PoliceOne Staff Report (HACKENSACK, N.J.) -- The sheriff of Bergen County, about whom controversy and allegations have swirled for months, pleaded guilty yesterday to corruption charges, which included forcing members of his department to sell fund-raising tickets in return for promotions, transfers and jobs.
Former Sheriff Joseph L. Ciccone, who rose from a small-town police sergeant to being elected to head the state's second largest county sheriff's department, entered the guilty plea in a Morris County courtroom and was forced to resign immediately from office.
By pleading guilty, Ciccone avoided a prison sentence and is expected to be given probation at a March 30 sentencing hearing. However, as part of the deal, Ciccone had to read a two-and-a-half page statement to the court detailing his crimes and has also agreed to cooperate in a continuing investigation of the department.
Prosecutors portrayed Ciccone as a corrupt sheriff who shook down businessmen, ran jobs-for-campaign-cash schemes, falsified campaign reports and even sold phony police badges to civilians in return for thousands of dollars to add to his campaign war chest, the Bergen Record reported.
"Simply put, Joseph Ciccone is a corrupt public official who not only violated the trust of Bergen County residents but sullied the reputation of law enforcement," Anthony Zarrillo, deputy director of the state Division of Criminal Justice, told the Record.
Specifically, Ciccone pleaded guilty Thursday to one count of official misconduct, a second-degree offense that will be treated as a third-degree crime; and one count of demanding campaign contributions from public officials, a third-degree crime to be treated as a fourth-degree offense, according to Emily Hornady, director of communications for the Division of Criminal Justice.
Authorities said that Undersheriff Gordon Johnson will take command of the 500-member department until the governor appoints a replacement for Ciccone.
In his statement to the court, Ciccone admitted a variety of crimes.
"I demanded that members of the Bergen County Sheriff's Department sell tickets to fundraising events with the understanding that, if they participated in this scheme, they would receive benefits such as promotions, transfers, and jobs," Ciccone said.
Prosecutors have said that they have identified 15 people in the sheriff's department who benefited, and that some might lose their jobs.
Published reports indicated that the corrupt sheriff singled out those officers who were appointed and that he could easily fire.
"I told them that I expected them to sell the tickets, since their jobs as law enforcement officers depended upon my being elected," he told Morris County Superior Court Judge Theodore Bozonelis, before whom the plea proceeding was conducted.
Among Ciccone's other admissions:
Set up a scheme to sell 450 honorary special deputy badges to civilians for prices up to $1,500. Ciccone admitted buying the realistic badges with county funds and putting the proceeds from their sale into his campaign account.
Shook down a man who wanted to be a deputy sheriff, demanding $15,0000. Two sheriff's department detectives who were aides to Ciccone, who were detectives have been charged in connection with the case and are awaiting trial.
Falsified campaign finance reports.
Although Ciccone's crimes carried the presumption of a prison sentence, prosecutors wanted him out of office as quickly as possible and could not allow him to remain sheriff while the case progressed through the courts, Hornady told PoliceOne.com.
In normal circumstances, court action must be initiated by the attorney general in order to strip convicted elected officials of their office. In this case, by pleading guilty, that removal was automatic, Hornady said.
Approximately $225,000 was seized from Ciccone. Those funds would be used to repay approximately $6,000 which was paid for the "special deputy badges" and approximately $8,000 owed to the vendors who provided the badges, Hornady said.
The remaining funds would be placed in the state's forfeiture fund, she said.