Treffinger Witnesses Admit Guilt: Plea Deals Outline Corruption in Essex

John P. Martin, The Star-Ledger
May 29, 2003

Two aides and a supporter of former Essex County Executive James Treffinger pleaded guilty yesterday to federal charges and pledged to testify against him when Treffinger's corruption trial opens next week.

The pleas were not a surprise, but marked the first time any government witness publicly admitted complicity in the case. The proceedings offered a glimpse of the investigation that took three years to build and could unfold in a Newark courtroom throughout the summer.

Michael DeMiro, an attorney and longtime Treffinger confidant who served as special counsel to the county executive, pleaded guilty to conspiring to obstruct the FBI probe.

Verona lawyer Matthew Kirnan, who managed Treffinger's 2000 Republican U.S. Senate bid and acted as campaign treasurer last year, admitted evading taxes unrelated to the case.

And Cosmo Cerrigone, a Cedar Grove barber and Treffinger supporter, pleaded guilty to embezzling more than $30,000 in public money by accepting a part-time county paycheck for a job he never worked.

A fourth witness, former county engineer Rajashekar Ravilla, also is expected to enter a plea before jury selection begins Tuesday. That plea could come as early as today.

Prosecutors hope the witnesses, along with a handful of tape recordings and documents, will portray Treffinger as a politician who rewarded friends, campaign workers and contractors with county contracts, paychecks and no-show jobs.

Treffinger, who left office after two terms in January, has pleaded not guilty to 20 counts of fraud, extortion and obstruction. He has vowed to prove his innocence.

Neither he nor his defense attorneys attended yesterday's hearings before Chief U.S. District Judge John Bissell in Newark. One of the attorneys, Henry Klingeman, was contacted later but declined to comment.

Under questioning from Assistant U.S. Attorney Perry Carbone, DeMiro, 57, said he attended a May 2000 meeting of Treffinger and his close advisers at a vacant, county-owned building in Cedar Grove.

At the meeting, Treffinger spoke of an impending federal probe into United Gunite Corp., a sewer- repair firm that had won $50 million in municipal contracts, including $145,000 in no-bid work in Essex County that year, according to court records.

Kirnan and Ravilla also were present at the meeting, as was Irene Almeida, a county employee who had been Treffinger's chief campaign fund-raiser but who has not been charged in the case, DeMiro said. He said Treffinger coached Ravilla on how to evade questions from prosecutors about contributions from Jerry Free, a United Gunite salesman.

At the time, Ravilla already was cooperating with the FBI and wearing a hidden microphone. According to transcripts of the tapes included in court filings, Treffinger outlined the possible case against him:

"If I were a prosecutor, I would say, uh, it was pay to play. He (Free) gives a thousand dollar personal check to Jim Treffinger's campaign at a meeting in his office," Treffinger said, referring to himself in the third person. "Uh, a week later, there's an emergency invented, um, approved by Treffinger, whereby - um, this is an argument - whereby, he was able to bypass the bidding laws, giving (United Gunite) an $83,000 contract subsequently or roughly at the same time another $9,000 in checks from his employees - which he probably coerced and most likely bundled, which is also a violation - then came in . . ."

DeMiro also said yesterday that Treffinger instructed him and the engineer to create phony county documents to suggest the contracts were awarded without Treffinger's knowledge.

"And did you do so?" Carbone asked DeMiro.

"Yes, I did," he replied.

Cerrigone, 56, was Treffinger's barber and had supported his first campaign for county executive.

Cerrigone admitted that in 1995, Treffinger placed him on the county payroll as a "reward" for his support. For the next seven years, Cerrigone received between $14,000 and $17,000 a year to cut hair at the county psychiatric hospital in Cedar Grove, but admitted he did not perform the work.

"Mr. Cerrigone, do you know that receiving the money was wrong?" the prosecutor asked.

"Yes, sir," he replied.

Kirnan, 43, a former Verona mayor and congressional candidate, admitted to evading taxes on at least $30,000 that he wrongly claimed as expenses related to his law practice.

The charge was unrelated to the Treffinger investigation, but Kirnan's plea agreement requires him to testify if prosecutors ask him. Like DeMiro and Ravilla, Kirnan also wore a wire and recorded talks with Treffinger. In all, prosecutors amassed 46 secret tape recordings of Treffinger over the two-year period, court records show.

Though the charges carry maximum terms of five and 10 years, the three who pleaded yesterday face only up to one year in prison under federal guidelines when Bissell sentences them in September. But prosecutors have agreed to recommend leniency, and a probationary term is more likely.

"That's our hope," said Anthony Pope, the attorney for Cerrigone.

It was unclear if Kirnan and DeMiro planned to continue their law practices. Paul Brickfield, an attorney for Kirnan, said his client planned to notify state bar officials of the plea, but that he hoped to retain his law practice. DeMiro's attorney, Patrick Mullin, declined to comment.

U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie sat in the courtroom during the plea hearings for Cerrigone and Kirnan, but did not comment. He said afterward that "at least one more" plea was pending, but would not identify the defendant.

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