FBI agent: Bencivengo looked ‘shocked’ when authorities played secret tapes

TRENTON – When FBI agents first questioned Hamilton Mayor John Bencivengo about accepting cash from an insurance broker turned federal informant, he looked “kind of shocked,” said the FBI special agent who questioned the mayor about the alleged bribery scheme.

Federal prosecutors called FBI Special Agent Stephen Montgomery to the stand Wednesday to give testimony on the FBI’s initial interview with the embattled mayor. Montgomery described going to the mayor’s apartment for the first round of questioning, where they played for the mayor secretly recorded tapes of conversations between him and his former friend.

The tapes contained conversations in which the mayor appeared to accept cash from Maria Ljuba, a former insurance broker who testified that she bribed Bencivengo and other town officials in an effort to retain her lucrative contract with the Hamilton school district.

“After we played the tape I remember he kind of slumped in his chair and said, ‘Jeez, this looks pretty bad,’” Montgomery recalled of his conversation with Bencivengo.

“He indicated that … he was ashamed that he took the money,” Montgomery said.

The special agent said the mayor “kind of looked a little stunned and just surprised” about the agents’ questions.

Under further questioning from federal prosecutors, the FBI agent later described how Bencivengo agreed to wear a wire for the FBI to secretly record conversations with Rob Warney, the man authorities say funneled an alleged $5,000 bribe from Ljuba to the mayor.

Montgomery described how the FBI followed the mayor to the LongHorn Steakhouse in Hamilton for an arranged sit-down with Warney. The FBI hoped to record Warney discussing the $5,000 check from Ljuba, Montgomery said.

During cross-examination by Bencivengo’s attorney, Jerome Ballarotto, Montgomery was questioned about why the FBI didn’t record an alleged confession by Bencivengo that the money was accepted as a bribe to use his official duties to influence public policy.

“What could be the most incriminating statements by the mayor himself and you didn’t record it?” Ballarotto asked Montgomery, who replied that it is not the FBI’s policy to record confessions.

"It’s not a political environment that’s particularly warm for incumbents, but it looks like Booker has little to be worried about as the campaign season draws to a close."
—Krista Jenkins, poll director and professor of political science, FDU.