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PORTASH: The Legacy Of Scandal

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.

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.

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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:

Money.

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.' "

ted.dobracki December 13, 2012 at 02:25 PM
I knew something was up during the summer of 1975 during one summer as a messenger at the old First Sate Bank. At that time, they had just recently moved into their new state of the art main office on Hooper Avenue (now housing Ocean First), next to the Howard Johnson from an inadequate facility on Rt 37 (a building currently under renovation, a short distance east from White Castle). Before deregulation and the spread of intercounty and interstate banking, FSB was a upstart competitor of FNB of Toms River, and they had about a dozen branches from Ortley to Whiting to Bayville. One day I was given a special assignment - to start organizing their records retention. Initially, for a week or two, I went to collect various boxes of records scattered in the basements of branches all over the county, and then sort and shelf stuff in the sub-basement, disposing expired information and reboxing. There were even handwritten ledgers from when the bank started the decade before. After weeks of that, an very unusual assignment came my way. My boss for that assignment, the personnel manager, told me not to tell anyone (even my regular boss) what I was doing, since it was highly confidential. She had a list of a few dozen checking accounts, and wanted me to pull all of the records for those accounts. (probably as a result of a subpoena). The accounts were all in names of bank directors and their businesses, and Portash was one. I think FSB was gone within a few years.
George Johnson December 13, 2012 at 03:08 PM
Term limits are needed.
Cherry Quay resident December 13, 2012 at 05:04 PM
Wow, I now recall this mess. Reminds me of the Ritacco mess in Toms River. Term limits and a cross check/balance system must be in place. Having too much power and access to all the funds can make honest people criminals.
Mac December 13, 2012 at 05:34 PM
Ouch! I remember this story very well. And despite all the information given to the public about this, that, what and who, it still remains an extremely successful public cover-up to this day. Ouch! The only true information was Mayor Cameron's above quote: "They felt so secure that no one would ever find them out. The boldness, the arrogance of these people was amazing. If it hurt to be stupid, they'd be saying, 'Ouch.'" More to the point, it continues to be true today and continues to dominate all of Ocean County politics. When you own the investigators and the auditors, all the political lawyers, engineers, accountants, insurance brokers, developers, bondsman and any other associated good-ole-boy have absolutely nothing to worry about (unless you get too greedy and don’t share.) This went on for over ten years in Manchester alone. Does anyone remember the 84-year-old auditor that signed off on the Manchester $10M creative accounting audits for several years in a row? He was the same auditor for 16 other Ocean County towns during this time frame and NOT ONE PERSON in Ocean County asked for even one single re-audit in any of these towns. Ouch! It's so easy in Ocean County. Does anyone know who shot the sheriff? The sheriff didn’t go to Maine, did he?
Tom Davis (Editor) December 13, 2012 at 06:37 PM
Does anybody believe that there are lingering questions from this story? It was 20 years ago, but it's interesting to see how deeply it involved people
ted.dobracki December 13, 2012 at 08:48 PM
Robert Schmertz, the founder of Leisure Technologies, was on the board of that bank, as was Portash. Interestingly, Schmertz, who was also owner of the Boston Celtics at the time, died suddenly in 1975 before he came to trial.
John Williams December 13, 2012 at 09:07 PM
Not exactly a lingering question, but I know for a fact that a part of this story isn't the truth. When you have cases like this some people have to be protected and they will not print what really happen but give another reason instead. I know what really happen with the part they are faking in this story that was printed 20 years ago.
Mac December 13, 2012 at 11:00 PM
Lingering, no. $10M was a lot of money 20 years ago. Not as much perhaps as the Toms River bank going belly up (multi-million dollar loans forgiven to board members, etc.), but still far too much for far too long to be unknown to numerous insiders for several years. There’s nothing lingering at all. Just a couple of controlled little mess-ups everyone laughed their way through. Many of the same players then are still very active today. And they are still laughing their way through our money with our full support. People believe term limits will help. Not so. It's not the elected official that matters per sec. It's the leadership of the organization the elected official is bringing the bacon home to that rules your life. The elected official is just the figurehead, at least in Ocean County.
CM December 14, 2012 at 12:49 AM
My taxes have gone up 400% since this crook left. it's a good thing we have had the same people in power for over 20 years.
CM December 14, 2012 at 12:58 AM
His service was in a closed casket in Maine. I always that felt someone would run into him in Vegas years later.
John Williams December 14, 2012 at 02:05 AM
