By Karen Zautyk
See that pickup truck. It’s painted with the names of FDNY and NYPD and Port Authority first responders who died at Ground Zero on 9/11. Nice tribute, right? Dramatic statement of patriotism, right?
We saw the truck, which also is decorated with an image of the Twin Towers, on the road once and thought those things. But we couldn’t see who was driving. Turns out, it was operated by leeches. Correction. Alleged leeches.
On May 3, a state grand jury sitting in Mercer County indicted two New Jersey men for allegedly using the truck for phony fundraising, collecting more than $50,000, supposedly for 9/11 charities and WTC victims’ families.
Neither the legitimate charities nor the families saw a cent, authorities said.
And now, the state Division of Criminal Justice would like to hear from anyone who was scammed by the alleged con men.
The accused are Mark Niemczyk, 66, of Tinton Falls, and Thomas Scalgione, 41, of Manahawkin, both of whom face third-degree charges of conspiracy and theft by deception, N.J. Attorney General Jeffrey S. Chiesa announced.
Although neither suspect resides in this area, the men reportedly brought the truck to various 9/11-related and other patriotic events throughout New Jersey from June 1, 2010, through July 4, 2012, selling T-shirts and collecting donations. It is possible Observer readers might have crossed paths with them and been taken in.
If that happened to you, Chiesa’s office has a request: “Anyone who encountered the defendants and their 9/11 truck at events and who either gave them money for T-shirts or donations — or who have information about their activities — are urged to call the Division of Criminal Justice confidentially at its toll-free tip line 1-866-TIPS-4CJ. The public can also log on to the Division of Criminal Justice Web page at www.njdcj.org to report information confidentially.”
“It’s a sad reality that, in the wake of a devastating tragedy, when so many want to help, there are always parasites who view the tragedy and the generosity of others as nothing more than the opportunity and the means to turn a crooked profit for themselves,” Chiesa said. “The conduct of these two men wasn’t just despicable,”he added, “it was criminal, and we are bringing them to justice.”
In addition to misrepresenting their cause, the pair misrepresented themselves, authorities charged. Elie Honig, director of the N.J. Division of Criminal Justice, said: “We allege that these defendants told a barrage of lies to further their scheme, with Niemczyk claiming he was a Navy SEAL who served three tours of duty in Vietnam, and both men telling donors they were fatherand- son firefighters who were working at a firehouse near the World Trade Center on 9/11.”
Honig described their conduct as “outrageous.”
According to investigators, Niemczyk bought a Ford F-150 pickup truck in June 2010 and had it custom-painted with 9/11 themes, including the World Trade Center towers, police and fire department logos, and the names of the first responders who perished in New York on 9/11.
Niemczyk and Scalgione reputedly worked as partners to bring the truck to 9/11 events both inside and outside New Jersey, selling shirts and collecting donations. Scalgione is said to have acted as the “public relations” person, making arrangements for their participation at 9/11 events.
According to the indictment, the defendants purchased hundreds of T-shirts printed with 9/11 themes similar to those painted on the truck. They reportedly paid vendors between $3 and $6.90 per shirt and then sold them from the truck for $20 apiece at various 9/11 events, where they would also put out a jug to collect cash donations, authorities said.
At times, the defendants are said to have represented that they ran an established charity or were affiliated with a registered 9/11 one. The men were not registered with the State of New Jersey as a charitable organization as required by law, authorities said.
According to the indictment, no proceeds went to 9/11 families or charities. Instead, proceeds in excess of $50,000 were allegedly deposited into Niemczyk’s personal bank accounts. A second count of theft by deception relates to the defendants’ reportedly obtaining discounts from two T-shirt vendors by falsely representing where the proceeds from their sale would go. One vendor gave discounts of $3,312; the other, discounts totaling $1,378, it is alleged. In addition to the charges of conspiracy and theft by deception, Niemczyk is also charged with failure to file a personal state income tax return in 2011. While Niemczyk receives tax-exempt Social Security benefits, he collected thousands of dollars in proceeds at 9/11 events in 2011 and he won $55,000 at the Borgata casino in Atlantic City on Sept. 6, 2011, which he was required to report, authorities said.
In November, the state Division of Consumer Affairs secured a final consent judgment in a civil action against the defendants, under which they must pay more than $200,000, representing disgorgement of donations and payment of civil penalties, attorneys’ fees and investigative costs.
The judgment also bars Niemczyck and Scalgione from ever working for any charitable organization in New Jersey.
The May 3 indictment was handed up to Superior Court Judge Mary C. Jacobson in Mercer County, who assigned the case to Ocean County, where the defendants were to appear for arraignment.