9/28/12 1:48 PM
Hamilton Mayor Bencivengo corruption case
Erin Duffy/The Times
HAMILTON — They met in Hamilton and Atlantic City. Hamilton Mayor John Bencivengo griped about being unable to pay his bills and taxes. The health insurance broker talked about a pending contract renewal with the Hamilton school district. They agreed on a price for Bencivengo’s help with that contract, and the cash began to flow, according to a federal complaint unsealed yesterday after Bencivengo was charged with soliciting $12,400 in bribes to help secure the no- bid contract. The insurance broker, identified only as “cooperating witness” in the complaint, wore a wire and recorded the conversations on video.
Hamilton schools Superintendent James Parla said yesterday that Vineland-based Allen Associates is the district’s sole health insurance broker and the company is represented by Marliese Ljuba A source with knowledge of the investigation confirmed last night that Ljuba was the Hamilton Mayor John Bencivengo is charged with taking bribes. Hamilton Mayor John Bencivengo appeared briefly in court this morning to face charges he solicited and received $12,400 in bribes from a health insurance broker for his influence in securing a no-bid school district contract.
His attorney Jerome Ballarotto said his client is innocent following an initial court appearance today.
A source with knowledge of the investigation confirmed last night that Ljuba was theooperating witness identified in the complaint. Ljuba, a 44-year-old Delaware resident, did not return calls seeking comment yesterday.
A couple named Maria and Robert Ljuba living in Delaware have donated to county and local Republicans in the past five years. In 2007, a Maria Ljuba contributed $1,500 to the 2011 primary campaign of Bencivengo. Robert Ljuba, who lives at the same Delaware address, gave another $1,500 to Bencivengo. The Ljubas also gave to the Hamilton Township Republican Committee political action committee in 2009, 2010 and 2011, the Mercer County Republican Committee in 2011, and Gov. Chris Christie in 2009, for a total of $7,400 in political contributions to New Jersey Republican candidates and committees between 2007 and 2011.
Allen Associates were unable to provide any information about their involvement to The Times.“At this point, we really don’t have information and are not involved in the matter,” said Glenn Lillie, director of marketing for Allen Associates and spokesperson for the firm. “We know just what we’ve seen in the papers at this point.“There’s not much we can shed light on or enhance or amplify,” Lillie said, also confirming Ljuba was an employee of Allen Associates. “One of the things we do here is we broker insurance. We do benefit plans, financial services, etc.,” Lillie said. “We’ve been in business since 1960. We’re a very proactive, positive organization.”Ljuba has served as the district’s broker for years, raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, in commissions, according to school documents.
A letter from Hamilton school business administrator Joseph Tramontana to residents requesting information on the district’s insurance contracts reveals health insurance commissions have held totaled $972,000 for the past three years combined. It is unclear how much of that commission Ljuba received. Allen Associates and Ljuba are also the health insurance brokers for the Robbinsville Township.
The Hamilton board has been under increasing pressure from residents and good government group Citizens Campaign to bid out insurance broker contracts, obtain a minimum of three bids for insurance coverage and hire brokers exclusively on a flat-fee basis. “Given today’s news, we hope both the Hamilton School Board and Township Council will take immediate action to increase public confidence in local government decision making by adopting our proposal which guarantees accountability, transparency, and integrity in insurance contracting,” Citizens Campaign spokeswoman Heather Taylor said.
Tramontana said on Wednesday the board had sent out a request for bids with a deadline of May 2. The Times requested the most recent copies of the district’s contracts with Allen Associates and Ljuba but did not receive the requested documents. Tramontana did not return phone calls yesterday.
Parla said the district “will fully cooperate with any law enforcement agencies that are involved at this point. They have our full cooperation.”
On Wednesday, Hamilton school board President Patricia DelGiudice said that neither the board nor the district had received law enforcement requests for documents or other information that would have alerted them to a federal probe. “Absolutely not,” she said. “There has been nothing.”
DelGiudice and the majority of school board members did not return calls seeking comment yesterday. School board members Richard Kanka and the newly appointed Troy Stevenson said they had no comment. Board member Jeff Hewitson said he had been pushing for bidding out health insurance broker contracts with flat fees for the past year or two. The presentation Citizens Campaign made at a March 28 meeting claimed the board could save millions by bidding out brokers contracts and reexamining other insurance carriers.
“If you can save $4 to $5 million a year, why wouldn’t you do that?” Hewitson said. Staff writer Alex Zdan and Jim Cook Jr. of the The News of Cumberland County contributed to this report.