Prosecutors hit play on Hamilton mayor recordings, Bencivengo says he ‘can’t get caught up’ on bills

TRENTON – Embattled Hamilton Mayor John Bencivengo told a former friend and federal cooperating witness during secretly recorded meetings that he was “just so sick” over his financial situation.

Prosecutors hit play on audio recordings made by a former insurance broker, Maria Ljuba, in which the mayor agonized over being able to pay his bills. The recordings were played Tuesday during the sitting mayor’s criminal trial.

“I can’t keep going on like this,” Bencivengo said during a meeting with Ljuba.

“I am sick. I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he said during another audio clip. “I can’t get caught up. I’m in so much (expletive) turmoil.”

During the recorded encounters, the pair discussed the mayor going to Atlantic City and claiming he won cash Ljuba planned to give him from a casino.

Prosecutors also played a secret video recording which showed Bencivengo counting $2,400 in cash given to him by Ljuba.

“Thank you,” Bencivengo said. “I love you.”

Prosecutors continued to question their star witness during day one of the mayor’s trial Tuesday that came after Bencivengo was charged in April with soliciting $12,400 in bribes to help an insurance company retain a contract with the township’s school district.

Ljuba told jurors today she was worried that she could lose her contract with the Hamilton Township School District after a member of the school board, Stephanie Pratico, suggested the board go out to bid for a new insurance contract.

Bencivengo’s attorney told jurors during opening arguments that Ljuba essentially threw her former friend under the bus after she was approached by the FBI last year. His attorney, Jerome Ballarotto, described Ljuba as a corrupted insurance broker who gave his client a loan and then turned on him to save herself from criminal charges.

"Let’s be clear, this was not a ‘humanitarian’ act by the Castro regime. It was a swap of convicted spies for an innocent American."
—U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ)