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Covering Hamilton and Robbinsville townships in-depth for The Trentonian. I can be reached at (609) 989-7800 ext. 207 or (609) 468-6962. Email me at or follow me @awisefool.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Hamilton lawyer on Pay-to-Play: subject to interpretation

Hamilton Township attorney Lindsay Burbage has given a response to critics' concerns over the ability of the township to regulate embattled Mayor John Bencivengo's legal defense fund.

Namely: it's a legal gray area and he's having the township take what he sees as the best course.

Burbage said he and another attorney in his office worked separately and came to the same conclusion; the township can't regulate the mayor's defense fund. The bills in the legislature give further proof, he said.

"By trying to give municipalities the ability to regulate them, you can draw a logical conclusion that it is not allowed now," he said.

He said the language of the local Pay-to-Play ordinance specifically mentioned "political contributions," which he defined as money given to a political campaign or political fund.

Bencivengo’s legal defense fund first made news in May when letters went out advertising a fundraiser for Bencivengo, who is fighting federal corruption charges. The fundraiser, which was cancelled, brought the issue of legal defense fund regulation, or lack thereof, to the forefront.

Bencivengo was arrested in April on federal corruption charges.

He allegedly received $12,400 in bribes from a cooperating witness, whom sources have identified as Marliese Ljuba, in order to influence a member of the Hamilton school board on behalf of her employer, Vineland-based insurance broker Allen Associates.

He has maintained his innocence, stating in a financial disclosure filed after his arrest that the money was a loan from a friend and not a bribe.

Politicians are allowed to use their own funds or funds donated to a defense fund for a private legal defense, but are prohibited from using campaign funds and vice versa, per a 2010 state Supreme Court decision.

Burbage conceded though, that there was some room for interpretation in the law. He pointed to a directive from the state's Department of Community Affairs on what local government "may" do in these situations as another point of murkiness.

"Whenever a government agency says this is what you may do, we don't know what will stand up in court," he said. "Any time there is a gray area there will be two sides to it, and they are on the other one."


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