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Wednesday, June 19, 2024


New Troiano Lawyer: I Expect to Try the Case and Win

Shay Roddy/File Photos
Wildwood Mayor Ernie Troiano, left, Commissioner Steve Mikulski, center, and former Mayor Pete Byron, during appearances in Cape May County Superior Court. All three have indicated plans to take a prosecution, alleging they defrauded the State Health Benefits Program, to trial.

By Shay Roddy

Wildwood Mayor Ernie Troiano Jr. was back in court Friday, May 17, this time with a new attorney who will be defending him against criminal charges that he unlawfully accepted health benefits while serving in elected office.

Charles Nugent, the lawyer, told Presiding Judge Bernard E. DeLury Jr. he was retained by Troiano the day before and will need more time to get up to speed on the case.

In an interview after the hearing, Nugent told the Herald he expects the matter to end up before a jury.

“Mr. Troiano will not be pleading guilty to anything. They could offer him a jaywalking tomorrow, and I don’t believe he would plead guilty to it,” Nugent said in a phone interview. “I expect that we will try the case ultimately, and I would expect that we’ll win the case.”

At this point, Troiano won’t have to worry about making a plea decision, however, as the state is not offering a lenient plea deal, according to Nugent.

During an earlier hearing in the case, prosecutors with the state Attorney General’s Office had relayed to the court a plea offer on the second-degree charge, which would include a recommended sentence of three years in state prison as well as restitution, cooperation against co-defendants and forfeiture of public office.

“Do I think it’s unreasonable? Absolutely,” Nugent said.

Troiano, along with two co-defendants – former Mayor Pete Byron and Commissioner Steve Mikulski – were indicted by a state grand jury and charged with second-degree official misconduct, second-degree theft by unlawful taking, third-degree tampering with public records and fourth-degree falsifying or tampering with records.

Troiano received the benefits from July 2011 through December 2019, costing the State Health Benefits Program a total of $286,500, the state said in court filings.

Byron was covered for $608,900 in premiums and claims from July 2011 through October 2021, and Mikulski, who did not join the city government until 2020, cost the program more than $103,000 in premiums and claims between January 2020 and October 2021, according to the court documents.

The state alleges that the three men did not work a “fixed” schedule of 35 or more hours per week, which is a requirement to accept state health benefits. All three defendants have said they worked well over 35 hours per week on city business and have pleaded not guilty.

Pending before the court is a motion to sever, which was filed by Troiano’s former counsel, Brian Pelloni. Pelloni was removed from the case by the judge after he accepted a job with the state Attorney General’s Office, the same agency handling the prosecution.

Nugent said he plans to follow through on arguing the motion, which is scheduled for a hearing in June.

“You’re always concerned about spillover,” he said. “You’re always concerned about contamination. You’re always concerned about the prejudice of grouping people together when they shouldn’t be together. So sure, severance is always the preference.”

Pelloni, who is a law partner with retired Superior Court Judge Louis F. Hornstine, had been working closely with the former judge behind the scenes on Troiano’s defense, though Hornstine was not permitted to appear in New Jersey state court on behalf of Troiano or any other client since he is a retired judge.

“Judge Hornstine and Brian Pelloni have a long history on this case,” Nugent said. “So, they know the facts of the law, and so to the extent that they can help me, I expect that I will use whatever help they can give me. But as to trial tactics, that’s my call. I don’t take cases and let somebody tell me what to do.”

He said he doesn’t understand why the case was brought against Troiano.

“He’s given more to this city than any mayor in its history, and he’s done more for it than any mayor in its history. And to indict him for this, to me is — I don’t understand it,” Nugent said.

Mikulski, Byron Appear Briefly

Byron and Mikulski also made brief appearances before the court.

In response to a motion to compel discovery that Byron’s lawyer, Deputy Public Defender Eric Shenkus, had filed, the state said the discovery the defense was asking for does not exist.

Deputy Attorney General Brian Uzdavinis told the judge Byron had been asking the state for any cooperation agreements it had with witnesses in the case, but that there are none.

“The state has represented it has not in the past, does not now have any agreements with any party to cooperate in order to avoid further action by the state, either penal, civil or otherwise,” the judge said for the record.

Byron withdrew the motion.

The former mayor was also arraigned in a new case, being charged with official misconduct and tax fraud related to employment Byron accepted from a lawyer who had been appointed to an official position with Wildwood by Byron and his fellow commissioners. He pleaded not guilty.

Mikulski also appeared before the judge. His matter, including a motion to sever that he also has pending, was relisted for a June hearing.

Civil Division Judge Won’t Clarify Language in Statute

A Superior Court judge dismissed with prejudice a separate civil case seeking declaratory relief, brought by Troiano and Mikulski, during a hearing in March.

Troiano and Mikulski were asking for an interpretation on the statute key to the criminal case, which outlines eligibility for the State Health Benefits Program.

Since being sworn in to begin their current term in January, Troiano and Mikulski have not received benefits, though they believe they should be eligible.

They asked the judge to sign an order stating that the 35 hours per week required to be full time can be worked on any schedule, varying day to day, as long as the total hours over seven days amount to 35.

The suit asked the court to acknowledge that elected officials may carry out work duties outside of City Hall and outside of normal business hours, that work done at any location and at any time relating to their elected position should count toward their hours.

Judge James H. Pickering Jr. ruled he did not have jurisdiction in the matter.

“The issues of eligibility are to be decided by the State Health Benefits Commission. That’s where they should go,” he said during a hearing March 28.

Contact the reporter, Shay Roddy, at or 609-886-8600, ext. 142.


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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