PORTASH: How New Jersey's Most Crooked Politician Was Finally Caught
Journalist Thomas Peele recalls how he began his career, connecting the handling of Pine Lake Park's water problems to a corrupt Manchester government run by Joseph Portash
Joseph S. Portash was nearly 6’ 5”, a mop of graying hair making him appear stately. He was 56 when I met him late one February afternoon in 1988, and he would be dead in two years, his name synonymous with scandal.
He’d come through a side door of the Manchester Township Municipal Building wearing an overcoat as bits of snow twirled in the frigid Pine Barrens air. I remember him walking swiftly toward a dark Lincoln Town Car.
I’d just pulled into the parking lot and there he was, right in front of me.
“Mr. PO-rtash,” I said, popping the P and the O with obvious nervousness. I explained hurriedly there on the sidewalk that I was a new reporter for The Ocean County Observer who’d just been assigned to cover Manchester.
“Welcome,” he said flatly.
I had reason to be a little nervous about meeting Joe Portash. I’d just read his bulging clip file at the Observer.
His eyes were dull and his breath bore the scent of drink. We did a little two step. I’d be around a lot, I said. “Call me any time,” he replied. He dug around his wallet and presented a card: Township Business Administrator. I stuffed it in a pocket. Portash stalked off toward his car. He must have thought, just another kid reporter.
I thought, so that’s him.
The Teflon administrator
I’d arrived at the Observer a few days earlier, fresh from Long Island University, lugging a journalism degree and having worked nights at Newsday’s high-school sports department. I suppose I thought I knew what I was doing, which seems laughable now. But I knew I wanted to report for daily newspapers, to learn how to dig. Like a lot of journalists of my generation, I must have watched "All The President’s Men" a hundred times by then and worn out a copy of the book. I could have stayed at Newsday covering prep football. Instead I went to New Jersey, then home of the county’s most competitive newspaper industry, eager to learn my craft.
On my second day, an editor pulled me over to a large map of Ocean County and pointed to its sprawling northwest corner: Jackson and Plumsted townships, Lakehurst Borough and the nearby Naval Air Station. That would be my beat, he said. And Manchester, too, although he quickly added: “Nothing much happens there.” The township was larded with retirement communities, he said; 40,000 seniors were tucked away in places with names like Leisure Village and Crestwood.
But the editor came by my desk a little later and said I should go into the morgue and pull two sets of clip files on Manchester: One about drinking water contamination in a neighborhood called Pine Lake Park, the other about Portash.
“You should read them.” Not 15 minutes earlier he’d told me nothing much went on in Manchester and now he wanted me to read clips. But I did as he asked, stuffing the fading brown envelopes of old stories into my bag.
That night, after deadline, I drove the Route 37 bridge across Barnegat Bay to a winter rental I’d taken in Seaside Heights, made coffee, sat up until the sun began to peak from the Atlantic, and read about Joe Portash and dirty water.
Pine Lake Park was a collection of cheap houses built along bumpy, sometimes unpaved roads carved out of the Pinelands in the mid-1960s. The area surrounded a flooded gravel pit with the imaginative name of Pine Lake. The homes were built without a public water system. Each came with a well tapping the giant Kirkwood-Cohansey Aquifer.
For about a quarter century, though, no one seemed to take critical account of the hazards that surrounded Pine Lake Park. The sprawling Lakehurst Naval Air Station, two miles to the west, was a place, as are all military bases, where the nation’s environmental laws didn’t apply. It is estimated that millions of gallons of aviation fuel, solvents and other chemicals were simply dumped in open ditches there and allowed to permeate into the ground.
On the other side of the neighborhood stood an asphalt plant that ran day and night, using millions of gallons of oil to make road tar. To the east, the 1,400-acre compound of the Ciba-Geigy Chemical Corp., one of the worst polluters in world history, was neatly hidden behind gates staffed by armed guards. But the people who lived in Pine Lake Park didn’t know for years that the water from their wells, water that they drank, bathed in, washed their clothes and dishes in, contained poisons like benzene and trichloroethylene.
Then, slowly, mothers in the neighborhood began to think it odd that so many had miscarriages, still births or badly malformed babies that they started to ask questions. By the time I read the Manchester clip files, the pollution problems were well known. Hundreds of people trudged to a nearby campground to take showers in water supplied from trucks. Tankers were also parked at a firehouse and at times the line to fill enough jugs for a day’s worth of water to drink and cook with was 90 minutes long. The neighbors formed an organization, the Pine Lake Park Association for a Better Community, and elected a balding, boisterous hairdresser, who had recently moved from Essex County, as its president – Ralph Rizzolo. I’d get to know him soon enough.
Then I opened Potash’s file.
He’d been an Army paratrooper who became a regional state planner after his discharge, specializing in the region where he grew up – the Pinelands. It was there, where everyone else seemed to see worthless sand, that developer Robert J. Schmertz saw billions of dollars.
Schmertz owned the Boston Celtics basketball team and had the ruthless heart and vision of a land barren. His company, Leisure Technology, had quietly been buying up large patches of Pine Barrens in Manchester where, it turns out, Joe Portash had entered politics and become mayor.
