THE CODE OF SEATING ARRANGEMENTS

A presentation on code enforcement matters drew a pretty sparse and rather muted crowd Wednesday night.

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But redbankgreen was distracted, we admit, by who showed up and sat together at the table nearest Borough Administrator Stanley Sickels as he spoke to 30 or so residents in the River Street Commons auditorium.

Sunny Sharma (in hat), owner of Best Liquors on Leighton Avenue, sat opposite John Ross (in green t-shirt) and John Tyler (in orange shirt). Tyler and Ross are Leighton Avenue homeowners who have been demanding that the borough put Sharma out of business over noise, litter and other violations.

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CODE WORD: ENFORCEMENT

Red Bankers have heard a lot about code enforcement in recent months. There appears to be a consensus that a lack of vigor in holding absentee landlords accountable for housing violations is at the root of rental-house overcrowding, particularly but not exclusively on the West Side.

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This, in turn, has contributed to challenges ranging from noise and litter to a burgeoning school population that does not speak English as a first language, imposing additional education costs on taxpayers, say critics.

Pat Menna ran for mayor promising to beef up code enforcement. Now that he’s taken office, what can residents expect in terms of action?

Some answers might be had tomorrow night at the River Street Commons when the Westside Community Group hosts a code enforcement forum beginning at 7p. The public is invited.

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BEST LIQUORS TRIAL POSTPONED

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The Borough Council’s trial-like hearing on a series of seven allegations against the liquor license of Best Liquors has been postponed for a month, according to today’s Asbury Park Press.

The reason: store owner Sunny Sharma’s hiring of a new lawyer, Mitchell Ansell. Word of the new counsel reached borough officials Monday, and they agreed that Ansell should have time to prepare his defense against the allegations, which include five counts of selling liquor to minors.

From the article:

“The party in the case just reached us and asked us for an adjournment,” Mayor Edward J. McKenna Jr. said. “I’d ask we grant that adjournment so we can afford him due process.”

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COUNCIL ‘NEUTRAL’ IN SHARMA SQUEEZE

Elected officials suddenly went into lips-zipped mode on the topic of Best Liquors last night, asking citizens to refrain from discussing or inquiring about the case of the controversial West Side retailer during the public portion of the borough council’s bimonthly meeting.

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The reason? To avoid any appearance that the council might have prejudged a hearing, tentatively scheduled for Dec. 6, on whether to revoke or suspend the store’s liquor license for a variety of alleged offenses that have had neighbors demanding a shutdown of the store for months.

That trial-like civil hearing on the status of the store’s liquor license will be prosecuted by Assistant Borough Attorney Thomas Hall, who takes his marching orders from the council. The council itself, several of whose members have openly discussed possible ways to terminate the store’s license, will rule on the matter.

Now, though, Mayor Ed McKenna says council members should stay mum on the subject to avoid giving the impression that the hearing won’t be fair, or give store owner of Sunny Sharma grounds for an appeal should the council rule against him.

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WEST SIDE ROBBERS SENTENCED

Lengthy sentences were imposed last week on two Lakewood men convicted in a 2003 robbery and beating at Katsin’s Pharmacy on Shrewsbury Avenue.

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One of the assailants was sentenced to 40 years in prison, and his accomplice got 16 years. A third man involved in the crime was never identified. DNA evidence played a role in the investigation and prosecution.

The Asbury Park Press has the story.

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TRADER FROM LITTLE SILVER SENTENCED

A New York Stock Exchange floor trader from Little Silver was sentenced to 27 months in federal prison yesterday for his guilty plea to charges of “trading ahead” of clients, or buying stocks for his or his firm’s account at prices better than those available to clients.

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Patrick McGagh Jr., 40, a former senior trader with Van Der Moolen Specialists USA, was indicted in April 2005 as part of a wide-ranging sweep of floor specialist firms that cost investors some $19 million, according to federal prosecutors.

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FAIR HAVEN ARCHITECT INDICTED

An architect and member of the Fair Haven Zoning Board was indicted earlier this week on federal charges of shaking down a contractor for $100,000 in connection with his work in Bayonne.

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Today’s Jersey Journal has the details on the case against Avelino “Al” Sambade.

