FREEHOLD – A three-judge panel of the Superior Court, Appellate Division, denied the appeal of former Wall Township School Superintendent James Habel in a 31-page opinion issued today, announced Monmouth County Prosecutor Christopher J. Gramiccioni.
Habel, now 61, was found guilty of Official Misconduct and four counts of Falsifying or Tampering with Public Records after a nine-week jury trial before former Monmouth County Superior Court Judge Francis J. Vernoia. In December 2015, now-retired Monmouth County Superior Court Judge Ronald L. Reisner sentenced Habel on his convictions to a five-year prison term with no possibility of parole, barred Habel from ever holding any public office in New Jersey, and forfeited his state pension and retirement benefits.
At trial, evidence was presented about Habel’s scheme to defraud the school district by traveling to his second home in Dunedin, Florida on work days and not putting in for vacation time. This enabled Habel to cash in unused vacation days at a significant per diem value. Witnesses testified that there were days, and even entire weeks, when Habel would not show up for work, and E-Z Pass, airline, and cell phone records placed him in Florida. As part of his scheme, Habel thwarted attempts by school district human resources officials to accurately record his attendance and directed the district’s Information Technology (IT) Director to delete emails from the school district’s computer server between Habel and Spirit Airlines, the airline he frequently used to fly to and from Florida on school days. The evidence at trial also established that each year between 2008 and 2011, Habel lied to the district about his personal mileage of his district vehicle, a $60,000 Yukon Denali which he purchased with district funds for his own use.
Habel filed an appeal after he was sentenced, alleging ten points of error. Habel’s primary claim was that his trial was unfair because his trial lawyer had a side-switching conflict of interest, formerly serving as the First Assistant Monmouth County Prosecutor. Among other issues, Habel also challenged the instructions given by the court to the jury, disputed the legal sufficiency of the evidence supporting his Official Misconduct conviction, argued the prosecutor committed misconduct, and claimed his sentence was excessive.
Handing down their decision today, New Jersey Appellate Division Judges Douglas Fasciale, Thomas W. Sumners, Jr., and Scott J. Moynihan rejected all of defendant’s arguments. The appellate court also upheld the sentence imposed on Habel, ruling that Judge Reisner did not abuse his discretion.
The case was successfully prosecuted at the trial level by Monmouth County Assistant Prosecutor John Loughrey, Director of the Office’s Investigation Division and Assistant Prosecutor Melanie Falco, Director of the Office’s Financial Crimes and Public Corruption Bureau. The appeal was successfully argued by Assistant Prosecutor Mary Juliano, Director of the Office’s Appellate Unit.
Habel was represented at trial by Robert A. Honecker, Jr., of Ocean Township. He was represented at sentencing and on appeal by Edward C. Bertucio, Jr., of Eatontown.
In November 2012, the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office, under the leadership of Prosecutor Gramiccioni, launched a Corruption Tip Line designed to solicit the public’s assistance in identifying and targeting corruption, fraud, and misconduct occurring in local governmental agencies. Citizens may report concerns via the following: Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office Corruption Tip Line — 855-7-UNJUST (855-786-5878); or, Email – firstname.lastname@example.org (write “Corruption/Misconduct Tip” in the subject line).
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