Thats's true CM..he did have a closed casket. Joe wasn't just a crook but also a smart man, how else he get away with it all those years? I went to AC with Joe driving once...I never knew who he was, I was with a friend who happen to be a boyfriend of one of his daughters...we were going down Union Ave in Lakehurst real fast ( think it was around 1981)...told my friend, he's driving fast in Lakehurst be in trouble..my friend said..that's Joe Portash driving..he's like GOD in this neck of the woods ( no problem)...We were going to AC then (yes figures)..Joe went his way ( old saying lady on each arm), we went ours and got a ride home by others we knew in AC. Joe might of been a crook..but his family isn't..his daughters are great people and great looking too..plus his wife is nice and great looking. I recall a time after Joe died ( if died) and I'm well known in the Whitings area back then for partying..I went with a group to Plain Janes in Jackson NJ and danced galore with Joe's wife...she is indeed a great lady! What he did was wrong and hurt the township that believe in him, almost like a younger Bernie Madoff back then!
John Williams December 14, 2012 at 03:07 AM
Not that I did it..but I have a wood plate sign that I was going to give to the new mayor Cameron back in those days to hang on her office wall. It states: It's hard to get rich in a small town...everyone is watching!
bhavaja December 14, 2012 at 01:02 PM
Wow is all I can say. Other than- 'when can you lower our taxes again'? Lol
Fedup December 14, 2012 at 02:22 PM
That is what they used to say about Mike Ritacco and Frank D'Alonzo.
stephen stanziano December 14, 2012 at 03:47 PM
to associate 3 hard working "italian-americans" with the "mafia" only displays your obvious ignorance & prejudice... it is an insult to many of the "italian-americans" that reside in manchester, and the "stereotype" that you prescribe to is the result of watching too many movies and not learning the facts, as that would require an effort on your part to read, and an open unbiased mind that you are obviously lacking... i am not personally offended by your insinuation - i consider the source; obviously a disgruntled former employee with a sub-standard worth ethic...
billy madison December 15, 2012 at 01:27 AM
First of all-- always capitalize I when refering when speaking about ones self. This is in response to some guy stephen.
billy madison December 15, 2012 at 01:47 AM
Merry christmas EVERYONE! Well hope all is well and I would like to take a moment to reflect on what has occured today in the wake of the disaster in our countries school system. Horrific, to see what has happened. God bless all those that were directly affected. It has come to my attention that the public works garage is in some type of distress regarding their Union Local 32. They are very dissatisfied with their representation. hat being said---this current Union was HAND picked by the Township itself long ago. These men- many of which are indeed intelligent and hard working--are only paid $12.50 hr. These men are on the brink of decertifying the current Union as it stands now. Tese men as I understand iare NOT represented fairly! Often times waiting several weeks and, month to hear a response regading a grievance. Unacceptable---but most importanly that is NOT how a true UNION works. The representative is non-existant when regarding a complaint! What are they(the public works employees) paying this Union for. It also has come to my attention that they(the town) was prepared to offer a contract of 6,000 for the last three years. Did the employees know of this?---NO. This was not discussed. So I say to YOU madam local 32 representative--the answer is NO as far as I am told. You can disassociate your self from the Union based on incompetence----and they will! Madam you are finshed nd so is local 32. It is time to start a-new.
billy madison December 15, 2012 at 02:02 AM
There is a shop steward at the Public Works garage that is advisin his fellow co-workers to abstain from joining another union. Why would that be? I am sorry Mr. Shop Steward but, they as far as I have been told-will not listen to YOU. They are disgusted with you and the union and WILL proceed accordingly. They would like fair treatment as well as pay for their services since the town hands out raises like candy. Some time ago there WAS a substantial pay increase in the town, in the sum of $23,000. This is not a hoax. The world is a very small place and people do talk. If there is any skepticism on this I welcome a rebutal. Because we can always subpoena a tax return if needed. Local 32----- Bon voyage!
billy madison December 15, 2012 at 02:10 PM
Tony, Merry christmas. Let me allow to explain how the mob did start------it started with the Irish people. These people were often shunned when they arrived in America long ago. Often described as "dirty". Do you know where the phrase "paddy wagon" comes from? It started with the Irish as they were refered to as"paddys". " Old Smoke" is credited with starting organized crime, since they were discriminated against---finding it hard to find employment. It was only when the Italians also created their own organization. The fear of organized Italian crime only came about for the shear ferocity of how they assaulted their enemy. Amazing how we want to change the topic to ethnic discrimination,in the face of real issues
Tony Montana December 16, 2012 at 03:07 AM
@Silence...Best Holiday wishes as well, and as too all, The humor of your last demostration is as straight as an arrow. Such flippancy! I was thinking the same before you posted. Thats what makes it so comical to me...Its almost like we are selfsame. The realism is that none of this is shown on a TV show, Movie, or even spoken of on talk radio as stephen procieves it to be. The bottom line is that you are taught this at grade school level. I loved History class. Hey Silence....I wounder if we attended the same classes...better yet probally sat next to each other. This is what the world is about. Its sad to say when the spot light is on you, majority will try to turn it 180 degrees, as they slip into the dark dark shadows without a trace. This is not a "stereotype" as stephen would like to make everyone perceive it to be. In Layman's terms, was called out on behalf of prevailing circumstances. I can not stress how sad it is when i called to order a pizza eariler tonight and the man that delivered it, is the one of the same that work the recycling center for the township. After realizing his presents and some small talk, he informed me that this is the ONLY way of MANCHESTER TWP PUBLIC WORKS. Flustered I was while this person explained that more than half of the employees work two or