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O’GRADY GETS 43 MONTHS

Former Middletown Committeeman Raymond O’Grady, Just_insmall_2 who purportedly told undercover FBI investigators that he could “smell a cop…a mile away,” was sentenced to 43 years in federal prison today for his role in the wide-ranging corruption probe called Operation Bid Rig.

The Asbury Park Press has details of the sentencing, at which U.S. District Judge William J. Martini said the evidence “showed a public official ready and willing to take bribes in his public capacity.”

O’Grady, Martini said, “had numerous opportunities to say no.”

O’Grady was convicted at trial in June on five counts of bribery and extortion for accepting $8,000 in graft, both in his official capacity in Middletown and in his role as manager of Monmouth County’s vehicle fleet.

His lawyer, Kevin Roe, told the Press that O’Grady continues to maintain his innocence and will appeal both the verdict and the sentence.

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TAKE-OUT TROUBLE?

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The West Side property that’s the site of Best Liquors has been home to retail businesses for 90 years. For a good part of that history, it was a grocery, but since 1965, it’s been a liquor retailer, says store owner Pankaj ‘Sunny’ Sharma.

Sharma, who’s 30 years old, drives a red sports car and could pass for a matinee idol, has had the store for just three years. But in that time, he says, he’s been diligent about upgrading and maintaining the property.

He matched public funds to pay for a colorful mural along the store’s exposed southern wall. He installed halogen lighting outside and a camera system so he could keep an eye on things from his cash register. Recently, after complaints from neighbors, he hired someone to come by twice a day to pick up wrappers and other debris that customers drop on the sidewalk.

“All of this stuff, the store didn’t have before,” says Sharma. The effect, he says, has been to improve both the look of the corner and the safety. “Even the police chief said that in the last five years, crime is down 70 percent at this corner,” he says.

But Sharma’s neighbors, all of them homeowners, aren’t buying it. Citing a welter of complaints about noise, littering, public urination and prostitution that they say is getting worse—and which they link directly to the store’s presence—they insist that it’s time for the shop’s long run to end.

No matter what it takes, they say, it’s time to shut Sunny down.

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WOMAN HURT IN HIT & RUN

Shrewsbury police are seeking the public’s help in solving a hit-and-run involving a pedestrian from Red Bank earlier this week.

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Angelica Serrano, 23, suffered a broken pelvis and leg and facial injuries when she was struck by a vehicle shortly after leaving her job at a pizzeria on the Tinton Falls side of Shrewsbury Avenue, according to a story in today’s Asbury Park Press. Serrano remains at Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune.

The incident, on the northbound side of Shrewsbury Avenue, near Patterson Avenue, is believed to have occurred between 9p and 9:50p Tuesday night.

Police believe the vehicle that struck Serrano is a Toyota Corolla, model year between 2004 to 2007. It has damage to the right-front grill, and possibly to the hood.

Anyone with information about the is asked to call Sgt. Allan Morris or Patrolman Adam Cerminaro at (732) 741-2500.

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TAX-DODGE TO QUIT TAXATION POST

Jack Westlake, the Monouth Couty Board of Taxation president who last week pleaded guilty to federal tax evasion charges, will quit his part-time county post, the Asbury Park Press reports, citing Westlake’s lawyer.

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Westlake, whom the Press says is a Red Bank resident, is expected to step down by Friday, his lawyer, John C. Whipple, told the Press. Westlake is scheduled to be sentenced Dec. 19 to between 10 and 16 months in prison, under the terms of a plea deal.

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RUMSON EXEC FACING CHILD SEX CHARGES

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A Rumson man has been charged with trying to lure a person he’d been told was a 6-year-old girl for a sexual encounter in a Bergen County hotel, according to the Star-Ledger.

Lee Devinsky, a 35-year-old advertising executive, was arrested at the hotel in Park Ridge on Saturday. He was arraigned yesterday on one count each of attempted aggravated sexual assault and endangering the welfare of a child, the Ledger reported, citing Bergen County prosecutors.

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TAGGED: IT’S ON THE VICTIMS

Thirty-eight graffiti incidents have been reported in Red Bank so far this year, compared to 43 for all of 2005, according to a story by Larry Higgs in today’s Asbury Park Press.

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Click on the image to enlarge it.

The arrests this year of a 21-year-old Middletown man and a 17-year-old borough boy, both charged with criminal mischief, have cleared 15 of this year’s cases and three from last year, the Press reports, quoting Lt. Stephen McCarthy.

