In a dramatic shift of political fortunes, Bayonne Councilman Gary La Pelusa has become the chief witness in the state’s case against Assemblyman Anthony Chiappone, his one-time political ally.
Based largely on testimony La Pelusa gave in interviews last April and to a state grand jury on Aug. 12, Chiappone and his wife, Diane, were indicted for allegedly conspiring to funnel state-issued paychecks for legislative aides to Chiappone’s personal and 2005 Assembly campaign election accounts.
In claiming his innocence, Chiappone said the paychecks that LaPelusa signed back over to his campaign went to cover a variety of expenses, including the purchase of office equipment for his Assembly office and repayment for
a personal debt that LaPelusa owed him.
“Gary’s statements are inconsistent with the facts.” – Anthony Chiappone
However, LaPelusa told the state that he was shocked because he thought the money was given to Chiappone to help with his campaign, not to be put into personal accounts.
When LaPelusa worked as a legislative aide to Chiappone in 2005, he received health benefits. Part of the state’s investigation appears to have been focused on whether or not LaPelusa kicked back his paychecks in exchange for receiving state health benefits.
According to copies of sworn statements, tape recordings, and grand jury testimony procured by The Bayonne Community News, LaPelusa told the grand jury that no such deal was made. In a recent interview, Chiappone also denied the checks had any connection to the health benefits.
In sworn statements, tape recordings, and grand jury testimony by La Pelusa, LaPelusa claimed that he had given back his checks to Chiappone as a campaign donation, although some of the funds were also used for the legislative office towards the purchase of an office refrigerator, microwave, and other items.
Chiappone and his wife Diane have been charged with conspiracy, official misconduct, theft by deception, tampering with public records or information, falsifying or tampering with records, and concealment or misrepresentation of contributions or expenditures.
Nevertheless, Chiappone has retained his seat on the Assembly and even has said he may run for Bayonne mayor.
The charges stem from a series of interviews conducted with LaPelusa and other former Assembly aides last spring by state attorney general’s investigators.
La Pelusa said he told investigators he had donated all of the paychecks he received to the 2005 Chiappone for Assembly campaign. In May of 2009, La Pelusa told the Bayonne Community News that he had signed over his aide checks to Chiappone to help defray expenses, some of which included the purchase of a microwave or refrigerator for use in the legislative offices. In an interview last week, La Pelusa said he knew some of the funds might be used for the office, but he turned the money over to be used in the campaign.
Agreed to taped phone call
Saying that state investigators threatened to charge him for kicking back the checks to Chiappone, La Pelusa agreed to tape a phone call with Chiappone on Aug. 7.
“We asked La Pelusa if he would be willing to participate in a consensual recording and, after consulting with his attorney in private, he agreed to do so,” according to a report issued by Melisa Cauklin, an investigator for the state attorney general’s office.
In a statement issued in response to questions raised by The Bayonne Community News, LaPelusa said last week: “The state Attorney General’s Office questioned me about checks which I gave to the Assemblyman over five years ago. I was shocked to be questioned, as I know I did nothing wrong. That was when I had my own discovery of finding out what he did with the checks that I gave him.”
La Pelusa said he assumed the money would be used for the campaign, and was surprised by the fact that any of the cash went into Chiappone’s personal accounts.
On Friday, Aug. 7, LaPelusa, in the presence of his lawyer, state police Sgt. Joseph Caloiaro, and attorney general investigator Susan Kase, met in the Attorney General’s Offices in Trenton to record a call to Chiappone.
“I knew this was a serious situation so I hired an attorney and followed his advice,” La Pelusa said in a statement last week. “I cooperated with the state and answered all their questions. After their investigation, I was not charged with any crimes or wrongdoing.”
On one of three tapes in which Gary LaPelusa and his wife Cherie were involved, this exchange took place:
“Gary, how are you?” Chiappone said, answering the phone.
“You know,” LaPelusa said.
“They’re putting you through hell, aren’t they?” Chiappone said. “It’s up to me to explain what I did with the money. You did nothing wrong.”
Chiappone repeated this several times during the 20-minute conversation.