By the early 70s, Portash was also on the Ocean County Board of Chosen Freeholders. It seemed just a matter of time before he ran for governor or U.S. senator.
Schmertz amassed enough land to propose a $200 million Manchester retirement development. Township approval seemed systematic. But somewhere in the process, Portash’s corrupt soul exposed itself. Eventually Schmertz paid him $25,000 in “consulting fees” to secure the approvals. But then Portash, running for re-election to his freeholder seat in 1974, listed the payments on a financial disclosure form as outside income from a Schmertz-owned real estate business in neighboring Monmouth County. The payments coincided with Portash’s vote to approve the plan.
When he was indicted for extortion and conflict of interest the following year, it seemed certain he’d spend considerable time in state prison. But Joe Portash, it turned out, had many political lives. And prosecutors made serious errors. Portash was granted immunity when he testified before another Grand Jury investigating Schmertz. Later, his statements before the Schmertz Grand Jury were used to disprove Portash’s own claims of innocence at his separate corruption trial.
But his lawyers argued on appeal that since the original testimony to the Schmertz grand jury was made under immunity, it couldn’t be used against Portash elsewhere. On March 29, 1979, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 7-2 to overturn Portash’s conviction.
Yet it was never factually disputed that Portash accepted $25,000 from Schmertz to approve the development plans. The day of his indictment, Portash resigned as Manchester’s mayor. There was but one candidate for the vacancy – Adie Portash, his wife.
A week after the Supreme Court decision, Adie Portash suggested that Manchester needed a full-time business administrator to run its affairs. The Township Committee considered only one candidate for the $65,000 job. Joe Portash was back in business, but even barely escaping prison had not curbed what would prove to be his desire for life’s excesses.
When it came to money, booze and young women and the gaming tables of Atlantic City 60 miles south, Joe Portash’s thirst was as inexhaustible as the Pine Lake Park residents' was for clean water.
“WHAT DO WE WANT?” Ralph Rizzolo bellowed into a bullhorn.
“WATER!” hundreds of Pine Lake Park residents answered.
I CAN’T HEAR YOU!
Rizzolo was leading a march outside the Manchester municipal building. As passionate as he was to secure clean water for his neighborhood, Rizzolo seemed to know but one way to get it – by making as much noise as possible.
I stood to the side taking notes. It was about two months into my Manchester tenure and I’d been writing a lot on the water problems. Portash was flighty about the issue, ducking me constantly, but Rizzolo made good copy. He was forcing the township, as well as state Assembly members and senators, to deal with him. But water mains cost money, and no one wanted to front the cash to build the expensive system. Rizzolo wanted the state to loan the township the money, but lawmakers favored a revolving loan fund to which Manchester could apply. It wasn’t like groundwater pollution in New Jersey was unique to northern Ocean County.
Manchester’s mayor – then a rotating position among committee members – was Joe Murray, a pink-faced, retired furniture salesman who served as Portash’s chief hand puppet. When I tried to ask him about water issues, he struggled for answers. He was obviously disconnected, referring questions to “Mr. Portash.” So did everyone else in the local government. How people in Manchester wouldn’t answer questions began to grate me. Paranoia seemed ripe. Everything came back to Portash. The municipal clerk wouldn’t even let me see routine documents, like meeting minutes and agendas, without his approval.
As 1988 wore on with no progress on a water system, Portash found a way to silence Rizzolo’s blistering criticism – he gave him a job. Rizzolo became the township’s water advocate, working to achieve from the inside what he complained about from the outside. The job came with a muzzle. Portash forbid Rizzolo from making but the most banal comments to reporters, especially me.
It was clear – or should have been – that something was deeply wrong inside Manchester’s municipal building. Portash had bought silence. Murray acted as if his government operated out a bunker. Public meetings lasted 20 minutes.
That fall, I got a little further along on how Portash truly operated. Murray was running for re-election. There seemed to be no question of his success given Portash’s GOP machine and the township’s overwhelming majority of registered Republicans. But Murray was spending money and I noticed on a campaign finance report that $500 went to a man named Tom Lucy, who had been Rizzolo’s vice president of the Pine Lake Park group. The Republicans paid Lucy $500 to draw cartoons mocking Murray’s Democratic opponent, a retired lawyer named Jay Shaw. But there was an obvious problem. Lucy was a federal employee and so was forbidden by law – the Hatch Act – from engaging in political activity. I wrote a story; he had to return the money. Murray screamed profanity at me when I tried to interview him. I didn’t know it yet, but if Portash was Manchester’s captain, his ship had begun to leak.
The "garbage board"
The Pine Lake Park crisis did more than awaken the people who lived there to a civic cause. It began to arouse people in the retirement communities. Portash’s inability to help secure safe water withered his image of infallibility. Some seniors began to march for water for their neighbors. And a pair of retirees – Abe Beacon, a lawyer, and Art Silverstein, a retired accountant – began to poke around their local government.