The details are part of Higgs’ story about a new state law that requires property owners to remove or paint over graffiti no more than 90 days after their properties get tagged. The idea is that the sooner the defacement is erased, the more discouraged the graffitists become.

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BANK ROBBED, SUSPECT NABBED

A 40-year-old Monmouth Beach man who once robbed a bank and then turned himself in is under arrest again, this time for robbing the Broad Street branch of Sovereign Bank on Tuesday.

The Asbury Park Press has the story.

The Press reports that Martin N. Racioppi, who was on parole from his prior conviction, demanded money from a Sovereign teller at 4:15p Tuesday and walked off with more than $5,000. No weapon was involved, according to authorities.

Monmouth County Prosecutor Luis Valentin told the Press that Racioppi was arrested Wednesday in Monmouth Beach, but not as his home. Racioppi is reported to be in the Monmouth County Jail on robbery and parole violation charges.

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SHREWSBURY JEWELER JAIL-BOUND

The owner of a jewelry store in The Grove was sentenced to federal prison earlier this week for tax evasion that a judge called an example of “appalling” greed.

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The Asbury Park Press has the story about Lincinio Neves, owner of Neves Jewelers. He also owns a second store in Woodbridge.

Neves, a 60-year-old Spring Lake resident, was sentenced to serve six and a half months in prison for failing to report cash purchases at his stores. Then he’ll be confined to his home for another six and a half months.

Neves pleaded guilty in 2001 to hiding $150,000 in sales. No reason is given in the story for the five-year gap between Neves’ plea and his sentencing.

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WET JUMPER WAS WANTED

Turns out one of the two women who jumped off the Oceanic Bridge earlier this month was wanted on drug charges in Broward, County, Florida, and had outstanding warrants in Hazlet and Middletown, the Asbury Park Press reports today.

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Yvonne R. Dura, 23, also gave the Rumson police a fake name when they issued summonses to her and another woman for jumping off the bridge into the Navesink on Aug. 6, according to updated charges

Dura is being held in the Monmouth County Jail in lieu of $205,000 bail, the Press reports.

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LITTLE SILVER LAWYER ADMITS THEFTS

A Little Silver attorney in a Manhattan-based personal injury practice has pleaded guilty with his sole partner to stealing $275,000 from clients.

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According to a report in Thursday’s New York Times, Michael Mann, 40, of Little Silver, pleaded guilty with his partner, Joshua Just, a New York City resident, to billing at least 10 clients for expenses that were never incurred by the firm, known as Mann & Just.

The North Country Gazette, a publication specializing in investigative reporting, says:

Mann and Just pleaded guilty to first degree scheme to defraud before New York State Judge Michael Ambrecht. Under the terms of the plea, each defendant will pay $206,875, in restitution, forfeiture, and surcharges, and will be sentenced to five years probation and 400 hours of community service…

As a result of their felony pleas, they face mandatory disbarment…

Mann could not be reached for comment.

GUILTY PLEAS IN FORT FRAUD

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The three owners of the Red Bank house shown here have pleaded guilty to federal charges in connection with an alleged plot to defraud the government through a kickback scheme at Fort Monmouth.

A story in today’s Asbury Park Press says the trio bilked the government out of more than $990,000.

In federal court in Trenton Wednesday, Michael Rzeplinski, 56, admitted that in 2002 he used his position as a program director of the General Services Administration at the fort to arrange no-show jobs for Kirsten Davidson, 33, with a fort contractor. The arrangement netted Davidson some $283,000 for work she didn’t perform.

Rzeplinksi also admitted setting up a phony subcontracting firm that that bilked the fort out of $4,500 a month.

From the Press:

“It’s as if the government was a pinata and they were all taking swings at it,” said James Murawski, a Department of Defense investigator.

Davidson admitted to her role in the no-show scheme. Her mother, Connie Davidson, another fort employee, admitted she knew of the fraud but did nothing to stop it.

Rzeplinski, 56, bought the house, located at 192 Branch Avenue, in 2003 for $300,000. Monmouth County records show he transferred the deed to himself and the two Davidson women in early 2005. In recent months, an extensive addition to the house, including the construction of a large garage, has been underway.

redbankgreen stopped by the house earlier today, where a woman who identified herself as Kirsten Davidson said she would have no comment until “later.”