“They’re saying it’s about the health benefits,” La Pelusa said, referring to the investigators. “They want to hear me say I made a deal.”
“That’s the case they’re trying to make,” Chiappone said. “But it’s not true.”
La Pelusa, apparently at the urging of agents in the Trenton office, mentioned the checks again and again and how the money went into personal and election accounts.
On the tape, La Pelusa admitted confusion over which elections Chiappone was involved in during the time when La Pelusa served as an aide, claiming that some of the money apparently went into Chiappone’s failed bid for state Senate in 2004. But Chiappone quickly corrected him, saying that the Senate campaign occurred prior to the checks, and that the only election was a disputed Democratic Assembly primary in June 2005, which Chiappone lost.
Interviewed later by the Bayonne Community News, Chiappone said after the campaign was over, he put the funds into his personal account – because Chiappone said he had no campaign debt, and to cover the remaining bill La Pelusa owed him for photo and video services.
La Pelusa also made reference on the tape to some of the money being used to pay for office supplies, noting that he remembered the purchase of a refrigerator for the Assembly office. While the state pays for paper and other supplies, Chiappone said during an interview, the state does not pay for many things used in the office such as the microwave oven, the refrigerator, and other items La Pelusa’s aide funds helped pay to procure.
“The state case claims half the money went into my campaign accounts and half went into my private accounts, when this is simply not true,” Chiappone said in a later interview.
Checks paid a personal debt?
In his grand jury testimony on Aug. 12, La Pelusa testified to the fact that Chiappone had done photography work, videotaping, and photographing of his son’s graduation – and that there had been an outstanding balance unpaid after the event, which Chiappone later said justified why some of the cash went into his personal account.
“I was upset when they questioned me,” La Pelusa said on the tape of the Aug. 7 phone call. “Why did the money wind up in your personal account? It looks bad.”
But Chiappone said: “I didn’t take the money as a campaign contribution.”
“I thought you did,” La Pelusa said.
“If that’s the case, then it’s an ELEC [Election Law Enforcement Commission] violation,” Chiappone said. “Why are they questioning you about it?”
LaPelusa said he wanted the whole legal issue over with.
“It’s affecting my sleep, my family, it’s nerve racking,” he said.
Chiappone recommended La Pelusa hire an attorney to keep investigators from intimidating him.
The Aug. 7 tape, however, was not presented to the state grand jury, in front of which La Pelusa testified on Aug. 12, saying he had given the money to Chiappone as a campaign contribution.
“I felt very, very sorry for him not being able to raise funds and I know he was running for reelection, so I offered to give him the money because to me it was found money,” La Pelusa testified. “I told him I felt very bad and I would like to use this for the cause, for the campaign.”
“Were you very specific that the money was to be used in the campaign?” Deputy Attorney General Susan Kase asked.
“Yes,” LaPelusa replied.
“What did Anthony Chiappone say to you when you told him that you wanted your paycheck to be used for the campaign?” Kase asked.
“He was very happy,” La Pelusa said. “I think he shook my hand at the time and said thank you.”
“Were you troubled by the fact that they were taking your paycheck?” Kase asked.
“I guess I was gung-ho,” LaPelusa replied. “I really believe in him. I thought he was going to win reelection, even off the [Democratic] line… to me, I never had that money so I didn’t mind giving it to him.”
At another point in the grand jury session, Kase asked La Pelusa, “Did you have any idea that it was going into the personal account of Anthony and Diane Chiappone?”
“No,” La Pelusa replied.
When asked about the taped conversation, Chiappone argued that the tape – if it had been presented – might have swayed the grand jury away from an indictment.
“Gary’s statements are inconsistent with the facts,” Chiappone said. “Even his own statements contradict each other at different times.”
LaPelusa, however, in responding to the Bayonne Community News’ questions last week disputed the claims of inconsistency.
“It’s a shame that he [Chiappone] doesn’t take responsibility of his own actions and inactions,” La Pelusa said. “I really believed in him when I first met him. I did everything for him. Mr. Chiappone used me and caused the state to come and question me about his actions from 2005, a year and half before I became councilman. The thanks I got for giving him money five years ago cost me thousands more in the end.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.