A day before he was indicted on charges that he and his wife steered money from legislative aides to his campaign and personal bank accounts, 31st District Assemblyman Anthony Chiappone – who represents Bayonne and part of Jersey City – met with investigators from the state Attorney General’s office.
“We went over everything and I thought I had explained things to them,” he said in an interview last week. “The next day, I find out we’ve been indicted.”
Attorney General Anne Milgram announced the indictment on Wednesday, Aug. 26, saying that Chiappone and his wife, Diane, had allegedly conspired to funnel state-issued paychecks for legislative aides to Chiappone’s personal and 2005 Assembly campaign election accounts.
“We charge that Assemblyman Chiappone and his wife conspired to have the state issue more than $8,000 in paychecks for legislative aides, knowing that the money was really destined for the couple's own pockets or his re-election campaign,” said Milgram.“This indictment chronicles a betrayal of the public trust by this elected official.”
According to Criminal Justice Director Deborah L. Gramiccioni, a state grand jury has charged Chiappone, 51, and his wife, Diane, 54, with seven counts that include conspiracy, official misconduct, theft by deception, tampering with public records or information, falsifying or tampering with records, and concealment or misrepresentation of contributions or expenditures.
The charges stem from a series of interviews conducted with former Assembly aides last spring.
Although not named in the indictment, Councilman Gary La Pelusa said he had donated all of the paychecks he received to the 2005 Chiappone for Assembly campaign. La Pelusa served as a legislative aide to Chiaponne in 2005.
In May, La Pelusa told the Bayonne Community News that he had signed over his aide checks to Chiappone to help defray expenses.
“However, instead of depositing all of the checks into the campaign’s bank account, Anthony and Diane Chiappone allegedly deposited eight of the checks, totaling $4,299.32, into their own bank accounts for their personal use,” Milgram claimed.
Chiappone doesn’t dispute the movement of the money. “That’s obvious,” he said.
But he said he believes he did nothing illegal, and is challenging at least two people who were used as primary witnesses in the investigation, who appeared before the state grand jury over a two-week period prior to the indictment.
‘We hid nothing’
“We hid nothing,” Chiappone said. “If we were trying to do something illegal, we would have asked Gary to cash the checks and give us cash. The fact that everything can be traced shows we did things in good faith.”
Milgram agreed that Gary La Pelusa’s aide checks did get deposited into the campaign’s bank account, but that Chiappone allegedly failed to include those contributions in reports filed with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC).
“The defendants did deposit the other five paychecks totaling $3,233.64 into the 2005 Chiappone for Assembly campaign account,” Milgram said. “However, those checks were not reported in the campaign contribution and expenditure reports they filed with ELEC. Moreover, it is alleged the defendants falsely certified that contributions to the campaign did not exceed ELEC limits, even though the aide’s checks exceeded the limit of $2,600 for contributions from a single individual.”
In another charge, the attorney general’s office claimed that a $629 paycheck issued to a woman they claimed was another legislative aide was also deposited.
“In fact, the woman, who is not named in the indictment, did not work as his aide,” the Attorney General said. “The woman endorsed the check, and the defendants allegedly deposited it into their own joint bank account.”
Chiappone said he is stunned by the charges
Chiappone said he had been “blindsided” by the reports.
“We met with the attorney general yesterday [the day before the indictment] and we had a difference of opinion,” he said. “But I felt that we could work this out.”
Chiappone said he had been told that state prosecutors had charged him with official misconduct and violating campaign finance laws, but that he had yet to see the charges.
“I intend to keep on doing it until I prove my innocence in court.” – Anthony Chiappone
Although clearly shaken during the interview in his assembly office, Chiappone said he refused to hide from the conflict.
“I made it a practice to always talk to the press in good and bad times. I’m not going to forego that in this case,” Chiappone said.
In a statement issued shortly after Chiappone was indicted for alleged misuse of state funds, Gov. Jon Corzine asked for a resignation.
“Assemblyman Chiappone’s indictment – the 201st corruption case filed by the New Jersey Attorney General’s office over the past four years – portrayed conduct that is simply intolerable and he should step aside immediately,” Corzine said. “As I have repeatedly said, it would be impossible for any individual serving under a cloud of uncertainty to govern effectively.”
This was followed a short time later by a request from Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts, asking Chiappone to resign.
Chiappone, who said the charges brought against him are politically motivated, said that he will not resign and still intends to run for reelection in November.
Chiappone said that he would fight the charges, even though Gov. Jon Corzine and Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts have asked him to step down and have stripped him of a salary and his right to attend sessions of the state Assembly.
“I’m still doing my job here,” Chiappone said from his Assembly office in Bayonne. “I intend to keep on doing it until I prove my innocence in court.”
In a letter issued to Roberts, Chiappone said, “I have the utmost respect for you and the General Assembly as an institution. I understand your concern and dismay over public corruption in elected officials. I have always held elected positions of councilman and state assemblyman in high esteem and have served with honor and pride. Mr. Speaker, the charges against me are false.”
The attorney general’s office said the investigation started with a lead from a member of the public, but did not go into details. This may have referred to a broadcast by Michael Ransom on a local cable access channel late last year, which followed a trail of supposedly missing checks to one or more of Chiappone’s former legislative aides. Ransom later said he had reported the matter to the attorney general’s office.
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.