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PORTASH: Corruption Revealed

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 the day when the Ocean County Prosecutors Office, among many others, announced what they discovered: that Manchester was home to an unprecedented scandal that may never have been matched.

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OCEAN CORRUPTION

ROBERT SCHWANEBERG and DEBORAH COOMBE  
PUBLICATION: Star-Ledger, The (Newark, NJ)

SECTION: NEWS DATE: July 17, 1990

EDITION: FINAL

A probe begun after a tip about documents dumped in a landfill revealed that the late Manchester Township administrator Joseph Portash improperly received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the municipality as part of a widespread pattern of government corruption before being forced from office this year, officials said yesterday.

Ocean County Prosecutor James Holzapfel said Portash, who died in February, received checks drawn on various township accounts totaling $254,810 last year, when he was entitled to be paid just $68,663 in his position as administrator.

Holzapfel said the investigation revealed that at least as far back as 1986, Portash was overpaid from the salary account.

"Financial chaos" has been caused by "improper financial transactions" that included altered and missing checks, forged billings, other improper salary payments and the spending of two bond issues totaling $1 million that should have been used to close and cap the Manchester Township landfill in Whiting, Holzapfel said at a press conference attended by Mayor Jane Cordo Cameron.

"Since I am convinced that other individuals are involved and in recognition that this matter will result in possible criminal indictments, I will not make further comment on any other individual's involvement at this time," Holzapfel said.

He said the improper acts were "pervasive." Three investigators are working full time to examine municipal and bank records.

No charges have been filed, and no one has been told that he is the target of the probe.

Holzapfel said the investigation involves current township employees, past employees and people who have never been employed by the township. The prosecutor said he has contacted the state Division of Criminal Justice and the Attorney General's Office and has been given assistance in the investigation.

State Criminal Justice Director Robert Winter said he had assigned people with "particular expertise in financial investigation." Winter said it will be up to Holzapfel whether the findings will be presented to a state or county grand jury.

"We like to encourage working relationships this way with prosecutors. He is perfectly capable of handling it," Winter said when contacted by telephone.

Holzapfel said a search warrant was executed at the home of the former mayor, Ralph Rizzolo, and municipal records were recovered. He declined to say what other homes had been searched.

Rizzolo declined to comment on the search or the investigation when contacted by telephone yesterday. He said he had "no knowledge" about the probe.

While the investigation progresses, Cameron and the new governing body are faced with the task of finding money to keep the government going. She said the term "financial chaos puts it mildly. There are thousands of dollars we can't find. There is no question taxes will rise."

The mayor also anticipates layoffs and problems meeting the payroll. The township does not yet have a budget approved by the state.

Cameron said she has been in touch with the state Department of Community Affairs to learn whether the township can get a waiver of the state-imposed limit on increased spending or if there are other means available to help meet the financial crisis.

One of the first orders of business for the new government is to remove Portash's name from the street that runs in front of the municipal building off Route 37. Following his death at 58 from a heart attack at his vacation home in Maine, the former governing body voted to rename Colonial Drive in honor of Portash.

The final reading and adoption of the ordinance to reverse that action are scheduled for tonight.

Portash was a controversial Republican politician who was credited with leading Ocean County during a period of rapid growth in the 1970s. He served 14 years as Manchester Township mayor before being elected a freeholder, a position he left after he was accused of accepting $45,000 from a developer to influence his decision on building applications.

His 1976 conviction on the charges was thrown out on appeal, and Portash was acquitted after a later trial.

He became the township's business administrator in 1977 and was considered the man who made retirement communities a growth industry in Manchester Township. It has the highest concentration of senior citizen developments in the state.

After his death, politicians who had served with him talked about his charisma and their dismay at the way people in Manchester had seemingly turned against him.

Hundreds of people stopped a township committee meeting in June 1989 to protest an ordinance they said would pay excessive salaries to Portash and certain other township employees.

The scrapping of the salary ordinance did not stop a citizen group from organizing with the goal of changing the form of government. Stop All Tax Oppression Now held a petition drive to get a charter change question on the ballot in January.

Voters approved it, and the STOP slate was elected in May. The mayor and five council members took office on July 1.

A tipster reported to police that a trunkload of municipal documents had been dumped recently in the Ocean County landfill in Manchester Township. Investigators from the prosecutor's office responded to the police request for assistance.

After being told where to dig by landfill employees, the investigators uncovered financial records and other documents. Holzapfel said the improper payments to Portash were never voted on by the township committee.

They include Portash's being paid $30,000 on Jan. 1, 1989, as personnel director and purchasing director - in violation of an ordinance that said he could serve in those positions but without additional compensation.

The ordinance set his salary as business administrator at $68,663. Portash in 1989 was paid $98,663 from the salary account, $92,797 from the current account and $63,350 from the capital account, for a total of $254,810, Holzapfel said.

Also from the salary account, Portash was paid $93,000 in 1986, $99,000 in 1987 and $98,000 in 1988, he said. Holzapfel said he had instructed township attorney Joseph Foster to take civil action to recover the money from Portash's estate.

Foster said he would pursue every means to recoup the money but would not comment on whether he would take action to freeze the funds. "I have a hard time believing this went on. It's unprecedented in anything I have seen or read," Foster said.

Cameron said she, too, was shocked by what she had learned once she took over as mayor. "Fortunately or unfortunately, I still get surprised when I see people doing terrible things...I just knew - a gut feeling without any solid evidence - that money was hemorrhaging out of this township," Cameron said.

During her campaign, she called for a complete audit of municipal records. Even though many documents were dumped at the landfill, she said many were left behind. "They were that stupid that they left all these records here," she said.

Cameron said she is now interviewing for a new business administrator. She said Portash's successor will not have "carte blanche," and "checks and balances" will be put into the system. The township is also in need of a chief financial officer. Janice Gawales resigned from the position on June 29.

John E February 08, 2013 at 01:25 AM
"The probe begun after a tip". Mayor Cameron at the time was called a hero by some. A better mayor maybe yes, a hero no! What do you think what happen to the tipster? Mayor Cameron fired that person a year later for a non-employment related reason.
Mac February 08, 2013 at 01:53 PM
Hey Joe, are you and the McNell brothers getting a chuckle out of these articles? You three Jersey boys used Maine for the oops act: the hide and don't seek 'I'm out of here' game. Successfully, I might add. Too bad the brother from Long Island didn't take an earlier flight. But he was buried twice.

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