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Byron Pleads not Guilty as Details of Job Arrangement Emerge

Shay Roddy/File Photo
Pete Byron, seated, appears in Cape May County Superior Court beside his defense lawyer, Eric Shenkus, for a hearing in May 2023.

By Shay Roddy

Former Wildwood Mayor Pete Byron entered a not guilty plea during a hearing Friday, May 17, on new charges relating to official misconduct.

Byron was named by a state grand jury in a seven-count indictment April 16, charging he unlawfully used his elected position to obtain employment from a lawyer who held an official appointed position with the city. The charges stem from a period when Byron was a commissioner, before he became mayor.

Under Wildwood’s form of government, there are three commissioner seats, and each has an equal vote on official business. The mayor is chosen by the three commissioners from amongst themselves after each election.

The state charges that Byron also failed to disclose the income he received from this job on required annual financial disclosure statements filed with the state Department of Community Affairs, and that he omitted the income from his state tax return.

The Herald has identified the lawyer from whom Byron got the job as Douglas M. Long, who was disbarred after pleading guilty to tax evasion in federal court in 2020 and being sentenced to 14 months in federal prison in 2021.

Long was hired by the Wildwood Board of Commissioners as tax counsel on Jan. 4, 2017. A resolution memorializing Long’s appointment was signed by then-Commissioner Byron, then-Mayor Ernie Troiano Jr. and former Commissioner Anthony Leonetti, and a one-year contract authorizing Long to bill the city $150 per hour in legal fees was executed by Troiano and Long on Jan. 17, 2017, records obtained by the Herald revealed.

An Oct. 23, 2017, letter on Long’s firm’s letterhead, which was reviewed by the Herald, is addressed to Byron and indicates it was hand-delivered. The letter communicates a $50,000-per-year job offer to Byron with a company called Hydro2O, LLC, in a position “marketing and selling payment solution programs to both public and private entities.”

The letter bears the signature of Albert K. Marmero, Long’s former law partner. However, federal prosecutors who charged Byron with failing to pay federal income tax on his earnings from the Hydro2O job said in court documents that Marmero’s signature was forged.

Hydro2O LLC was incorporated in September 2017 in Bridgeton and its principal is listed as N2 Holdings LLC. A preliminary search of the state Department of Treasury database found no information about who the principals of N2 Holdings are. There is no other information available online about the company. In legal paperwork filed by Byron, he gives Long’s law office address as the address for Hydro2O.

Long was again appointed Wildwood’s tax counsel for 2018 by the same three governing body members in a resolution signed Jan. 13, 2018, while Byron was on the Hydro2O payroll.

Wildwood paid Long’s firm $106,282 for legal work in 2017 and 2018, records reviewed by the Herald revealed, overlapping the time period Byron had the job with Hydro2O.

In January 2020, after a new governing body was installed in the city following the November 2019 election — in which Troiano was defeated — then-Mayor Byron and his new co-commissioners, Krista Fitzsimmons and Steve Mikulski, voted to hire the firm that Long had been associated with, which had dropped his name and been rebranded Grace Marmero & Associates, LLP. The city had not retained the firm in 2019.

By that point, a government investigation into Long had become more developed, and four months later, in April 2020, Long avoided a grand jury indictment, pleading guilty by way of information. U.S. District Judge Noel L. Hillman sentenced Long in December 2021.

Long was represented by defense attorney William J. Hughes Jr., who later appeared in state court on behalf of Byron, in the case in which he, along with Troiano and Mikulski, were charged with defrauding the state health benefits program, a prosecution that is ongoing.

Hughes withdrew from his representation of Byron during his first appearance, after a conference in the judge’s chambers. Byron then applied for a public defender. It’s unclear whether Hughes withdrew due to the foreseen conflict or some other factor that caused him to exit the case in the very early stages.

Court records show Byron was under serious financial pressure when he accepted the job with Hydro2O LLC. He filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy on Nov. 13, 2017, stating in court documents he had just over $420,000 in assets, but over $778,000 in liabilities.

In his bankruptcy filing in U.S. District Court, Byron declared he was employed by Hydro2O LLC, listing his occupation as “marketing” and giving the address of Long’s law office as Hydro2O’s address. Prompted to respond how long he had been employed there, Byron stated, “2 weeks.”

Eric Shenkus, a deputy public defender assigned to represent Byron, said in a phone interview Thursday, May 16, that there is no evidence his client committed any crime by voting to hire Long for the city and then subsequently taking private employment from him.

“Nowhere in the state’s case, that they’ve laid out so far, is any sort of quid pro quo at all,” Shenkus said.

Byron pleaded guilty in federal court in 2023 for failing to pay taxes to the IRS on the income he received during two tax years from the Hydro2O job. However, Shenkus said prosecutorial discretion should have been applied by the state in its tax case against Byron, and that his client should not have been charged.

“I would challenge you … to find another case in which the state of New Jersey is prosecuting someone criminally for an underpayment of less than a thousand dollars,” he said.

Shenkus also said the state is flat-out wrong that Byron did not disclose the income in required disclosures.

He said of the state’s timing in bringing the charges, compared to the earlier federal prosecution, based on much of the same evidence: “I don’t think it’s a coincidence at all, as to the timing. In fact, I think it is a thinly veiled effort to put pressure on Mr. Byron in the health-care case, because [prosecutors] expected the defendants to somehow plead guilty in the health-care case.

“And now that they see that everyone’s intent is to go to trial, they’re trying to put pressure on Mr. Byron. I don’t think the state wants to see the health-care case get to trial, because they know that they have an extremely weak case.”

Friday, May 17, was also the next court date in the health benefits fraud case for all three codefendants. Troiano was to be in court with a new attorney, though he would not disclose the lawyer’s name when reached by the Herald Thursday, May 16.

His prior counsel, Brian Pelloni, was removed from the case by the judge due to a conflict, since Pelloni had accepted employment in the state Attorney General’s Office, the same agency prosecuting Troiano.

“I was told not to say anything,” Troiano said on the phone. “I am making sure that all my T’s are crossed and my I’s are dotted.”

He said he wouldn’t comment further on the case, on the advice of counsel.

Byron’s arraignment May 17 on the charges relating to official misconduct was before Judge Bernard E. DeLury Jr.

To reach the reporter, Shay Roddy, email sroddy@cmcherald.com or call (609) 886-8600 ext. 142.

Reporter

Shay Roddy is a Delaware County, Pennsylvania native who has always spent as much of his summers as he could at the Jersey Shore. He went to Friends’ Central and is a graduate of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University.

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