesus Blandon-Hurtado pleaded guilty to a single charge: "Offer of unlawful benefit to public servant for official behavior." (2C:27-11)
Blandon-Hurtado, a city resident who middle-manned the bribe from a landlord he worked for, was sentenced to probation, and will likely avoid prison if he cooperates with the prosecution.
All three men were charged on November 28, 2016, according to the complaints. It does not appear that any of them were arrested.
New Brunswick City Hall—and not the AG's Office—was first to announce the charges by publicizing the suspensions in a December 3, 2016 press release. The city then referred all questions to the local police department, who in turn referred all questions to the AG's Office.
For the better part of a year, the AG's Office declined to offer any information that was not included in the complaints until September 29, when the indictments were handed up.
Neither the city's statement nor the AG's statement mentioned the other defendant or revealed the identities of the landlords who benefitted from the major discounts purchased with their bribes.