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Assistant county prosecutor facing criminal charge after PIX11 investigation

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NEW JERSEY (PIX11) -- Bergen County’s top assistant prosecutor was accused of a crime in Hackensack today.  Judge Roy McGeady found probable cause that First Executive Assistant Prosecutor Frank Puccio made false statements in connection with the awarding of a government contract.

The finding against Puccio stems from a lengthy PIX11 investigation into the auctioning of bogus autographed sports memorabilia by the Bergen County Prosecutor’s office.  The memorabilia was seized in 2007 from a drug store operator who purchased them with proceeds from the illegal sale of stolen and sample drugs.

PIX11 reported in November that the prosecutor’s office made false statements in an official document so it could get a no bid contract to hire Prosecutor John Molinelli’s chosen autograph authenticator.  That authenticator, Drew Max, has a dubious reputation in the field.  He authenticated hundreds of signatures on the items Molinelli’s office had seized.

Molinelli subsequently sold the items at two auctions, bringing in close to $50,000.  After paying the auction house its percentage, the balance went to Molinelli’s seized asset fund.

READ the probable cause document

However, about three weeks after PIX11 first reported on the false statements and evidence that signatures were bogus, Molinelli agreed to issue refunds to all purchasers requesting them.

Molinelli denied any wrongdoing when PIX11 spoke with him in September outside the Bergen County Criminal Justice Building.  He also defended his choice of authenticators.  But he bolted from our camera after we asked about a document showing he had been warned in previous litigation that the bulk of the signed items he’d seized were bogus.

The New Jersey Attorney General’s Division of Criminal Justice said it was opening an investigation, headed by Lt. Stanley Beets.  In March the investigation was closed with a finding of no criminal conduct.  PIX11 found that the supposed investigation did not include interviews with any of the key potential witnesses cited in our stories.

The prosecution of Puccio is due to the ongoing efforts of Bill Brennan, a law school graduate who says he tries to expose public corruption.  Brennan filed the criminal complaint against Puccio.

After today’s finding of probable cause, Brennan referred to the behavior of both the Attorney General’s office and the Bergen County Prosecutor when he told us, “We have reached a dangerous place in society when those in power can immunize each other from criminal consequences, I will not tolerate it and neither should anyone else.”

The question now is where will the case against Puccio be prosecuted. The Bergen County prosecutor can’t do it because of the inherent conflict.  The Attorney General’s office may also be seen as conflicted, given it’s previous determination about the case.  That could mean the case would have to go to another county.