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.
Joseph Portash infamously put Manchester on the map. He had been the man 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. The wide-scale corruption may have lingered, undetected, for years; even decades. The one-time administrator had died, mysteriously, in 1990, months before the worst of the scandal that left Manchester with merely pocket change in its treasury was revealed.
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.
The Town Joe Portash Left Broke
October 14, 1990
By Daniel LeDuc, Philadelphia Inquirer Staff Writer
MANCHESTER, N.J. — In the 1950s, this scrap of sandy land on the fringe of the Pine Barrens was covered with little more than scraggly pine trees, but Joe Portash saw a future there.
Homes for senior citizens could be the township's industry, he figured. Older residents require few services and provide a solid tax base. With his encouragement as a county planner, self-contained retirement communities with names such as Leisure Knoll and Leisure Village sprouted along the two-lane roads winding toward the shore 10 miles away. Within the next two decades, those retirement homes became a growth industry in Manchester.
Portash, who went on to become mayor, township administrator and a Republican power broker, saw something else in those new communities:
By his death in February, prosecutors say, Portash, who was 58, had rifled hundreds of thousands of tax dollars paid by those senior citizens and other residents of this Ocean County community, raiding township coffers to pay for his real estate holdings in Maine and gambling in Atlantic City and Las Vegas.
He helped himself to money in bond funds set aside to pave roads, he paid himself thousands of dollars above his regular salary for work he was supposed to do as administrator, he emptied bank accounts and investment funds - "anything that was green" - said one state auditor.
"The town had become his personal bank," said Lt. Michael R. Murray, a detective in the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office.
And, prosecutors say, he didn't do it by himself. So far, they have arrested a former mayor, township treasurer and deputy treasurer. And, Murray says, "we haven't even hit the tip of the iceberg yet. We anticipate many more arrests."
As much as $10 million may have been lost in the fraud, says Mayor Jane Cordo Cameron, who was elected in May on a reform ticket.
Manchester was all but broke when she took office. It took an advance payment of utility gross-receipts taxes from the state to meet the payroll.
For the 44,000 Manchester residents - mostly senior citizens who moved there to find the good life - property taxes have been increased 24 percent in an effort to begin replacing the money. Taxes probably will rise again next year.
And the state has had to take over the township's finances because of what Barry Skokowski of the state Department of Community Affairs calls "the biggest embezzlement ever in the state of New Jersey."
For years, nobody had a clue what was going on. Joseph S. Portash was the beloved, silver-haired man in township hall who helped those who needed help, who was generous to township employees and who delivered the votes for the Republican Party in Ocean County.
He was the smoothie who walked into community association meetings and turned a hostile crowd into a gang of cheering supporters. He was glib. He was, in short, the perfect con man, prosecutors say.
He knew a little bit about trouble and had managed to get in and out of it. In 1976, Portash was convicted of taking a $30,000 bribe from one of the developers of the township's retirement communities. The conviction was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, because prosecutors used testimony he had given a grand jury under a grant of immunity.
Portash, who was then mayor, was ousted from office after the bribery conviction. His wife, Adelaide, was appointed to take his seat on the township committee. She had her husband appointed township administrator in 1977.
From then on, Cameron said, there was little difference between Portash's personal checkbook and the township's.
As administrator, Portash was supposed to receive an annual salary of $68,663. But Cameron said Portash was paid an additional $30,000 every Jan. 1 for supervising personnel and township purchases - duties he was to be performing as administrator.
Last year alone, Portash was paid $254,810.
"That was (in) six checks," Murray said. "This man was in business there for 20 years."
Portash's financial stranglehold on the township began to weaken last year, when tax bills began arriving in mailboxes. The bills were up. Cameron, for example, said her taxes rose $1,900 in 12 years.
Arthur Silverstein, a retired accountant who lives in Leisure Village West, did some figuring with the help of the county tax collector that showed Manchester's equalized tax rate was among the highest in Ocean County.
The township committee offered few answers.
"It was like Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy," Silverstein said. "What came out of the township committee here came from Joe Portash."
Residents began picketing committee meetings to demand an accounting of the tax revenue. The retirement communities didn't need street lights or trash disposal or snowplowing from the township, yet taxes were rising. When the committee tried to give itself a raise, it was the last straw.
Silverstein and other residents organized STOP - Stop Tax Oppression Promptly. They still didn't know about Portash's alleged embezzling, but they knew they wanted him and the township committee out.
Encouraged by STOP, voters in a special referendum changed the form of government from a township committee to a mayor and council and scheduled an election for May 8.
In the midst of the changes, Portash suffered a heart attack and died at his Maine vacation home on Feb. 27. The township committee, still loyal to him, renamed the street in front of the new Colonial-style, red-brick township hall Joseph Portash Memorial Boulevard.
It would be one of the last things the committee did for Portash. In the May election, Cameron, 66, a lawyer who practices in Toms River, was swept into office, defeating Ralph Rizzolo, the incumbent and a Portash loyalist, by 2,700 votes. She was to take office on July 1.
On Rizzolo's last business day in office, the last Friday in June, police officers at their headquarters next door to the town hall noticed that municipal employees were carrying boxes of files to township trucks.
Following in unmarked cars, the officers saw the workers dump the records at the county landfill and watched Rizzolo direct them, pointing where he wanted the papers dropped, right where sewage sludge would be sprayed on them.
When the workers left, police confiscated the records and called the County Prosecutor's Office.
When Cameron took office July 1, she said she found $2.80 in the township legal fund and $240 in an engineering fund.
"We didn't have any money," she said. "They cleaned out everything."
State auditors joined the detectives and began poring over the books.
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.
On Sept. 19, detectives arrested 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.
William W. Graham, an attorney for Rizzolo, declined to comment. Lawyers for the others did not return phone calls.
While detectives will not be specific about the total amount of money missing, Cameron estimates the loss at $10 million.
She said that included money allegedly stolen outright by Portash and others and bad investments of township money - investments that included a box factory in Puerto Rico.
"They felt so secure that no one would ever find them out," Cameron said. ''The boldness, the arrogance of these people was amazing. If it hurt to be stupid, they'd be saying, 'Ouch.' "
While the investigation continues, residents have been rallying round Cameron and her administration. Volunteers helped stuff tax bills into envelopes to get them out early, and dozens of residents paid their bills before deadlines to start refilling empty township bank accounts.
And Cameron did one more thing:
"The day I was installed, we passed a resolution to change the name of Portash Boulevard back to Colonial Drive. Everybody was saying, 'Hurry. Get that damn sign down.' "