Democratic Party chief admits he took bribes

Al Santoro pleads guilty in latest Bid Rig investigation


Is the U.S. Attorney’s Office finished with its corruption investigation in Ocean County? Maybe. Maybe not.

“Our overall Operation Bid Rig investigation is continuing,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Gramiccioni, who could not confirm or deny whether other officials are under scrutiny.

Gramiccioni made the remark in the wake of the latest plea bargain, this time from former longtime Ocean County Democratic Party chief Alfonso L. Santoro.

Santoro, who is also the longtime commissioner of the Ocean County Board of Elections, admitted in U.S. District Court on Dec. 3 that he took bribes totaling $6,500 from an FBI cooperating witness in exchange for help in getting a development approved.

Alfonso told U.S. District Judge Joel A. Pisano that he took a $5,000 bribe from the witness at a Toms River restaurant on May 18, 2008. The payment was in exchange for his anticipated help in making introductions and corrupt payments to “public officials in Ocean County” who could use their influence in favor of the cooperating witness’ real estate development interests in Waretown.

Santoro pleaded guilty to one count of using interstate facilities (a cell phone) to further a bribery scheme. The charge carries a maximum sentence of five years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine.

How much or any jail time Santoro, 70, could receive depends on the judge’s discretion based on the plea agreement, Gramiccioni said.

“The potential jail term he could serve is anywhere between 12 and 24 months,” he said. “That’s just the guideline range. The judge is allowed to go below that or above that, but that rarely happens.”

Santoro, who now serves as executive director of the Ocean County Democratic Organization, could not be reached for comment. His Bloomfield-based attorney, Angelo Bianchi, declined to comment.

“As I do with any other case I have, I have no comment,” Bianchi said.

Ocean County Democratic Organization Chairman Wyatt Earp did not return phone calls. However, he did send a brief, mass email to party members about the Santoro situation on the evening of Dec. 5.

“Dear Friend,

You likely heard the news that Al Santoro, former Chairperson/Executive Director of the Ocean County Democratic Organization, has pled guilty to accepting a bribe reportedly in association with a Republican Assemblyman. We share your sadness in hearing this news.”

Former longtime Democratic Pine Beach Mayor Russell K. Corby, who was elected to an unprecedented five terms as mayor, was more direct. He called Santoro’s actions “cheap, tawdry conduct.”

“And it’s revolting to the average citizen,” said Corby, who distanced himself from the county organization years ago and worked on his own to win elections.

“A once proud, conservative and independent Ocean County Democratic organization has simply slipped away over the last two decades, in the hands of Mr. Santoro and his colleagues in party leadership,” Corby said. “The organization allowed Mr. Santoro to be the face of the Democratic Party. And they were manipulated by the opposition party. And now they have reaped what they have sown.”

Status still unknown

Whether Santoro will resign his seat as an Ocean County Board of Elections commissioner could not be determined by press time on Dec. 7.

But both Corby and Toms River attorney Steven Secare said he should.

“He should have had his resignation letter ready when he pleaded,” Corby said.

Legally, a conviction, whether a defendant is found guilty by trial or by plea, is not final until he or she is sentenced, Secare said.

“Obviously, the right thing to do is resign from your position as soon as possible,” Secare said. “Frankly, since he knew for quite some time this was coming down, he should have resigned a while ago. If you know you are under criminal investigation, the right thing to do is resign. You shouldn’t wait around until you plead guilty.”

Operation Bid Rig hit its zenith on July 23, 2009, when the FBI arrested 44 individuals, including mayors, assemblymen, political operatives and rabbis throughout the state.

The “individual” whom Santoro and the cooperating government witness met with and is referred to in court papers was an Ocean County 9th District state assemblyman at the time, although the U.S. Attorney’s Office did not name the official.

Former Republican 9th District Assemblyman Daniel Van Pelt was named in the third phase of Operation Big Rig and was charged with accepting $10,000 from the witness for his influence as a state assemblyman to get the necessary permits for a purported project the witness was planning in Waretown.

Van Pelt also offered to use his influence to obtain the necessary permits from the state Department of Environmental Protection. Van Pelt resigned shortly after he was charged.

Santoro met a Jersey City official and the cooperating witness at a Toms River restaurant on May 18, 2008. He accepted a $5,000 cash payment from the witness in exchange for his help in making introductions and “corrupt payments to public officials in Ocean County who were willing to exercise their official influence … regarding development approvals in Ocean County, New Jersey and elsewhere,” according to court papers.

Santoro and the witness spoke by cell phone on July 17, 2008, and discussed a potential meeting between the witness and the individual (Van Pelt). Santoro met the witness again on Aug. 10, 2008, at which time he accepted a cash payment of $1,500 from the witness for his continued help. Santoro asked the witness to provide him with more information about the Waretown project and said he and the “individual” would arrange a meeting between the witness and the elected official, court papers said.

Santoro met with the witness again at a Toms River restaurant on Sept. 15, 2008. The witness told Santoro he had a $10,000 cash payment for Van Pelt. Santoro told the witness to structure the payment to a political party in exchange for Van Pelt’s official assistance in obtaining approvals for the Waretown property, according to court papers.

Gramiccioni said he could not confirm or deny that other Ocean County officials are under investigation.

Santoro will be allowed to present a “case of mitigation” at the time of his sentencing. There is still another issue that has to be determined at sentencing, said Gramiccioni, who declined to specify the issue.

“That’s to talk about all the good things he’s done,” he said. “Santoro doesn’t have any other criminal convictions.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office is also asking Santoro to forfeit the $6,500 “from proceeds traceable to the commission of the attempt to commit extortion under color of official right.”