TRENTON – Hamilton Mayor John Bencivengo’s defense attorney spent the morning Wednesday cross-examining the government’s star witness in the feds’ criminal bribery case against the embattled mayor.
Attorney Jerome Ballarotto questioned former insurance broker Maria Ljuba about her relationship with the mayor and other Hamilton officials.
Ljuba testified that she gave thousands of dollars in bribes – including cash, trips to Disneyland and money for drugs – to Hamilton officials in an attempt to retain her multimillion-dollar contract with the township that netted her millions of dollars in commissions.
Ballarotto spent the morning painting a picture for jurors that shed light on the mayor’s close relationship with Ljuba, including how the mayor relied on her after he underwent surgery and how he spent Christmas Eve dinner with Ljuba and her family.
Bencivengo’s attorney also appeared to hammer home for jurors how her agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office allowed Ljuba to get off from all criminal prosecution.
“If fact, you could have gotten 20 years in jail for extortion,” Ballarotto said, while rattling off other possible jail sentences for her other alleged crimes.
“You understand that, right?” asked Ballarotto.
“Yes,” Ljuba responded.
Ballarotto promised jurors in his opening remarks that he planned to show how Ljuba threw the mayor under the bus in order to save herself from prosecution.
Jurors left the courtroom shortly before 1 p.m. for a one-hour lunch break.
The second day of the trial is expected to resume later this afternoon, when former Hamilton township official Rob Warney is expected to testify.
Warney, Hamilton’s former director of community planning and compliance, pleaded guilty in June to money laundering after officials say he funneled $5,000 in bribes from Ljuba to Bencivengo.