Tony Montana December 16, 2012 at 03:36 AM
three jobs just to barley skim todays society. This is Ludicrous!! I thought i have seen many familiar faces scattered thoughout the town at multiply business. My main question is this, and I hope someone from the hall can answer. Is it fair that these men cant make wage for "True Hardworkers" as some will call themselves? These men are what make the town wheels spin. All shall be ashamed that salary gaps were adjusted last meeting to accommodate titles that should no where be at what there at already..such a disgrace that our men that we pay for in such a high tax rate only make $12.50 and hour. Please Mr. Hall, AKA Town Hall, is that fair that the men must work multiply jobs to try and accommodate inflation?? I believe that this is not right that these men are stripped from there families!! How are these men supposed to perform duties at 100% when there wasting talent and skills else where all hours of the night?? Are these men focused to perform day to day??? I was also informed that the only incentive they had to look forward too, was a $0.24 bonus when completing a Required CDL test upon completion of 90 days of service. Really??? a 24 cent raise??? $500.00 added to the salary for a 80,000 pound liabilty???? I am SICK to my stomache that $12.74 cant be tailored...but a $23,000 increase with no rhyme or reason is sufficient??? Please Mr. Hall..with so many words..Please enlighten the tax payers. I seen so many salary gap increases adjusted last meeting but not one to
Tony Montana December 16, 2012 at 03:37 AM
to wheels that make the town go round!
ben dover December 17, 2012 at 06:54 PM
remember when manchester police in 1975 robbed my grandfathers house on wilbur ave, first they cased it when we were just brokin into by the kids, they were called and saw 7 guns the motorcycle, colored tv etc . grandma told them watch the house we bowl in brick lanes on friday night, well the cops stole it all, but who with 7 guns in the getaway car a 125 yamaha motorcyle 500 cash, jewlery etc who would stop and steal grandpas grey vise on the work bench, in the garage,and throw the fishing stuff and tv across the street to be found by you guessed it.. the pigs. i suppose scum psychopath portashs bought the guns or d bag lynch. it took me years to figure it out, but my grandfather charles lehman knew the police pigs did it cause he told me,,,, cops got my guns kid.... thats all the great saint would say about the scum manchester police pigs , murdered rich nordstrom also . scum jew blood. narcissitic pigs. when they told us they found the 125 burnt in the woods , we wewnt to see it and the wild goose chase becane the manchester police just could not remember the spot. gary or tomosulo may remember.
ben dover December 17, 2012 at 06:58 PM
boilermakers union l 28
stephen stanziano December 18, 2012 at 01:03 PM
second of all, learn the correct spelling of "referring" and "oneself"... third of all, your grammar needs work...try reading during your spare time... and fourth, "judge not lest ye be judged"...you should have proofread what you wrote below...would have made for a better read...
nobodyspecial December 18, 2012 at 09:33 PM
In who ville...everyone around here is a who....lmao j/k...no im not but yea i have one question for microsoft word 8.0? Is it worth ethic or did you mean work....just saying
Penelope Pitstop December 21, 2012 at 12:06 PM
Using quotation marks to provide emphasis to a word is usually incorrect. The correct usage of quotation marks is to either quote direct speech, in which the writer should always follow the quote with the source of the quotation or when expressing that the word within the quotation marks has a different meaning than that in which it is intended. Also when quoting, using italics is also preferred. Example is "Methinks thou dost protest too much" - A Famous Quote by William Shakespeare. When using (…), it is usually followed by a run-on sentence. Proper punctuation is always the preferred method. Without proper sentence structure and punctuation, your reader will just think you are either hiding something or you do not have enough information to make a proper statement or point. When making an emphasis on a certain word, using bold is the preferred avenue to take. For other information, try reading the DK Handbook. It will help you with all professional writing.
Michael Daubner January 12, 2013 at 02:11 AM
Yes, First State Bank was acquired by the former New Jersey National Bank on 12/17/1976. FSB had grown from a one office bank on Route 37 to a 12 office bank in only 11 years with assets of $169MM at the time of the NJ National acquisition. FSB was under investigation by the SEC, Comptroller of the Currency and was being sued by some of its former borrowers. I think if Bob Schmertz had lived the bank would of survived. Their new headquarters on Hooper Ave was very impressive for that time. One question, was Bob Schmertz the Chairman of the Board and who was the President of FSB? Thank you.
Michael Daubner January 12, 2013 at 02:17 AM
Do you have any old FSB Annual Reports or proxy statements? I know Bob Schmertz was heavily involved in FSB, I just don't know how deep his influence ran or how much he had invested in the bank. Some say FSB was another Schmertz venture.
ted.dobracki January 13, 2013 at 04:11 PM
Nothing at all like that.

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