Sentencing is scheduled for Nov. 13 in Trenton. The defendants, who remain free on bond, face prison terms of up to 10 years.

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CRIME RATES DOWN

Today’s Star-Ledger has a comprehensive look at the latest crime stats in New Jersey. Users can access data town-by-town.

The trend is generally positive, except for a disturbing uptick in urban homicides. From the story in the Ledger:

There were 418 people murdered last year in New Jersey, the highest toll in a dozen years, and more than half of them were slain in major cities where officials have struggled to combat gun violence, according to a report released yesterday by the State Police.

Overall, crime in the state dropped 3 percent between 2004 and 2005, reaching its lowest level in a generation, the annual Uniform Crime Report showed. Most types of violent crime were down, including rape, which was down 9 percent.

Statewide, there were 26.9 crimes per thousand residents in 2005, versus a five-year average of 30.5, according to the report. In Monmouth County, the rate was 21.7, compared to a five-year trend of 23.1.

The picture is encouraging locally as well. Red Bank’s overall crime rate was 24.9 per thousand last year, down from 27.9 in 2004. Violent crime—murders, rapes, robberies, arsons and aggravated assaults—in the borough dropped to 2.43 crimes per thousand, from 3.65.

Both Fair Haven and Sea Bright reported no violent crimes at all last year. Fair Haven’s overall crime rate was 7.9 per thousand residents, while in Sea Bright, the rate was 23.09. All but one of Sea Bright’s 42 crimes reported last year were larcenies.

Crime was up for the third year in a row in Tinton Falls.

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DRUNK, WET & ORNERY

Larry Higgs of the Asbury Park Press has an item today about the arrests of two young women who dove off the Oceanic Bridge Sunday afternoon and wound up getting arrested by Rumson police, one for assaulting an officer, the other for public intoxication.

The arrests were made on the dock of the Salt Creek Grille.

THREE NEW COPS FOR RED BANK

Red Bank has three new probationary police officers, filling vacancies created by resignations and retirements.

George Travostino and John Camarca are recent graduate of the Monmouth County Police Academy. Thomas Doremus begins his training a the academy this month.

The Hub has the story.

ZAZZALI ON DECK

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Rumson resident James R. Zazzali, Associate Justice on the state Supreme Court, is Gov. Jon Corzine’s choice to succeed Chief Justice Deborah Poritz upon her expected retirement in the fall, according to a story by scoop machine Josh Margolin in today’s Star-Ledger.

“By promoting Zazzali, Corzine would be all but assured of a big confirmation victory in the state Senate, while elevating a judge who is a popular Democrat with strong bipartisan ties,” Margolin reports.

Zazzali is unlikely to hold the job for long, if he gets it. The state Constitution requires that justices retire at age 70, a milestone Zazzali will reach in a year. Poritz turns 70 in October.

Zazzali is a former state Attorney General. A Democrat, he was appointed to the high court by by then-Gov. Christie Whitman, a Republican, in 2000.

His nomination is likely to be announced in July or August, the Ledger reports. The story also says that Corzine is “known for making critical decisions at the last minute (and) could still change his mind, but that is highly unlikely.”

The Ledger also reports that Corzine will likely stick with tradition and appoint a Republican to fill Zazzali’s associate spot to maintain partisan balance.

TO THE BIG HOUSE, BUT NOT ON WARD AVE.

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Rev. Joseph W. Hughes was sentenced to five years in state prison yesterday for stealing $2 million from the Holy Cross Church in Rumson and living a swell life with the dough.

The heavy sentence, handed down by Superior Court Judge Bette E. Uhrmacher, was a clear rejection of Hughes’ claims, in pleading for leniency, that he is by nature excessively charitable and gave away much of the pilfered cash. But prosecutors contended there wasn’t a shred of evidence that any of the money was deployed for charity. Instead, they maintained, it went to luxury travel for Hughes and paid for a home, a Porsche and a BMW for a parish employee Hughes favored.

Hughes agreed to repay the parish $120,000. But the 63-year-old cleric and doesn’t have "two nickels to rub together," his lawyer told the judge, and Monmouth County Prosecutor Luis Valentin acknowledged that the sum probably won’t be returned, according to the Star-Ledger.

Hughes is now in the Monmouth County Jail but will probably do his time in a minimum-security prison.