TRENTON – Prosecutors’ star witness in Hamilton Mayor John Bencivengo’s bribery trial told jurors she donated heavily to the mayor’s campaign to gain influence and retain her lucrative contract with the township’s school district.
Maria Ljuba, a former close friend of the embattled mayor, took to the witness stand Tuesday. Ljuba told jurors she donated between $8,000 and $15,000 to the mayor’s campaign and to Hamilton Republicans, “way more” than the legal limit, in an attempt to gain influence.
“I had a very lucrative contract with the school district and I never wanted to lose that contract,” she said.
Ljuba described using “straw contributions” in an effort to donate more than was legally permissible and evading state ELEC laws.
Bencivengo came face-to-face with his former friend in the courtroom during day one of his criminal trial.
The sitting mayor sat across the room from Ljuba, who prosecutors say recorded the mayor accepting thousands of dollars in bribes in exchange for using his influence to help her retain her contract with the township’s school district.
Ljuba also testified that she gave Hamilton school board members thousands of dollars worth of gifts in an effort to retain influence. Gifts ranged from trips to Disneyland to giving thousands of dollars for members to purchase new clothes, she said.
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.
She testified that she was approached by former township official Rob Warney about getting money to Bencivengo, who was underwater with bills and needed assistance paying back taxes.
“He had told me that he was going to need help,” she said, referring to a telephone conversation between her and the mayor sometime after her discussion with Warney.
She described how she and the mayor decided she would write a $5,000 check to Warney’s wife, and that Ljuba’s husband would sign the check so it could not be traced directly to her. Ljuba told the jury they thought a criminal case against them would get thrown out on “a technicality” if they ever got caught.
The memo on the check said the $5,000 was for a “cherry bedroom set.” Ljuba said it was Bencivengo’s idea to write that in the memo.