TRENTON, NJ -- Calling it the "worst case of public corruption he has ever seen," a federal judge sentenced the disgraced former superintendent of Toms River Regional, Michael J. Ritacco, to 135 months – just over 11 years – in prison.
Ritacco was sentenced by federal Judge Joel Pisano in Trenton today as his family members, seated in the court room, wept as their relative's fate was decided.
Ritacco must serve 85 percent of his sentence before being released. A restitution hearing will be scheduled in federal court later this year.
Ritacco voluntarily surrendered to U.S. Marshals in the court building, and remained stoic as he was escorted from the court room. His children could be seen in tears as he left.
"This is the worst case of public corruption I’ve ever seen," Pisano said. Other cases of public corruption are "nickels and dimes compared to this."
Pisano sentenced Ritacco to 135 months on the first count of an indictment, and 60 months on the 19th count. He ruled the sentences will run concurrently.
Ritacco pleaded guity April 5 to two of the 27 charges he was facing, and admitted his role in years of corruption at the school district, where as much as $2.5 million in bribes were allegedly passed between Ritacco, insurance brokers and intermediaries.
The superseding indictment alleged Ritacco, as well as former district insurance broker Francis X. Gartland, agreed to inflate contracts in exchange for kickbacks over years through 2010 at Toms River Regional.
As a trial date approached in spring and facing 27 charges, Ritacco pleaded guilty to two counts: mail fraud and conspiracy to impede the IRS. Ritacco could have faced 11 to 14 years jail time, according to sentencing guidelines.
As part of the plea Ritacco will forfeit $1 million dollars, his 2010 Mercedes E550, and $8,960 from his home found as part of an FBI raid.
Judge, Prosecutor Put Blame on Ritacco
Pisano, in his remarks, said Ritacco helped weave a complex scheme with the help of "professional thieves" — his co-conspirators Francis Gartland, Frank Cotroneo and Frank D'Alonzo.
"This was a complex kickback and bribery scheme which represents to me a shocking plundering of the public coffers," Pisano said. "This amount of money and this amount of time and the way you did it represent the ransack of Toms River."
While Pisano thanked the defense for its show of support, he said he disagreed with the representation of Ritacco as a "good man."
"It cannot be a good guy who did something bad and made a bad decision," said the judge. "Ritacco orchestrated this fraud scheme… for the purpose of fleecing the public coffers."
Assistant Prosecutor Dustin Chao said the Ritacco case was one of widespread greed. He said Ritacco was a main orchestrator, not a pawn in insurance brokers' influence. Chao said Ritacco had keen knowledge of how to best hide and funnel payments.
"He knew it was ripe for the picking," Chao said. "With his financial background and financial acumen, as outlined in this bound volume by the defense, he understood the cash cow."
Chao said Ritacco lived lavishly on the money he stole and hid, buying tens of thousands of dollars in jewelry for himself, his spouse and girlfriends.
"We are talking about $100,000 per year in cash," Chao said. "There's also almost half a million in cash unexplained for in that period...This became a full time job for Mr. Ritacco."
Chao was recommending 135-169 months sentence, saying it "is a fair and just sentence."
Ritacco: "All the things I've loved, are gone."
Ritacco made a tearful plea on his behalf, saying he devastated his family and the community by his decisions.
"Obviously I feel pretty awful about conditions and circumstances I created. It impacted my family, friends, colleagues and of course the school district I loved and served," Ritacco said, often moving his hands from his pockets, to rubbing his forehead, to tearing up as he spoke. "I am truly sorry, really sorry for the pain I caused."
Ritacco said he went from a respected man to one reviled, thanks to his actions.
"I was a guy who was respected in the community, by parents, community leaders. I’m the guy who destroyed it all," he said. "Children and families look to you for leadership and trust; I let them all down...When I was a teacher, I lead by example. Now when they look at you, they’ll see what you shouldn’t do."
Ritacco continued: "All the things I've loved, are gone."
Defense presents supporters
Pisano said he received 140 letters as presented by the government, the defense, and unsolicited from the public.
“This case has apparently generated some public interest, and I received, unsolicited, a number of letters from citizens, most of whom are from the area in and around Toms River,” Pisano said. “I can tell you, some of them are supportive of Mr. Ritacco and some are not supportive of Mr. Ritacco.”
After hearing about 10 minutes of discussion, Pisano asked Ritacco Attorney Jerome A. Ballaratto directly what he believed Ritacco's sentence should be.
Ballaratto said given Ritacco's age, suggesting he had 10 years of life left, and considering his impact on the community, Ballaratto suggested a 60-month sentence.
Ritacco's attorney said he asked his client, "What were you thinking?"
"I said, 'what are you thinking, how in the world is this happening...You have the adoration of the community, you have all the money you need...'" Ballaratto told Pisano. He said Ritacco told him "You’re gonna have to ask the other Mike. I don’t know where that guy is, I can’t find him in my soul, I can’t explain it. All I know is that I’m glad he’s gone. I know I will never let him in my soul, my heart and my being ever again."
Ballaratto said Ritacco's answer was heartfelt. "I really felt it was an honest explanation I recieved," he said.
Dave Campo, current defensive coordinator and secondary coach for the University of Kansas, was among several supporters who spoke on behalf of Ritacco. Supporters included longtime friends and colleagues, New Jersey Department of Community Affairs and Department of Energy Leonard Coleman, Walnut School Principal Kevin Smith — who praised Ritacco's creation of a day care — his son and others.
"We've been friends for more than 40 years," Campo said. "He’s made mistakes obviously...I feel he’s given most of his life to his family, his friends and the community... I know, I believe that his heart is heavy."
Impacts since 2010
The shocking arrest of the leader of the state's fourth largest school district, who in his 18 years as superintendent also for a time held the position of business administrator, came in October 2010.
The saga began earlier that year, when a raid on his Seaside Park home led to a fall indictment. Ritacco retired the same day of his arrest and went on to demand a payout of his unused sick time and deferred compensation from the district. The lawsuit for his unused benefits was later dropped after Ritacco entered his guilty plea to two of the criminal charges.
The conspiracy, school officials said previously, did not affect the quality of education at Toms River or impact teachers' ability to continue lessons, but it did change how the district does business.
Business Administrator Bill Doering and Superintendent Frank Roselli said previously that "great strides" were made to the administering of contracts at Toms River Regional:
"We have insurance contracts in place, and they are carefully administered with close oversight. We have board policy requiring that insurances are competitively shopped. We have appointed new auditors, through a competitive public proposal process, as well as appointing new construction related professionals."
In addition to the scrutiny of insurance contracts, the consequences of the Ritacco saga also included calls for greater transparency from residents and new board members into district affairs. Several pushed for videotaped school board meetings to be aired on local channels, while others asked for personnel committees and more public documents accessible on the school district website.