New Jersey didn’t have much of a public records law 25 years ago and Portash stonewalled everybody's – including my own - attempts to obtain even basic records about his administration’s spending. The minimal reports that were issued at public meetings added up but lacked detail. The township always got a clean annual report from its auditor, Jerry Skinner, full of praise for its fiscal management. The treasurer, Janice Gawalas, always presented herself publically as a purse keeper who pinched pennies until Washington flinched. Attorney Siegfried Steele always insisted that all was in legal order.
But Arthur Silverstein always insisted to me and others that something was wrong.
The pressure of an aroused public gnawed at Portash and Murray, but it gave others slivers of courage and I finally got a lead on something tangible about where money was going.
“Look at the garbage board,” a frightened voice said on the phone.
“What about the garbage board?”
“Where’s the resolution that put Joe Murray on the garbage board?” the voice said. Besides being mayor, Murray also sat on a board that decided how the township spent the money it received for being home to Ocean County’s only landfill. The garbage board.
“What are you talking about?” I said. It was early fall, afternoon light coming in tall, narrow newsroom windows at the Observer's Toms River office.
“There wasn’t no resolution putting the mayor on that board. It’s a sham,” the person said and hung up. I knew that garbage board members received $5,000 a year. I took a swallow of 7-11 coffee and drove out to Manchester to look for a resolution appointing Murray to the board. It was only because I showed up several days a week and had worn her down that the township clerk let me look at anything – even meeting minutes.
I checked everything from the first day Murray took office. Nothing. I checked the basic duties of mayor. Nothing gave the person in that job an automatic seat on the garbage board.
Then I drove through the Pinelands to a remote retirement village built by Robert J. Schmertz, in the Whiting section of the township. There, I found Joe Murray sitting in pale blue Bermuda shorts on the patio of a simple, one story house. He was drinking what looked like a Manhattan and reading National Geographic.
“What do you mean there’s no resolution?” he said sharply. “That’s none of your business.”
I pressed him a bit. When did he start going to garbage board meetings? He said since he took office.
“Because Mr. Portash said to,” he said. “Look, those meetings are a lot of work.”
Back at the township hall, I saw just how much work the mayor considered “a lot.” During the previous eight months, the board had cancelled five of its monthly meetings because of a lack of a quorum. The three times it did meet, the board stayed in session for five, eight and 21 minutes. It passed only three items. Its five members, all Portash cronies, received $416.66 a month.
I wrote a story. Murray wrote a check to the township, returning the $7,000 he received, claiming the lack of appointment was just an oversight. “It doesn’t matter that it isn’t a lot of money,” Arthur Silverstein said. “What matters is that they are full of crap.”
They had enough
Events were moving quickly in Manchester now. The state had finally coughed up the money for water lines in Pine Lake Park, and backhoes were digging ditches along those unpaved streets. Rizzolo was running for an open seat on the Township Committee with Portash’s backing. And the seniors had had enough. The way to stop the Republican machine and finally get answers out of town hall was to change the government, Abe Beacon and others insisted. They circulated petitions to get a chance of government petition on the ballot. Manchester, they proposed, should go non-partisan. Only then might Portash be wrested out of power. It worked.
Fed-up voters created change. Rizzolo won election and became mayor, but the township committee form of partisan government was scheduled to end on June 30, 1990. Portash retreated to his vacation home in Maine, where he died that February. The stress of knowing that he couldn’t hide millions of dollars in stolen money from a new administration must have contributed to the massive coronary that stuck him down.
When change came, new Mayor Jane Cordo Cameron and others knew within hours that millions of dollars had been stolen during the previous decade. Portash, it would soon be known, burned through bushels of cash in Atlantic City and Las Vegas on baccarat and blackjack, prostitutes and booze. He passed himself off in casinos as Joe Jacobs, a businessman. The thievery he masterminded in Manchester included nearly every public official with access to the townships books, a conspiracy of high order. They simply wrote checks to themselves. Murrary, Rizzolo, Gawalas, others, crooks all. In 1989, as his world imploded, Portash grabbed $254,810, it was finally revealed. His on-the-books salary for the year was $68,663.
Rizzolo and Murray led a parade of people who were convicted at trial and sentenced to state prison.
I had left the Observer before the full scope of the corruption was revealed, but took some satisfaction that my early reportage, especially on Murray and the Pine Lake Park water crisis – stirred the residents of Manchester to finally act.
The legacy of Manchester all this time later isn’t the tall, stately and corrupt Joe Portash. He’s just a crook for the ages, a man who could have rotted in prison. The true legacy belongs to Arthur Silverstein, Abe Beacon and the many others who rallied to oust the machine. The power, as it always is, was really with the people.
Editor's Note: Gawales pleaded guilty in 1991 to stealing $344,200 and, as part of a plea bargain, agreed to cooperate with the investigation and testify at any trials. Rizzolo and Murray pleaded not guilty, but were convicted of corruption in 1992.
Thomas Peele covered Manchester Township for The Ocean County Observer in 1988-89. He is now an award-winning investigative reporter for the Bay Area News Group newspapers in Northern California and a lecturer at the U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. His first book, Killing the Messenger, A Story of Radical Faith, Racism’s Backlash and The Assassination of A Journalist, was published last year by Crown. Reach him at Thomaspeele@thomaspeele.com.