YOU READ IT HERE FIRST: Two convicted scammers who claimed to support families of emergency responders killed on 9/11 — and conned Gov. Christie into posing for a photo with them — today admitting stealing more than $120,000 in donations.
Mark Niemczyk, 67, of Tinton Falls, and Thomas Scalgione, 41, of Manahawkin, collected the money selling t-shirts and soliciting donations at 9/11 events while driving around in a truck painted with the Twin Towers and the names of police and firefighters who died at Ground Zero.
Each pleaded guilty today in Toms River to a charge of third-degree theft by deception. Sentencing is set for March 7.
Under a plea agreement, state prosecutors will recommend that Niemczyk be sentenced to 364 days in the county jail, followed by probation, and that Scalgione get probation.
Scalgione is headed behind bars anyway: He already was on probation in connection with charges filed by the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office in another case. The violation will carry incarceration time.
Both men also must must pay more than $120,000, representing donations and payment of civil penalties, attorneys’ fees and investigative costs, under a consent agreement with the state Division of Consumer Affairs. That includes civil penalties for Niemczyk of $98,993 and $73,993 for Scalgione, state authorities said.
The judgment bars both from ever working for any charitable organization in New Jersey.
“These con men shamelessly exploited the generosity of others, enriching themselves by diverting funds that were intended for the families of 9/11 victims,” Acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman said. “These guilty pleas ensure that Niemczyk and Scalgione will carry criminal records for the rest of their lives that will bear witness to their greed and deviousness.”
CLIFFVIEW PILOT broke the story in July 2012 of how Niemczyk and Scalgione drove around in a red pickup collecting money even though they didn’t register with the state as a charitable organization as required by law.
The Ford F-150 carried an American flag with the names of f the more than 400 first responders who died when the Twin Towers collapsed and a “N SEAL” license plate. It’s been driven around the U.S. — and to Ground Zero — where people have flocked to take photos of it and with it.
Niemczyk and Scalgione even got the governor to pose for a photo in front of the National 9/11 Memorial Truck, as it was called.
The financing company has since repossessed the rig. A judge had it impounded in August while ordering Niemczyk and Scalgione to stop soliciting donations from the public.
“To be playing on the tragedy of September 11th to line your own pockets is one of the most awful things I think anyone can do in this region,” an angry Christie said.
Members of New York’s Rolling Thunder motorcycle club were fooled by the truck scam, as were countless police, firefighters, military members and civilians, as hundreds of photos posted by “Cap Mark” Niemczyk, the truck’s registered owner, authorities said.
Among them was Russell Newberry, former star of the Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch.”
“Make sure you tell the governor of NJ that you’re impersonating a Navy Seal, or maybe his office should receive a phone call about you with information that can be verified,” Lisa Marco wrote to Niemczyk. “I wonder what the good governor would think of you then.”
Mike Watkins responded that Christie “would think the same thing the SEAL community thinks of him …. IMPOSTER!”
Marco, in turn, said she sent a letter to Christie’s office and told Niemczyk “you owe the American public an apology.”
Scalgione at first said state authorities “are the ones trying to run a scam,” after being contacted by the Asbury Park Press this afternoon. “We are prepared to fight to clear our names. We are running a legitimate group.”
That changed quickly.
An online search found that Niemczyk lied about having graduated Annapolis in the Class of ’53 and done three tours of duty in Vietnam as a secret member of the Navy Seals.
Skeptics contacted several authorities and discovered the truth. For one thing, there’s no such thing as a “secret” Seal.”You might as well come clean now, man …. [Y]ou’re neck deep in your own mess,” wrote William Berrey. “I doubt you were ever in the Military at all, and yet you have the AUDACITY to claim to be one of the best America has…. [d]isgracing the REAL SEALs that gave their lives defending YOU and your home by pretending to be one, and disgracing them EVEN MORE by doing all your stupid protest crap with a SEAL trident in full view.”
It was also found that Niemczyk pleaded guilty in 1989 to welfare fraud.
Retired Navy SEAL Don Shipley is considered the first to blow the whistle. He showed a photo of Niemcyzyk at Ground Zero with Pastor Terry Jones, who was fined in Florida for burning copies of the Qur’an.
“This guy needs a drop by parachute into Afghanistan,” Shipley said of Niemcyzyk. “If this doesn’t set your hair on fire, nothing will.”
SHIPLEY’S YOUTUBE VIDEO:
Meanwhile, Scalgione allegedly claimed to handle public relations for the truck’s appearances.
Scalgione has several criminal convictions on his record, including theft, forgery, fraudulent use of credit cards and possession of an emergency communications receiver during the commission of a crime, authorities said.
Records show Scalgione spent two stretches in state prison covering more than 2½ years in state prison, beginning in April 2004, before being released in June 2008.
One cause that Niemczyk and Scalgione claimed to support, the Cain Foundation, didn’t even exist: Rosemary Cain, whose firefighter son died on 9-11, said she was never contacted by the pair and has no connection to them.
Both sold t-shirts bearing the logos of the New York City Police Department, New York City Fire Department and Port Authority Police Department at 9-11 memorial events beginning last summer, authorities said.
They even had a collection jug for cash donations when they attended events with the truck, state authorities said.
A former NYPD cop filed a complaint with the Division of Consumer Affairs last year after seeing the pickup at a World Trade Center memorial service in Barnegat.
State investigators found that they bought the t-shirts from vendors who charged $3 to $6.90 per shirt, then and sold them for $20 each, telling people that the proceeds from the T-shirt sales and cash donations would benefit families of 9/11 victims or 9/11 charity organizations.
They also displayed a sign that indicated “All donations for the T-shirts go to families of 9/11.”
In addition to operating an unregistered charity, state authorities said, a review of financial records revealed that donated funds were commingled in Niemczyk’s personal bank account — and then used to pay personal expenses.
Deputy Attorney General Sarah Lichter prosecuted the case and took the guilty pleas following an investigation by the Division of Criminal Justice Financial & Computer Crimes Bureau, which began with a referral from the Division of Consumer Affairs.
Detective Roxanna Ordonez and Deputy Attorney General Lichter investigated for the Division of Criminal Justice Financial & Computer Crimes Bureau, with assistance from Detective Kim Allen of the Financial & Computer Crimes Bureau and Detective Eric Ludwick of the Specialized Crimes Bureau.
Click here to sign up for Daily Voice's free daily emails and news alerts.