PORTASH: The Man Who Put Them Away
Two decades ago, a ring of Manchester officials - led by Joe Portash - looted more than $10 million from the township's treasury
In New Jersey, scandal has become a part of the political fabric. But what happened in Manchester two decades ago could have made even the worst mobster gasp.
Here is a piece on the man, former Ocean County Prosecutor James W. Holzapfel, who helped put them all in jail.
James W. Holzapfel will tell you that he was, perhaps, the first New Jersey prosecutor to take llegal dumping very seriously. But he never, ever expected to use this power to unearth the worst political scandal in the state's history.
One day, in 1990, he found it hiding in plain sight, at the landfill in Manchester.
On a warm June day, Holzapfel, now a state senator, got a report from the Manchester police about trucks headng to the landfill, each carrying filing cabinets.
"They said it was all government records and I said, 'What's the problem with that?' " Holzapfel said. "They said, 'They're all current.' "
Thus began the revelation of corruption that involved more than $10 million stolen from the Manchester treasury - a scandal that still reverberates today, one that's used as an example of the worst of government dishonesty and deception in America.
To this day, Manchester Mayor Michael Fressola keeps a chart of those who were charged and convicted in the scandal pinned to his office bulletin board. Users of Patch websites still make comparisons between then and now, saying they "don't want another Portash" engulfing their local governments.
Joseph Portash, the Manchester township administrator who died just before the scandal was revealed, was the mastermind, using the money to gamble and commit other misdeeds during his long tenure in government.
For Holzapfel, it was, perhaps, the biggest moment of his career. He's remembered as the man who was placed front and center in the scandal when he revealed to the unknowing world, during a July 1990 press conference, everything he knew about the deep level of deception and fraud.
"It was almost like a [Bernie] Madoff thing," said Holzapfel. "To the world, he [Portash] was a gregarious guy whom everybody liked. But he led this second life. He wasn’t stupid, but someday, he was going to get caught."
"As far as I was concerned, it was a clean sweep," he said. "This was a criminal case. We did everything by the book, period."
When his office got the tip about the dumping, Holzapfel and his staff took "physical possession" of the records. "Stuff" was found in the checkbooks, he said, that wasn't matching where they said it was going.
"It would say something like 'Paving for Route 9,' " he said. But there would be no job to match it.
Back in June and July 1990, just as he took possession of the records, Holzapfel called the state Attorney General's Office, under then-Gov. Jim Florio. Even though Holzapfel was a Republican, he said the Democratic administration worked well with him on the case.
"They loaned a couple people," he said. "I then went to the county freeholders and said it looked like a major investigation, and they supplied me with additional funds."
His office then sifted through records for "days and days," with the help of a new Manchester administration - one that was elected based on the corruption rumors and took office on July 1, 1990.
"We chased all kinds of leads down in Atlantic City," Holzapfel said. "We had men who talked to all the pit bosses."
When the new administration took office on July 1, 1990, officials found that they were broke, discovering only $2.80 in the township legal fund and $240 in an engineering fund.
State auditors, meanwhile, joined the detectives and began poring over the books, according to news reports. They found that more than $1 million from a bond fund to close an old landfill was gone.
They found check stubs with names different from those on the corresponding checks. They found checks made out to nonexistent companies. They found checks made out to township employees for no apparent reason, according to news reports.
Despite his death, Holzapfel even went after Portash, and even went so far as to make sure that the scandal kingpin, who died in the area of his Maine vacation home, was really dead.
"I went wherever we could go - [we] went to Maine to make sure he was dead," he said. "We went to the funeral home and talked to the funeral director. There was no sign that he was putting money in offshore accounts and living in the Bahamas."
By Sept. 19, 1990, detectives had arrested former Mayor Ralph Rizzolo, former treasurer Janice Gawales and deputy treasurer Beverly Ramsdell, charging them with official misconduct. They said Rizzolo had destroyed township records, Gawales had stolen more than $174,000 and Ramsdell had stolen more than $53,000, according to news reports.
Because of Portash's death, however, Holzapfel acknowledges that - 23 years later - Manchester and the rest of the world may still not know the complete depth of the scandal.
Despite serving as prosecutor from 1987 to 1993, he said he, too, had no inkling of what was going on, until he got the tip from police.
He noted that Manchester was probably the last place where people thought this could occur, noting that when he started practicing law, "Manchester had two cops."
"At the end of the day, nobody really knew how much was taken," he said. "[For years], very few people came to a town hall meeting. You had people who would routinely come to the town hall and they were tracking what was going on."