Facing federal charges, Toms River superintendent quits

An image of Michael Ritacco from the Toms River Regional Schools website. (Toms River Regional Schools website)
October 21, 2010 5:34:37 PM PDT
The superintendent of New Jersey's fourth-largest school district surrendered to the FBI on Thursday and was charged with fraud and bribery over an alleged insurance-kickback scheme that federal officials called "staggering" in its scope.

Toms River Schools Superintendent Michael Ritacco, who makes $234,000 a year from his job leading the school district, was implicated earlier this week when a school district supervisor and a Morris County insurance broker admitted in court they had been part of a scheme to inflate school insurance charges and kick back part of the money to Ritacco as bribes.

He announced his abrupt retirement Thursday night in a letter to the Board of Education, effective Friday morning. The board unanimously accepted it and appointed Assistant Superintendent Frank Roselli to lead the district on an interim basis while the New Jersey School Boards Association leads a search for a permanent replacement.

"I'm grateful for your support and confidence," Ritacco wrote in his resignation letter.

Officials from the FBI and the U.S. attorney's office announced an 18-count indictment Thursday against Ritacco and an insurance broker, Francis Gartland, who did business with the district.

Officials say the 62-year-old Ritacco, of Seaside Park, and 69-year-old Gartland of Baltimore, Md., concealed more than $1 million in bribes between 2002 and 2010 from insurance brokers and other service providers. Court documents say the men spent money on home renovations, watches that cost tens of thousands of dollars, and other personal expenses. Ritacco also allegedly bought a girlfriend - also on the district payroll - a car and other gifts, including money for the college tuition of one of her relatives, according to court papers.

Noting that even in the face of six high-profile public corruption cases in the past two weeks alone in New Jersey, Fishman called Ritacco's alleged scheme "staggering in its magnitude and scope."

"No matter what one's position or title, every corrupt public official has real victims," Fishman said. "Every time they line their own pockets, they strike at the core of the people's trust in their government."

Ritacco made a five-minute court appearance Thursday afternoon, speaking only to say he understood the charges against him and that he had secured his own counsel.

No plea was entered. Federal Magistrate Michael Shipp directed that he be released on a $1 million bond secured by his Seaside Park home.

Defense attorney Jerome Ballarotto, who did not appear with him in court, said earlier that Ritacco was not a party to any criminal activity.

"The statements by those two guys on Monday will clearly be proven not to involve Mike," Ballarotto said. "If they committed offenses, they did it without Mike. Mike Ritacco has cooperated with this investigation from day one.

"There's such a thing in America as presumed innocent until proven guilty," the lawyer said. "We should all keep that in mind."

But some residents who turned out for a Board of Education meeting at which Ritacco's job status was being discussed behind closed doors before a likely vote on whether to take action against him, were not as patient.

"He stole from our children and robbed the taxpayers blind," said Kathy Lazaro. "This man made almost as much as the president of the United States, and it still wasn't enough for him."

"It's a shame that it took this long to bring this guy to justice," added Charles Henry, a resident who had long criticized Ritacco's outside business ventures including building homes that he then sold to school board administrators. "We always hoped somebody would listen to us, but it never went anywhere."

School board president Linda Garvey said the district's operations will continue as usual.

"Our students will receive a first-class education, they will get their lunch, our grass will be cut, our buildings will be serviced," she said. "We understand this has been a difficult time for all of us."

She did not directly respond to a resident's demand that the Ritacco Center, a large auditorium and concert center owned by the school district, be renamed immediately.

Ritacco was charged in 17 of the counts, including mail fraud, wire fraud and bribery. The most serious charges carry a maximum possible sentence of 20 years on each count.

Gartland is expected to surrender Friday and appear in court, according to the U.S. Attorney. It was not immediately clear whether he has hired an attorney.

FBI Special Agent in Charge Michael B. Ward of the Newark office said the investigation was a joint effort between the FBI, the IRS and the U.S. Attorney's Office, and would be continuing. He declined to elaborate, but said it was not limited to Toms River.

Frank D'Alonzo, a former athletics and special projects supervisor for the district, and Frank Cotroneo, a Morristown insurance broker, pleaded guilty Monday in U.S. District Court in Trenton to bribery and tax evasion.

They admitted funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars to a school official who is identified in court papers only as "Executive Employee."

Ballarotto said Ritacco was unaware the FBI had planned to arrest him Thursday morning. When Ritacco found out, he drove to Ballarotto's office in Trenton.

The lawyer, however, was in Florida. Two lawyers, Brian Neary and William Hughes, accompanied Ritacco to court.

FBI agents went to Ritacco's Seaside Park home and Toms River office before dawn, but he was not there. They also staked out his offices at the Toms River Board of Education complex.


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