SAYREVILLE, NJ—Thomas Pollando, the longtime Chairman of Sayreville’s Democratic Party Organization, was charged with accepting bribes after being caught red-handed with the cash, according to the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office.
The New Jersey Globe broke the story, reporting that the bribery case stemmed from the MCPO’s investigation into the Acciardi family business, Club XXXV, which was the state’s largest all-nude strip club until it shut down earlier this year amid the criminal probe.
“While conducting electronic surveillance… detectives observed Pollando accept several thousands of dollars in cash, and state that he would attempt to use his political clout to influence an ongoing criminal case,” reads the MCPO’s September 1 statement.
Pollando faces charges of second-degree bribery in official matters and second-degree receipt of unlawful benefit by public servant for official behavior.
The MCPO said their investigation “determined Pollando has influence and strong ties to the community,” noting his roles as Vice Chairman of the County Planning Board, President of the Sayreville Athletic Association (SAA), a board member for the borough’s redevelopment agency, and a salaried employee of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority.
Pollando’s arrest is the latest political shakeup in one of the few towns around where elections tend to be competitive, but it could be just the beginning of a slew of new investigations if the Borough’s Mayor has anything to say about it.
Victoria Kilpatrick, who Pollando helped to elect in a close 2019 race, wants him to resign from the borough’s redevelopment agency and the SAA. Critically, she says she also wants “any projects that Mr. Pollando was involved in to be investigated.”
Pollando has sat on the board of the controversial Sayreville Economic & Redevelopment Agency (SERA) for over a decade now, and Kilpatrick says the bribery allegations raise serious questions about redevelopment projects Pollando has approved in that role.
“We need to look into all of them,” Kilpatrick told New Brunswick Today. “We’re talking big, big money.”
As redevelopment agency, SERA has the power to designate companies as the “redeveloper” for parcels of land that have been declared “redevelopment areas.” The designation often comes with perks and incentives.
For decades, SERA has been accused of being secretive. Its website currently offers budgets and resolutions only through 2018, and the most recent audit available there is for the year 2016.
Notably, SERA’s biggest redevelopment project by far is now known as “Riverton,” a plan to clean up and build on the enormous contaminated Raritan River waterfront site near the Driscoll Bridge.
Despite receiving at least $39 million from the county government and $20 million from the state government, SERA and the developers they selected have repeatedly abandoned their plans, pushed back their timelines, and changed the names and vision of the project.
The current plan is being backed by North American Properties, and calls for 2,000 housing units, over one million square feet of retail space, and a marina. But no structure has risen yet on the massive 418-acre property, which SERA took ownership of in 2005.
The latest timeline calls for a groundbreaking later this year, and for the first building to open in 2024, more than ten years behind schedule.
The Pollando scandal comes at a time of transition and turmoil for Sayreville’s local government, which is now without a permanent Police Chief or Business Administrator after two longtime municipal leaders exited the administration in recent weeks.
Meanwhile, two seats on the six-member Borough Council are up for election in November, and as usual, both of the major political parties see winning them as within reach.
Republican Donna Roberts and Democrat Michelle Maher are each seeking re-election, and have paired up with running mates in their own party. The outcome will determine which party controls the local government.
Pollando, a 72-year-old resident of the Parlin section of the borough, has been a fixture in Sayreville politics for decades.
He sat on the Borough Council from 2001 through 2007, when he made a run for Mayor, challenging Republican Kennedy O’Brien.
After losing that race, Pollando told the press he would not seek public office again. But he apparently couldn’t resist making another run in 2009, when he sought another stint on the Council shortly after he secured a coveted appointment to the SERA Board.
Though he didn’t win the Council seat, in what would be his last attempt at winning an elected government position, he continued to accumulate political power.
In 2010, Pollando was unanimously selected to replace John Wisniewski as Chairman of the Sayreville Democratic Organization, a position that gave him oversight of campaign funds and significant influence over which candidates could secure the party’s support.
Pollando is not the first local Democrat to get tripped up by a bribery charge.
