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PORTASH: The Scandal, And Its Impact On Manchester

Two decades ago, a ring of Manchester officials - led by Joe Portash - looted more than $10 million from the township's treasury.

PORTASH: The Scandal, And Its Impact On Manchester PORTASH: The Scandal, And Its Impact On Manchester

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 features a Star-Ledger piece that focused on the scandal's impact on Manchester, as well as Portash's impact on the township.




PUBLICATION: Star-Ledger, The (Newark, NJ)

SECTION: NEWS DATE: August 26, 1990


Manchester Township, once famed for booming retirement community development, has now earned the distinction of having had one of the most corrupt municipal governments in the state's history.

While authorities are amazed at the wide-ranging and pervasive raiding of township accounts discovered during the past weeks, voters had had a strong enough sense that something was wrong to force an election earlier this year to change the form of government and elect a new mayor and council.

Mayor Jane Cordo Cameron said it took her about three hours of looking at the books during her first day on the job July 2 to learn how checks were freely disbursed to a certain group of people. "It was a pigsty with a lot of little pigs running around stuffing themselves at the public trough," Cameron said last week while explaining to residents at a township meeting why their taxes had to rise by 23 percent.

Cameron did not need to contact authorities about her findings. Police and the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office had already become involved after receiving a tip that a truckload of documents had been dumped in a landfill in the last week of the previous administration.

After going through documents recovered at the landfill and during searches of former employees' homes, as well as what was left for all to see at the municipal building, Prosecutor James Holzapfel revealed at a July 16 press conference that "financial chaos" was caused by "pervasive" improper transactions.

Holzapfel said he expects the case to be presented to a county grand jury by a state deputy attorney general, starting next month.

Barry Skokowski Sr., director of the state Division of Local Government Services, whose office was called in to help Manchester Township prepare a budget and set up financial controls while the criminal investigation continues, said he has never seen or heard of any municipal corruption on the level of Manchester's

"I was very disgusted, because it is so open and visible to anyone who looks at it," Skokowski said.

The only name confirmed by Holzapfel as being one of the those who illegally received taxpayers' money was Joseph S. Portash, who was the township administrator until he died at 58 in February.

Portash was a charismatic and controversial leader of the Republican Party for decades and was credited with being the architect of the development of this sprawling Pinelands community.

Holzapfel said the elements of the closed circle that raided the municipal coffers can be found anywhere. "If you have enough people who have a taste of the honey so they're involved and not interested in blowing the whistle, I guess it could go on for quite a while, especially in a town where historically there has been a lot of participation politically," Holzapfel said.

Manchester was a solidly Republican community for decades. Because of the ever-increasing ratables coming with the development boom, the prosecutor said, "Taxes have been kept low so that the people have not been interested in participating."

The honeymoon ended last summer. Manchester Township municipal meetings were historically well attended, especially by senior citizens. Generally, the mayor and the committee accepted Portash's recommendations, and questions from the public were addressed to and answered by him.

Even his critics would admire his charm and ability to smooth over any wrinkles of dissent and calm a raucous crowd.

In late spring and early summer of last year, discontent with the government, especially with rising taxes, came to a boiling point and shut down a June committee meeting when a salary ordinance was to be considered. Hundreds of jeering and chanting residents would not let the meeting begin, while they demanded that it be moved to the high school so all those who showed up could attend the session and be seated.

Several days later the meeting was held at the Manchester Township High School, and the salary ordinance was scrapped.

Residents had been upset with the ordinance because they felt it would pay certain employees excessive salaries. Portash was slated to have his $64,500 salary increased to $69,500. Little did the public know he was actually getting several times that amount.

Holzapfel said his review of the records indicates that Portash was to legally receive $68,663 last year from the salary account. But checks had been written to him for a total of $98,663 from that account, $92,797 from the current account and $63,350 from the capital account, for a total of $254,810.

The prosecutor said Portash was not alone in being paid above what was authorized by ordinance. Holzapfel did not name any others, however.

Among the findings so far are altered and missing checks, forged billings and improper spending of millions of dollars in bond issues, including those pegged to environmentally secure the closed municipal landfill, pave roads, buy firetrucks and build a new firehouse.

Crucial evidence is expected to be received this week. Microfiches of several years of missing checks are expected from the bank that held the township accounts. "It will definitely give us certain people who have improperly received funding. What we had when we got out there was a systematic destruction of checks. I mean, there were hundreds and hundreds of checks pulled and gone," Holzapfel said.

The microfiches will give investigators the name of the payee, who negotiated it and when. "What it gives you is, to a certain degree, a smoking gun to say, 'Okay, here's the check. Explain it,"' Holzapfel said. When asked what other areas are being probed, Holzapfel replied, "I think it would be easier for somebody to say, 'What aren't you looking at?' Because that's got to be a real short list. Every place that we look some indications are that you have to look further."

Among the areas he listed as being under investigation are vouchers and payments to vendors, the welfare department, bonding procedures, payroll accounts, previous audits, bidding procedures, illegal lease arrangements and improper salary payments. "The IRS is also interested from the standpoint of nonpayment of taxes," Holzapfel said.

He said many of the canceled checks investigators already have do not match the checkbook stubs. Some of the checks were computer-generated, some were typed and some were handwritten. Many of the payments were not listed and approved in the normal process by the township committee.

The prosecutor said the improper salary payments to Portash and others he declined to name involved their being paid for performing work that was outside their job description.

Former township attorney Siegfried Steele said he issued an opinion several years ago that an employee could receive compensation above his approved salary for work done on special projects that required that employee's special expertise and talent. The work and payment would have to be authorized by the township committee, Steele said.

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