North Bergen's deputy public safety director - and a long-time personal driver and friend of Mayor Nicholas Sacco - pleaded guilty in United States Federal Court in Newark Wednesday afternoon to a charge that he put in a fraudulent insurance claim after a fire damaged his family's laundry and dry cleaning business.
Vincent Zappulla, 67, appeared before U.S. District Judge Alfred M. Wolin, admitting that he participated in a fraud in connection to the claims made after a 1996 fire heavily damaged Laundry Time, a business located on Bergenline Avenue that was operated by Zappulla's daughter.
Zappulla's guilty plea comes exactly six days after a federal indictment was handed down against former Township Administrator Joseph Auriemma, alleging that Auriemma took cash payments and had illegal work done on his two residences by a contractor who did $2.7 million worth of air conditioning, heating and construction work in the township over the last eight years.
Reports have suggested that the contractor allegedly involved with the Auriemma indictment is the same contractor directly involved with Zappulla's guilty plea.
According to testimony Zappulla gave to Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Clark, Zappulla allegedly submitted fraudulent claims to State Farm Insurance Company. In the information provided, Zappulla produced an estimate for the cost of equipment repair that was inflated by more than $4,000 and received reimbursement based on the alleged estimate.
According to a statement released by Clark, at the insistence of Zappulla, the contractor created a false receipt stating that the contractor had been paid $52,385 for doing all the renovations to the building after the fire.
However, other records discovered in the FBI probe said that the contractor was paid substantially less than $52,385.
Based on the receipt, Laundry Time received an insurance payment of approximately $8,200, which it was not entitled to receive.
According to Clark's release, Zappulla was able to obtain the contractor's assistance in the fraud scheme because of his position as a North Bergen public official, where the contractor had numerous contracts.
At press time, Sacco refused to comment on the guilty plea made by Zappulla.
Township spokesman Paul Swibinski said Zappulla's felony plea had nothing to do with the official business of the township.
"It was not public business, but rather a private matter between Mr. Zappulla, his insurance company and the U.S. Attorney's Office," Swibinski said. "It has nothing to do with anyone involved in this administration. It's important to realize that fact."
Fellow township spokesman Craig Schmalz said that Zappulla had already put in his retirement request from his $80,000-per-year position with the township last month.
"Mr. Zappulla has accumulated sick time and vacation time, which he will now take," Schmalz said. "His retirement paperwork is being processed. But he will not return to his position with the public safety department."
According to Clark's office, Zappulla faces a maximum of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine when he is sentenced in front of Wolin on Oct. 7.
However, published reports and close sources have both stated that Zappulla will more than likely not serve any jail time and will serve some sort of a sentence under house arrest and probation. There is no speculation as to the amount of the fine that will be handed down.
According to two township officials, Zappulla told town officials that the house arrest was part of a plea bargain established by his attorney, Samuel DeLuca of Jersey City.
DeLuca returned a phone call late Wednesday afternoon to say that he was "currently on trial with another case" and would not be able to return another call until after press time Thursday.
DeLuca told two different newspapers that Zappulla's plea bargain does not require him to cooperate with the investigation as a witness.
In two published reports, DeLuca said that the contractor in question is 40-year-old Leonard Farinola, the owner and operator of Fresco Air Systems, Inc., in Fort Lee. The U.S. Attorney's office continues todecline to identify Farinola as the key witness who has turned state's evidence in the investigation, but DeLuca said that he knows that Farinola "wore a wire" in order to secure evidence against both Auriemma and Zappulla.
Farinola's attorney, Pasquale Giannetti of Wayne, said last week that he believes that Farinola will be soon indicted in the case, probably within the "next two weeks."
Under United States sentencing guidelines, Judge Wolin will determine Zappulla's actual sentence based on a formula that takes into account the severity and characteristics of the offense and Zappulla's criminal history, if any, U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie said.
If Zappulla is granted house arrest, he must serve the entire term handed down by Judge Wolin. Parole is no longer an option in the federal court system.
The probe does not end with the indictment of Auriemma and the plea bargain of Zappulla. Both spokespeople for the U.S. Attorney's Office and the FBI state that the "investigation is ongoing," and that "more indictments are quite possible."
Auriemma faces arraignment within that time period as well, according to a spokesman from the U.S. Attorney's Office.