NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—City water meter reader Guillermo Quinones pleaded guilty to official misconduct on February 14, becoming the fourth New Brunswick Water Utility official since 2015 to admit to corrupt acts.
Quinones is scheduled for sentencing on March 27, and prosecutors are recommending a five-year prison sentence for his role in a widespread bribery scheme that cost taxpayers a half-million dollars.
Two more former employees of the city’s troubled Water Utility are already behind bars, but they could both be released thanks to a deal with the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office.
Joseph DeBonis, a clerk who illegally lowered people’s water and sewer bills by as much as 90%, is housed at the NJ Department of Corrections’ Central Reception and Assignment Facility in Ewing Township.
William Ortiz, another water meter reader, is staying at South Woods State Prison in Bridgeton. He committed similar crimes to Quinones: collecting cash in exchange for the unlawful discounts.
Ortiz even fixed up some of his funders with phony water meters that wouldn’t register any usage, a device referred to as “The Thief” and very similar to the water meter we were given by a confidential source, only have to have it taken from us in a highly questionable search and seizure operation by city police in December 2016.
Both DeBonis and Ortiz admitted to second-degree official misconduct, and were incarcerated following brief hearings before Judge Robert Kirsch in Union County.
DeBonis gave a thumbs up signal to his supporters in the courtroom as he was taken into custody. Ortiz removed his necktie and belt, handing them off for a crowd family members in the audience, including elected New Brunswick Board of Education member Benito Ortiz.
Unlike the other two guilty parties, Quinones admitted only to a third-degree count of the same charge, according to a spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office.
Because Quinones pleaded to third-degree official misconduct, that means he will not face a mandatory minimum of five years in prison without parole, even though the state will push for a five-year sentence.
It also means that the dollar-figure of bribes Quinones is admitting to seeking or receiving is less than $200.
In previous statements about Ortiz and DeBonis, the state Attorney General’s Office indicated the cold hard cash bribes ultimately cost the rest of the city about $500,000 in lost revenue.
“By taking bribes and allowing customers to steal up to half a million dollars in city utility services, DeBonis and Ortiz profited at the expense of city residents,” said Attorney General Grewal.
But it doesn’t seem likely that the victimized city will be made whole, at least not anytime soon.
“[DeBonis and Ortiz] are jointly and severally liable for any restitution owed to the city for the stolen water and sewer services, and they must forfeit their illegal proceeds from the schemes,” reads the AG’s Office press release.
As of the date that DeBonis and Ortiz were imprisoned, the New Brunswick city government had received a total of $14,355.87, a far cry from the missing half-million.
After the men pleaded guilty in April 2018, Mayor James Cahill, who has been the Mayor since 1991, told the author of this article he was “looking forward to recouping the funds the city was cheated out of.”
There is still some hope for the city to receive some of its money back, as the Quinones case also included two local landlords, allegedly the beneficiaries of the scheme, as co-defendants.
Landlords Domitilo Carreon and Maritza Martinez “will be admitted into the Pretrial Intervention Program with the condition that they must pay full restitution,” said AG’s Office spokesperson Peter Aseltine. “They may be admitted into PTI on March 23, which is their next scheduled court date.”
The case was made by state investigators, who secured indictments at the Mercer County Courthouse in Trenton. Though the next phase of the case started in Middlesex County, the entire matter was moved to Union County after New Brunswick Today raised concerns about conflicts of interest.
Deputy Attorneys General Anthony Robinson and Samantha McCluskey cut Ortiz and Debonis a big break by allowing them to get off without suffering a typically-mandatory five-year period of ineligibility for parole.
Thanks to motions filed by the AG’s Office under 2C:43-6.5(f), DeBonis will be eligible for parole after just two years and Ortiz will be eligible after just one year, but law enforcement touted the sentences as “zero tolerance.”
“These prison sentences demonstrate that we have zero tolerance for public employees who unlawfully use their positions of trust for personal gain,” said Director Thomas Eicher of the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability (OPIC), a new unit created by Grewal two years after the Water Utility bribery case began.
OPIC’s stated mission is to “combat corruption and strengthen public confidence in government institutions.”
“These defendants engaged in a sustained pattern of corrupt conduct in which they took bribes from dozens of customers over a period of several years,” said Eicher. “There is no telling how long their criminal conduct might have continued or how much it might have cost the city if they had not been exposed by our investigation.”
The historic corruption at New Brunswick Water Utility pre-dates OPIC, and includes the case of Edward O’Rourke, who admitted in 2015 to falsifying water testing results and endangering the public by covering up problems with the city’s drinking water over the course of several years.
O’Rourke was released from prison on parole after serving part of a three-year sentence for second-degree corruption of public resources.
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.