In 2018, one of the candidates Pollando successfully backed for Borough Council, Ricci Melendez, pleaded guilty to bribery in New York, in connection with his dayjob.
Melendez quit the Council, but told the public that he was leaving public office because “my professional career has taken a turn in which I need to fully dedicate all of my time and resources.”
“It’s an opportunity that I’ve been working towards my whole life and I feel it’s time to pursue it,” wrote Melendez in his resignation letter.
His guilty plea was made on October 23, but Melendez didn’t resign until November 18, after an election had passed.
For his part, Pollando initially said that Melendez would remain involved in the leadership of his party organization after quitting the Council, but then changed his tune after the criminal case was revealed to the public by reporters like NJ.com’s Alex Napoliello.
Kilpatrick, the Mayor since 2020, acknowledges she’s been on the outs with Pollando and his party organization for over a year now, and feels vindicated that she cut ties with him.
The rift within the Democratic Party has been evident throughout Council meetings in 2022 as dramatic disagreements have manifested around local issues and routine agenda items that would have been approved unanimously in most other municipalities, where political machines make decisions behind closed doors.
Kilpatrick is not the only one calling for an investigation. Her Republican opponent in the 2019 election agrees that the development projects Pollando approved need to be investigated in light of the bribery charges.
“I think the authorities need to look at each project he was involved in as a member of SERA and County Planning Board,” said Arthur Rittenhouse, who lost to Kilpatrick by three votes and challenged the results in court.
Though he did not respond to New Brunswick Today’s inquiries, Middlesex County Democratic Organization (MCDO) Chairman Kevin McCabe told the Globe’s David Wildstein that he was calling for Pollando to resign as the boss of Sayreville’s party organization and called for a “full accounting” of its finances.
“Furthermore, I am requesting a full accounting of the finances of the Sayreville Democratic Organization in order to determine any further possible financial malfeasance,” McCabe told Wildstein. “As leaders, we must hold ourselves to the highest ethical standards, and we will continue to have zero tolerance for corruption.”
After New Brunswick Today used the MCDO website to attempt to send Pollando a message asking for his comment on the charges, Pollando’s photograph and name was removed from the site.
County Commissioner Director Ronald Rios called on Pollando to leave the powerful Middlesex County Planning Board, but only after New Brunswick Today asked him about the issue during the board’s September 1 public meeting.
The Commissioners started meeting less than 30 minutes after news of the charges against Pollando broke, but by the time the public was allowed to speak and this reporter raised the issue, Rios appeared to already have a prepared statement to read.
“I can tell you we are deeply troubled by the allegations against Planning Board member Tom Pollando,” said Rios, looking down at the statement. “Actions like those alleged are fully unbecoming of anyone in public service, and we urge him to resign as soon as possible to give the boards he is currently affiliated with time for them to re-group and re-build.”
Meanwhile, as a result of a months-long joint investigation into Club XXXV involving the MCPO, Sayreville Police Department, the Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control and the New Jersey Treasury Department’s Office of Criminal Investigations, at least seven other criminal defendants face a slew of criminal charges for their alleged role in money laundering and promoting prostitution at the now-infamous strip club.
Among them are Anthony Acciardi, Sr., Doreen Acciardi, and Anthony Acciardi, Jr.
All three are facing counts of first-degree money laundering, second-degree promoting organized street crime, third-degree promoting prostitution, and “other criminal offenses,” according to a June 22 press release from the MCPO.
Pollando has close ties to the family, including Anthony Acciardi, Jr., who was elected to the Democratic Committee using the address of a home adjacent to the club as his residence.
Though the MCPO press release noted Anthony Acciardi, Jr. was a resident of Old Bridge, he remains registered to vote at the Chevalier Avenue address in Sayreville, and until recently, he was an elected representative of that area in Pollando’s party organization.
Pollando and the seven other defendants remain free for now, with Pollando having been released on his own recognizance after his arrest and the others released after a pre-trial detention hearing held on June 21.
According to the MCPO the investigation is “active and continuing,” and they are asking anyone with information to call Detective Shadi Zaiton at 732-745-4263.
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, a community organizer, and a former independent candidate for mayor of New Brunswick.