The Trentonian: Posted: 10/09/12
Ballarotto confident in his clients’ innocence
By:SHERRINA V. NAVANI
HAMILTON — For more than two decades, Jerome Ballarotto has been the voice of suspects who have already been found guilty in the court of public opinion.
This fall, Ballarotto will be the attorney for two very high profile defendants — Hamilton Mayor John Bencivengo and co-defendant of a Trenton corruption case, Joseph “Jo-Jo” Giorgianni. “Clients call me because I am entirely committed to their defense,” said Ballarotto. “We work late into the night, and then I go home and stay up all night thinking about the case. It is always on my mind.”
The 33-year veteran of the legal system started his career as a city prosecutor, making his way up the ranks as a county prosecutor and finally working for the U.S. Attorney’s office. In 1987, Ballarotto left the world of prosecuting suspects and entered the unchartered territory of being a criminal defense attorney.
“I have dealt with a lot of white collar cases, I represented Michael Ritacco,” he said. The Toms River Regional superintendent, Ritacco pleaded guilty to public corruption and tax evasion charges in April and is now serving an 11-year prison sentence. Starting Nov. 5, Mayor Bencivengo will depend on Ballarotto to defend his not guilty plea in federal court to charges he extorted $12,400 in bribes from an insurance broker to help win a school district ontract and laundered the money.
“It will take less than two weeks to win this case, because he is innocent of the charges,” said Ballarotto. “What, haven’t you ever heard of innocent person getting charged? … the U.S. Attorney made a mistake and shouldn’t have charged him.”
The quirky lawyer, who charges upwards of $500 an hour, meets with clients in his very homey Hamilton office. The walls are covered by posters of cinematography’s greatest international films, and he has an electric guitar hoisted on a stand and a set of drums that would make any rock star proud tucked into the corner just inches from a desk cluttered with legal papers.
“When a client calls me I ask them to come in and sit on the couch to share their issue with me,” he said, as he propped his right brown cowboy boot onto his left leg and reclined back into a grand chair. “As a defense attorney, you represent a human being. Even good people do bad things.”
His belief that there is good in everyone allows him to be the lawyer of record for convicted sex offender Giorgianni, who was arrested along with Trenton’s Mayor Tony Mack in early September. Giorgianni, who was initially represented by a public defender during his bail hearing on Sept. 10, faces a total of 50 years in prison if convicted of extortion, drug and weapons charges. “Basically, my clients are good people who made a bad mistake,” said Ballarotto.
The high profile attorney said it is not unusual for a defendant to secure private council after they have a public defender appointed to them. “Sometimes clients do not have an attorney on retainer when they are arrested, they are not prepared when they are arrested,” he said. “It is not unusual for someone who has a public defender to retain a private attorney after the bail hearing.”
Although Ballarotto would not discuss Giorgianni’s case in great detail, sighting attorney-client confidentiality, he did share that the case is currently being held up by the U.S Attorney’s office, who has asked for a 60-day extension to indict. “We should enter the discovery phase after the 60-day extension is complete,” he said. “In a federal case, the government legally has the right to share some evidence with us however they are not obligated to turn over everything to a defense attorney.”
Ballarotto’s streak of confidence stems from his extensive experience as a prosecutor and as a U.S. Secret Service agent. He juggles as many as 20 cases at any given time, including servicing clients at his Key West, Fla., office and takes his recent found legal fame in stride, “I am happy, I have a beautiful home, two Corvettes, a Mustang and am now re-building a 1969 Camaro convertible with my own two hands,” he said. “I am happy not because I have money but because I know that success is relative … What is one thing a rich person has over a poor one? The rich person knows money cannot make you happy.”