2006-09-27 / Front Page
Coughlin given two-year sentence
Attorney: Alcoholism played role in former Hazlet mayor's crime
BY KARL VILACOBA
Former Hazlet Mayor Paul Coughlin's judgment was impaired by alcohol when he accepted a $3,000 bribe from an FBI informant, and he regretted his choice immediately after, his attorney told a federal judge on Friday.
U.S. District Judge Joel Pisano, presiding in Trenton, sentenced Coughlin, 42, to 24 months in prison, two years of supervised probation and a $5,000 fine for accepting the bribe in May 2004 from a cooperating witness he believed was a corrupt contractor. He was ordered to begin his jail term within six weeks.
Defense attorney Jerome Ballorotto, while acknowledging his client committed the crime, also said there was a "willingness by the FBI to take advantage of his very serious alcohol problem." Coughlin did not use this as an excuse, he said, but the judge should take his mental health at the time into consideration when deciding his sentence. He has since sought help for his alcoholism and regularly attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
The attorney said he wanted to take the case to trial, and was fairly confident he could win. But when Coughlin reviewed the evidence against him, he said, "I can't do this" and felt "sick to my stomach," according to Ballorotto.
Coughlin was arrested along with 10 other Monmouth County area officials on Feb. 22, 2005, in an undercover FBI sting called Operation Bid Rig. The former mayor was accused of accepting the bribe from Robert "Duke" Steffer, owner of Steffer Demolition, in exchange for steering the job of demolishing Hazlet's municipal building his way. Coughlin never delivered the job for Steffer.
Nonetheless, both the prosecution and defense acknowledged Friday that Coughlin was offered a second bribe on Steffer's behalf at a private meeting in Atlantic City on November of 2004. However, both sides presented very different interpretations as to why he didn't accept this second payoff.
According to Ballorotto, Coughlin was overcome with guilt over what he had done the first time, and was not going to let it happen again, despite the persistence of undercover agents. On that night, he said, one physically imposing agent - perhaps 6'5" or 6'6" - grabbed Coughlin's coat, opened it and tried to force an envelope full of cash into his pocket. Ballorotto said Coughlin left the room and told unidentified people waiting for him outside, "We're leaving. These guys just tried to give me a bribe."
Undercover agents contacted him at least five times after he accepted the bribe, according to Ballorotto, including one day when an undercover showed up at his house and said, "Hey, why aren't you calling the Duke back?"
Ballorotto argued that Coughlin's resistance to further corrupt offers showed he was a good mayor who made one bad mistake - which was largely due to his struggles with alcoholism - and he should be dealt a lenient sentence.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Judith Germano countered that the only reason Coughlin refused to accept the bribe was that he feared being discovered by his deputy mayor, who was waiting outside. According to Germano, Coughlin told agents, "There's going to be a time and place, guaranteed."
On Monday, Coughlin's deputy mayor at the time, current Mayor Michael Sachs, said he did not recall the incident.
Germano said a scheme to cover his tracks suggested Coughlin was not contrite about his crime. When he accepted the money, she said, Coughlin sarcastically remarked it was a contribution for his political party and planned to hold to that claim if he was caught, even creating a false document to verify his story.
"Not only did he take the $3,000 bribe, but then he tried to cover it up by saying it's for the political party. ... That was his cover story and his way out," Germano said.
Whether Coughlin's regret was genuine or not, Pisano said he had problems with the "easy mark/alcohol defense."
"When you woke up the next morning and realized what you'd done, that was your time to step up to the plate," the judge said. The mayor should have called his lawyer and explained the situation, Pisano said, and the prosecutors would have been understanding.
Federal sentencing guidelines called for between 21-27 months in prison for the charges. Pisano mentioned a number of factors which led him to decide on the two-year term.
Had Coughlin accepted a second bribe, he would have faced the full 27 months, Pisano said. The judge said he was also mindful that judges in future corruption cases would review past cases as a history, and the penalty for Coughlin had to be strong enough to act as a deterrent for others who would consider breaking the law. Pisano also mentioned a stack of letters written in Coughlin's support, which he held up for over 20 friends and family members in attendance to see.
"We are pleased with the long sentence imposed," U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie said in a released statement. "Each time a plea or a sentencing occurs in these corruption cases, we hope that other public officials tempted to serve themselves will consider what has happened to Mr. Coughlin and others."
Coughlin addressed the court briefly, apologizing to the residents and employees of Hazlet, his friends and family, and to his wife and children in particular. He declined to comment after the hearing for this story.
Ballorotto said he was "mildly disappointed" with the outcome, but felt it was "a reasonable sentence under the circumstances." He said Coughlin could actually be released after 12 months, and in a best-case scenario, serve 10 months in prison plus two months in a halfway house. For that to happen, Coughlin would have to meet certain conditions, such as staying dedicated to a substance abuse program in jail. That decision is at the discretion of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, he said.
Since being charged, Coughlin's life has been turned upside down, Ballorotto said. He lost a job worth about $150,000 per year at Prudential, and will likely never be hired for a position like that again. He let down generations of family who live in Hazlet, and will have to explain and live with what he did for the rest of his life. But out of this traumatic experience, Ballorotto said his client's family gained one great positive - a healthy, sober Paul Coughlin.
"His family is better off now. ... What he was then is a far cry from what he is now," Ballorotto said.