A state grand jury is scheduled on April 29 to find out information from former legislative aides to Assemblyman Anthony Chiappone about paychecks they were supposed to have received while working for his office during 2004-2005.
Sources say the grand jury is attempting to determine if their paychecks were cashed by Chiappone. But the assemblyman said last week that he has done nothing wrong, and several former aides have backed this up. The investigation began because one former aide complained in 2005 about a missing check.
As many as a dozen people may have already been interviewed, along with the four former aides subpoenaed to appear at the grand jury in Trenton. One of the aides has obtained her own legal counsel, sources said.
At least two groups of investigators have talked to former aides during a series of abrupt interviews that started in southern New Jersey in the early morning hours of April 14 and continued for several days afterward in Bayonne.
Among those interviewed were City Councilman Gary La Pelusa and his wife (who had served as aides during that period), Melba Walsh, Patricia Mulligan, and others, to determine if there was a problem with paychecks issued to them by the state of New Jersey.
Although Chiappone initially consulted Bayonne-based Attorney Karen DeSoto for legal advice, she said last week that he does not need an attorney and that the investigation seems politically motivated. However, several aides said they might seek her services.
“Tony will not need an attorney,” DeSoto said, “as it appears that there is no official investigation, only follow up on what we believe to be frivolous complaints.”
She added, “Therefore, the same scrutiny should be applied to Mr. [Joseph] Doria [the former Bayonne mayor who is now a state official], since Mr. [Michael] Albanese [a former Chiappone aide] said he was forced by Doria to make the statements. It is a shame that they are not using our tax dollars to recover the millions at [the Military Ocean Terminal development] but to harass political opposition. The timing is suspect and disturbing to all taxpayers and citizens of New Jersey.”
The probe comes less than a week after Chiappone agreed to step down from his Bayonne City Council seat in a political compromise with Mayor Mark Smith so that Chiappone would get the backing of the Hudson County Democratic Organization for his June Assembly primary.
How it began
Although the state will not divulge the source of the investigation, it is generally believed it was prompted by charges filed back in 2005 by former aide Albanese, who claimed he had not received a check due him from Chiappone’s office.
Chiappone later terminated Albanese for apparently unrelated reasons. But Albanese eventually filed charges with the Bayonne police.
At the time, Albanese claimed he had been prompted to file the charge against Chiappone by supporters of then Bayonne Mayor Joseph Doria – Chiappone’s political rival.
A police investigation later alleged that the check had been deposited into a Chiappone bank account, which Chiappone said was the result of a simple mistake.
Albanese later reversed his claims against Chiappone, which resulted in police filing charges against him for filing false charges in the first place.
Seeking to determine whether or not Chiappone forged the check, Mike Ransom, another harsh critic of Chiappone, did a personal investigation by obtaining police records and other documentation. He aired the results on cable TV, which he claimed raised some serious questions.
Several former aides said state investigators showed up at their doors unannounced, asking questions about checks they received.
Attorney Tim Howes of Raritan will represent Chiappone and others, when the aides go to Trenton before a grand jury.
Former aide Walsh interviewed
Melba Walsh said officials investigated her for more than an hour, her asking questions about her work as an aide.
She said, “They called me here at my office first thing yesterday. Within an hour, they were here and spent at least an hour interviewing me.”
The state investigators seem to believe that there are other checks missing. However, one check issued to Walsh, Chiappone records show, was sent back to the state and never cashed.
“I’m not certain why some got called to the grand jury while others did not.” – Patricia Mulligan
“I’m not certain why some got called to the grand jury while others did not,” Mulligan said.
La Pelusa said he was threatened with a subpoena when he originally declined to give a sworn statement, then later decided to give a statement.
Mulligan and others were not given the option of a sworn statement.
“I was never given the option to go on tape or make a sworn written statement,” Mulligan said. “I would have given them a sworn statement if they asked.”
The three subpoenaed are considered some of Chiappone’s most ardent supporters.
Apparently, there was more than one team of investigators, and some of those interviewed said one team was particularly gruff.
“The people who interviewed me were pretty good,” La Pelusa said. “But I’ve heard some of the others had a rough time.”
Chiappone had originally intended to travel to Trenton to talk to the investigators, but received legal advice not to. He denied any wrongdoing, and said the probe could have been politically motivated.
Mulligan angered over rough treatment
Mulligan said that during her interview, she was showed copies of all the paychecks she received during her two years working at Chiappone’s office, and was asked if those signatures were hers.
In each instance, she said they were.
Investigators also asked about her duties, benefits and perks, such as gifts or dinners. She was also asked if she knew about Albanese and about the problems he had with the check. They asked her if she was missing any checks, and she said no, although she thought initially she had not received the last check.
“I learned later there was no check for December 2005,” she said.
The investigators also asked her to look at documents and whether or not she recognized if they were signed by Chiappone.
Like other former Chiappone aides, Mulligan believed the investigators were trying to intimidate the less powerful people.
“They are not going after seasoned people,” she said. “I have no apprehension going to testify, since I know I won’t lie. I still feel there is no wrongdoing with Tony. It’s just the idea of being subpoenaed. I have no experience with law enforcement and that makes me nervous. I’ve never committed a crime.”
While one investigator did provide identification, Mulligan said, the other – who claimed to be a former FBI agent – threatened her with arrest when she commented that she couldn’t believe everybody was making such a fuss over a $180 check.
Mulligan said she couldn’t believe that this whole investigation stems from the $180 check Albanese once claimed was missing.
“He’s not credible,” she said.
She said she remarked that she knew other people who ought to be investigated. She said that at that point, the unidentified agent claimed he could have her arrested for not supplying information about other wrongdoings.
“I will be discussing the threatening behavior with my lawyer,” Mulligan promised.
Focusing on forgery
Chiappone said he believes he has done nothing wrong, but is greatly concerned by the fact that he received no letter saying he was the subject of an investigation by the Attorney General’s office. To date, he has been charged with no crime.
According to those who were questioned, the investigation seems to be focused on whether or not Chiappone forged signatures on aides’ paychecks and cashed them.
Chiappone tried to contact the attorney general by phone, but was told they would not go over the matter on the telephone. He said he intended to go to the Attorney General’s office on April 16 to find out more information, but was advised against the move.
Chiappone said that at least one current aide, Robert Mays, was interviewed. Nearly all the others were either aides or somehow connected with his office during his 2004-2005 state Assembly term.
Chiappone said he was concerned about the investigation, but felt he is innocent of any wrongdoing. “I welcome the chance to answer any questions they might have,” he said.
La Pelusa gave sworn statement
La Pelusa said the first he knew of the investigation was when his doorbell rang and found two agents there who asked him about what happened with the checks. La Pelusa said he signed his checks over to Chiappone to defray various costs associated with running the office.
He arranged to meet with the agents in his City Council office on Avenue C and told them what had transpired when he was working as Chiappone’s aide.
“I signed 13 checks,” he said. “It was my money to do with as I wanted. There was nothing wrong. We made no deals. I even paid the taxes on the body.”
Originally, La Pelusa did not want to give a sworn statement, but agreed later to do so rather than have to make the trip to Trenton.
“The investigators are looking for any impropriety and asked me if I saw any ethics violated or any deals made,” La Pelusa said. “I told them the truth. I saw nothing wrong.”