By Jennifer Van Doren and Dan Kraut, Staff Writers
Five Passaic police officers were indicted Tuesday on charges that they were paid to patrol city streets during the same hours they had contracted to serve as security guards for the school district.
Officials said it was School 4, a middle school on Lafayette Avenue, that went without police protection for which the district had paid.
Further, the indictment alleges, some of the officers also drew pay at those times for security work at a city supermarket or at the county unemployment and welfare office on Henry Street, which is owned by the wife of convicted felon Richard Doren.
One officer allegedly earned just over $2,500 as a security guard while double-dipping; two others allegedly made less than $100 each, officials said.
"If you can't trust the police, who can you trust?" schools Superintendent Robert Holster said Tuesday after learning of the indictments.
The indictments charge Officers James Pangaro and Eriberto Carrero with official misconduct and theft by deception. Officers Robert Longo, Jose Rivera, and Odalys Alvarez were indicted on lesser misconduct charges.
Long was suspended with Pangaro and Carrero in July 1996, when thy were first charged by prosecutors. City Police Chief Stanley A. Jarensky said departmental policy calls for indicted officers to be suspended but said a final determination will not be made on Rivera and Alvarez until he receives written notification of the indictment from the Prosecutor's Office.
"Any time a police officer is suspended it affects morale," said Jarensky, whose internal affairs division cooperated with the Prosecutor's Office in the probe. "We deal with it the way we always do. We assure the Police Department and the public in general we do not stand for corruption, and when we find it we root it out and make an arrest. There are many good police officers on this department."
Arthur G. Margeotes, Passaic County chief assistant prosecutor, said the officers were able to get away with the crime in part because Pangaro and Carrero were in charge of scheduling off-duty work for School 4. All told, School 4 paid $2,300 to the five officers for time that allegedly was spent mostly elsewhere.
"It's obvious these officers could not be working in two places at the same time and collecting pay for both," Margeotes said.
If convicted of the second-degree misconduct charges, Pangaro and Carrero each could receive a maximum 10-year prison term. The other three each face a maximum five years behind bars. Their lawyers plan a vigorous defense.
"We knew this was coming and now it gives us the opportunity to prove Pangaro's innocence," said Pangaro's lawyer, Miles Feinstein. "He is a good cop and he'll be vindicated and resume his job."
Anthony Fusco, lawyer for Carrero, said that the doubts the accuracy of the department's records. "He's said all along that he's not guilty and he's ready to fight it," Fusco said. "We have always challenged the integrity of the records and now we'll have to put our defense before a jury."
Fusco denied his client was in charge of off-duty scheduling for School 4.
Jarensky declined to comment on specifics of the probe.
When the news of the investigation broke last year there was some talk of changing the regulations for police overtime, but the police chief said Tuesday the current system is fine.
"It's virtually impossible to prevent an officer from doing something like this," Jarensky said. "There are no safeguards. That doesn't mean it's impossible to find out about it" after it happens.
After three officers were charged last years, the school district changed its policy to require police officers on duty there to sign in rather than just place an "X" next to their name, as was done in the past.
The indictment is the latest troubles for the scandal-plagued force. Including the five indicted Tuesday, nine officers have come under criminal probes for a variety of offenses including stealing drugs and setting a car on fire in an insurance scam.
Since the beginning of 1996, 13 officer--including those criminally charged--have been placed on suspension, fired, or left the department, which is supposed to have 149 officers at full strength. And although the new budget calls for 12 new officers, it will likely take time for them to be hired, trained, and put on the beat.
"Manpower shortage is always a concern," Jarensky said. "I'll be taking that up with the police director."
Mayor Margie Semler stressed that "everybody is innocent until proven guilty," but continued: "If there are any indications that there is more illegal activity taking place within the department, it will be vigorously pursued. Until such time we take the position we have an excellent force."
Margeotes said school officials first notified Passaic's internal affairs office in December 1995 about problems with the officers who were hired but didn't show up. And, on at least one occasion, an officer parked an empty patrol car at the school to give the appearance that he was there, Margeotes said.
Margeotes explained the alleged scam like this: "Maybe these officers have a schedule with Passaic Police department from 4 a.m. to noon. But then they're supposed to work for School 4 from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m."
Pangaro and Carrero are charged with theft because the amount they allegedly earned is higher than $500. All five are free pending their trial.