In a move that startled many of his political friends and enemies, Assemblyman Anthony Chiappone pleaded guilty on June 24 to misfiling election reports, one of seven charges brought against him and his wife, Diane, last year after they were accused of depositing money from legislative aides into Chiappone’s personal and campaign accounts.
The plea agreement will avoid jail time for Chiappone, who is expected to get probation at his Sept. 10 sentencing. All charges have been dropped against his wife, Chiappone said.
“It feels like a boulder has been lifted from my shoulders,” Chiappone said during a telephone interview on June 25.
Chiappone pled guilty to filing false campaign finance reports with the Election Law Enforcement Commission, ending a political career that started with his successful run for Bayonne 1st Ward Council in 1998.
“This has been constant turmoil in my life for the last two years and I’m glad it’s over.” – Anthony Chiappone
Chiappone said the agreement would allow him to serve probation rather than jail time for him or his wife when Mercer County Superior Court Judge Gerald Council sentences him on Sept 10.
“The prosecutors said they would recommend no jail time,” Chiappone said.
The crime dates back to 2005
The crime dates back to Chiappone’s previous term as state assemblyman, when he served from 2004 to 2006, at which time he received checks from legislative aides, which he deposited into his personal and his private bank account, and failed to properly report the transactions.
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 Chiappone in 2005.
Chiappone served in the state Assembly seat from 2004 to 2006, and ran unsuccessfully for state Senate in 2004 against then State Senator Joseph Doria. After this loss, he was denied the Democratic line for assembly but continued as a city councilman, and ran and won the state Assembly seat back in 2007. In May 2009, leadership within the Hudson County Democratic Organization forced him to choose between staying in the state Assembly or continuing his seat on the City Council. Chiappone opted for the state Assembly.
Within a week of his decision, investigators from the state Attorney General’s office began to interview his former legislative aides, based on a complaint by one that suggested one or more aide checks were missing or forged.
While no investigators apparently found any credible evidence of forgery, they did uncover kick backs from legislative aides, who were donating their state paychecks to Chiappone. Councilman Gary La Pelusa told the Bayonne Community News in May 2009 that he had signed over his aide checks to Chiappone, who was charged in July 2009, and indicted in October the same year. But he managed to win reelection as state Assemblyman in November despite the indictment. In May, he ran against Mayor Mark Smith for mayor and lost.
Chiappone planned to fight the charges
While Chiappone had planned to fight the charges, the cost and emotional toll on his family became deciding factors, and the fact that the deal would exonerate his wife and require him to serve no jail time made him decide to take the plea bargain.
“This was not a scheduled hearing,” he said. “The judge called us in to clear calendar. That’s when the prosecutor offered me this, and looking over the overall picture, I decided to accept. This has been constant turmoil in my life for the last two years and I’m glad it’s over. Of course, it was a horrible decision to make. I still believe I did nothing wrong. But I’ve been sick to my stomach since it happened, and the idea of having to go through the ordeal of a trial next year only made it worse.”
In a prepared statement, Attorney General Paula Dow said in a prepared statement that the public "has a right to expect that their elected officials will uphold the law and act honestly in all official matters.”
Smith blasts Chiappone
Mayor Smith had no kind words for Chiappone.
“For a dozen years, Anthony Chiappone has been critical of good people in Bayonne government,” Smith said in a statement issued this week. “He was always quick with the flip remark or snide comment to impugn honest people’s reputations. How ironic is it that Chiappone, the ‘crusading legislator’ who introduced bills requiring that corrupt politicians forfeit their pensions and have their names removed from public monuments, would be the one to have pled guilty to corrupt acts? The people of Bayonne and the 31st legislative district have been deprived of honest representation by their assemblyman in Trenton for far too long. With Chiappone’s impending departure, let’s close the book on this whole sorry chapter in our history and move on.”
Smith said he hoped this “sad episode” will serve as a lesson and a warning to other people who would engage in such activities that shake the public confidence in their government.
“Sooner or later, you will be exposed and subjected to the people’s judgment,” Smith said.