PORTASH: The Scandal Widens
Two decades ago, a ring of Manchester officials - led by Joe Portash - looted more than $10 million from the township's treasury.
The next installment of a series on Joseph Portash, who helped fashion the township as a seasonal alternative for retirees who thought Florida was too far, and too hot for them to treat as a year-round home.
In the early 1990s, however, he became the central figure in a scandal that transformed his image from a reformer and innovator to that of a large-scale petty thief and burglar.
Every Thursday, we'll look back at the stories that told the tale of what happened, and how Manchester survived one of the worst corruption scandals in the state' history.
We'll also look at how Portash rose to prominence as an Ocean County freeholder and Manchester mayor, and then as an administrator who ushered in the cash cow known as "adult communities."
This installment looks at how investigators uncovered a scandal that was much bigger than originally thought, leaving the township nearly bankrupt, its finances quite possibly gambled away by Portash in Atlantic City.
OCEAN LAWMEN EYE MANCHESTER OFFICIAL'S POSH LIFE IN TOWN FUNDS PROBE
PUBLICATION: Star-Ledger, The (Newark, NJ)
SECTION: NEWS DATE: July 22, 1990
Joseph S. Portash's high-roller lifestyle in Atlantic City is one of the areas authorities are investigating to learn how the late Manchester Township business administrator disposed of hundreds of thousands of dollars he was improperly paid, said Ocean County Prosecutor James W. Holzapfel.
Investigators have learned that Portash, who died of a heart attack in February, often used an alias, Joseph Jacobs, while gambling. Holzapfel described him as a "heavy gambler" who often bet $300 to $400 per hand while playing blackjack and baccarat.
Holzapfel revealed at a press conference last Monday that the Manchester Township governing body that took office July 1 faces "financial chaos" caused by "pervasive" improper handling of township money. The only name he released as a suspected wrongdoer was Portash's.
The new government was elected in May on a wave of discontent that began last summer, when a salary ordinance was proposed and later withdrawn that many thought would have paid certain township employees an excessive amount. Many complained that Portash's salary of $68,663 was too high.
However, Holzapfel revealed that Portash was paid at least $254,810 last year from three township accounts: Salary, current and capital. The prosecutor's office became involved earlier this month when Manchester Township police requested assistance to investigate a tip that a trunkload of municipal documents had been dumped at a landfill.
Holzapfel compared the incident to the tape on the door of the Democratic campaign headquarters at the Watergate hotel in Washington, D.C., that led to the downfall of the Nixon Administration. The tape covering the lock on the door indicated to a hotel security guard that someone had illegally entered the office.
"They told me they were current files (that were dumped). That told me in my simple mind that something was wrong. Meanwhile, we're going over records in town hall. We discovered problems before we went over the landfill records," Holzapfel said.
Holzapfel asserted investigators said there are indications of "out-and- out theft" where the stubs in the township checkbooks differ from the checks. A stub may indicate the check was written to a vendor, but the check was actually written to a person.
When asked why so much incriminating evidence was left, Holzapfel replied, "I don't think anyone thought they (the new administration) were going to win the election."
He was referring to Mayor Jane Cordo Cameron and five council members who ran on the Stop Tax Oppression Promptly (STOP) slate, charging that Portash and the former administration mismanaged township money.
Holzapfel said the former government could have continued to operate by illegally transferring money from one account to another and passing emergency bonds. "It becomes financial chaos when you start doing it the right way. When you cannot use bond money to pay payroll," he said.
Much of the probe by five investigators from the prosecutor's office involves sifting through checks, vouchers and other paperwork. A list of vendors has been prepared.
Each will be contacted to determine if the municipal records of business are accurate. Investments made in the name of the township are being scrutinized to learn who got the commissions and whether interest was paid to the township. Another area of investigation is whether bidding laws were violated and whether money raised by bonds was properly spent.
Holzapfel said it has been learned that $1 million in bonds targeted for the sealing of the township landfill is missing. Another aspect of the probe is tracking down Portash's activities to follow the flow of money and find out who accompanied him and helped him spend it. Holzapfel said a cocktail waitress described in Adelaide Portash's divorce papers has been interviewed.
In the divorce papers filed in November, Mrs. Portash discussed her husband's heavy gambling and relations with the 23-year-old woman. Portash denied the charges. The Portashes were together at their vacation home in Maine when he died of a heart attack.
His death and burial in Maine fueled speculation that the death was faked and Portash was alive, enjoying his ill-gotten gains.
Holzapfel said the rumors reached his office. He said he obtained a copy of the death certificate and spoke to the funeral director, medical examiner and people who knew Portash. "We're sure he's dead," Holzapfel said.
Portash had led a colorful career in Ocean County. In the early 1970s he was considered the most charismatic and powerful Republican leader in the county. He had been mayor of Manchester Township for 14 years and a freeholder before he left those offices after being charged with accepting $45,000 from a developer to influence his decision on building applications.
An appeal of his 1976 conviction went to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was thrown out. Portash was acquitted at a subsequent trial in 1979. Meanwhile, he had been working as township administrator since 1977.
He was credited with making retirement an industry in Manchester Township, which has the highest concentration of senior citizen communities in the state. After his death, the former governing body renamed Colonial Drive, which runs in front of the municipal building, after Portash.
One of the first acts of the new administration was to take down the signs.
Holzapfel said he had met Portash. The prosecutor characterized him as a very capable and personable politican. "I meet a lot of people like that. Some of them I have prosecuted," Holzapfel said.
He declined to call Portash a ringleader in the pilfering of township money. Holzapfel preferred to call him a principal.
Former Mayor Ralph Rizzolo has declined to comment on the investigation.
Holzapfel has said Rizzolo's home was searched, and documents were discovered. He would not say what other homes were searched. Once a certain amount of legwork has been completed, Holzapfel will meet with auditors from the Division of Criminal Justice to help prepare the case to be presented to a grand jury.
Meanwhile, auditors from the Department of Community Affairs arrived in the township Friday to help prepare a township budget and set up new financial procedures.