‘End of a Chapter’: Juan Berrios & JCPD pickmaster corruption

The real story of police off-duty corruption that has ex-JCPD cop Juan Berrios headed to federal prison for the next 23 months.

Left to Right: Ex-JCPD Officers Juan Berrios, Juan Romaniello and Ex-Chief Phil Zacche

Even if corruption still exists within the Jersey City Police Department’s (JCPD) off-duty jobs program, it ain’t like it was before the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) cracked down on Cops Gone Crooked – including Juan Berrios.

Berrios, who started in law enforcement as a Hudson County corrections officer, joined the JCPD in 2004 working in the city’s North District. It didn’t take long for him to connect with Juan Romaniello – the infamous pickmaster who would eventually admit to accepting more than $230,000 in corrupt payments.

Pickmasters were police officers that controlled off-duty jobs in each of the city’s four precincts. Their power came from assigning officers preferred off-duty jobs. Their hustle was cutting the city out of administrative fees related to hiring and paying off-duty police officers while pocketing money from contractors.

For a long time, Berrios and Romaniello ran the off-duty hustle in the North District while ex-JCPD Chief Philip Zacche served as commander. According to Berrios, Zacche was aware of the pickmaster corruption, but turned a blind eye to the situation.

Though Zacche was never implicated in any off-duty corruption associated with pickmasters, he was convicted of being paid for a no-show security job in the Jersey City Housing Authority (JCHA) – a completely separate scheme associated with street crimes and narcotics officers.

What the U.S. Department of Justice (USDOJ) ultimately decides to do about the housing authority fraud is unknown at this time. When Berrios reports to federal prison on January 3, 2018, it’ll mark the end of the pickmaster chapter in the book of JCPD corruption.

It’ll also represent a sad ending for the trio from the North District.

Ten months after admitting to his guilt, Romaniello passed away following a bout with cancer. Zacche is living under house arrest, he might keep his pension. Berrios is headed to prison, yet he already wonders what he’ll do to survive when he gets out.

Before leaving for Glenville, West Virginia, Berrios spoke exclusively with Real Jersey City in Lincoln Park – offering an apology for his actions and insight into the corrupt off-duty jobs culture.

Berrios and Pickmaster Corruption

“[The FBI/USDOJ] got me on a conspiracy charge; I conspired with the top guy,” Berrios admitted to Real Jersey City.

He pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge John Vazquez to one count of conspiracy to commit fraud and accept corrupt payments. In the end, Judge Vazquez sentenced Berrios to 23 months in federal prison.

According to the USDOJ, Berrios agreed with numerous off-duty employers to accept payments directly from them and cut Jersey City out of the process. In exchange for the payments, Berrios permitted off-duty employers to operate at worksites without the presence of a police officer when such a presence was required.

He also double-dipped, and even triple-dipped, at times – which occurred when Berrios would work two or more jobs at the same time. For example, Berrios admitted that in the past he would work his regular patrol shift in Journal Square while being paid directly by the neighborhood’s Special Improvement District to provide security.

Additionally, as noted by the USDOJ, Berrios submitted off-duty vouchers seeking and obtaining compensation for working as a traffic director or security guard. At the same time, Berrios also sought and received overtime compensation for appearing in court while purportedly performing off-duty work.

Though Berrios claimed he was always in Jersey City, he admitted that he was “working too many at a certain.”

“Were there no-shows? Yeah, absolutely,” said Berrios. “But it wasn’t like exclusively one no-show, one double-dip. It was like a mixture of all of them.”

Sometime in the late 2000’s, after an investigation was launched by the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office (HCPO) into the pickmasters’ handling of off-duty jobs, the city implemented a voucher system. Ultimately, the HCPO decided not to move forward with criminal charges.

“It’s funny because [the HCPO] had a lot of the guys that I got in trouble with, and they got off with nothing, scot-free,” said Berrios. “[The HCPO] let things slide. They knew what was going… It’s not just that they knew, the whole department knew, and they brushed it off.”

To Berrios and others, the soft hand of the HCPO let criminal off-duty schemes run rampant until the feds intervened.

The FBI Investigation

Though he wasn’t approached until 2016, Berrios stated that the pickmaster investigation went back to at least 2010 or 2011 – after the HCPO’s inquiry ended.

Nevertheless, not everyone ensnared in the investigation was a pickmaster. Some were ordinary police officers “roped in” by pickmasters.

Berrios worked as an assistant pickmaster in both the North District under Romaniello and South District under James Cardinali. In the West District, Jeff Rodriguez was the pickmaster and Anthony Iannicco was his assistant, but it’s believed that Iannicco was the one truly in control. Andrea Fahrenholz was Iannicco’s girlfriend and worked out of the Jersey City Municipal Court.

They were the so-called “meat eaters” – police officers that actively participated in the off-duty corruption to enrich themselves. Many of the other officers initially linked to the pickmaster corruption – since convicted or facing departmental charges – were “roped in” during the FBI’s investigation, according to Berrios.

Twelve JCPD members were initially suspended in January 2017 due to the pickmaster investigation, per The Jersey Journal. Eleven were officers, including Ehab Abdelaziz, Berrios, Cardinali, Fahrenholz, Jonathan Hernandez, David Leon, Michael O’Leary, Gicella Sanchez, Melissa Sanchez, Victor Sanchez, and Alex Vilas. The other person suspended was Detective Christopher Ortega.

Of those twelve, seven have admitted their guilt and been convicted. It’s not clear what the final outcome will be for the other five officers, but it’s believed they’ll face departmental hearings and could be fired. Another officer not initially suspended, David Ortmann, was also convicted.

It’s believed that Jeff Rodriguez, one of the main “meat eaters,” turned state’s evidence (became a “snitch” to protect himself) when he was first approached by the feds. His name has not been mentioned in any press related to the pickmaster corruption. When Rodriguez resigned as a police officer in 2016, making around $200,000 per year in total pay, including off-duty, Berrios claimed it “raised a flag.”

Cardinali’s Rope and O’Leary’s Fury

At the sentencing of Iannicco, the story of O’Leary apparently threatening Cardinali’s life became public. According to Berrios, O’Leary’s fury stems from being “roped in” by Cardinali.

“He was putting in no-show jobs, no-show vouchers, for Mike,” Berrios stated about Cardinali. In return, O’Leary paid a bribe to Cardinali for submitting phony vouchers.

When asked if O’Leary was heavily involved in off-duty fraud, Berrios responded emphatically “no, not at all, he just got roped in at that time.” According to Berrios, others that were “roped in” and convicted included Abdelaziz (by Iannicco), Ortega (by Cardinali), Ortmann (by Iannicco), and Victor Sanchez (by Cardinali).

As for Berrios himself, he claims that his cooperation with federal authorities helped the government convict Cardinali – who he worked under after being transferred from the North District to South District.

In 2014, Berrios was transferred out of the North District by then-Capt. Edgar Martinez after an incident involving a Jitney bus driver in Journal Square was published by The Jersey Journal.

Inequity in Accountability

“I think they should’ve been there, in uniform, patrolling those housing projects,” Berrios stated when asked to compare the housing authority fraud to pickmaster corruption. “With us, it was a little different. I mean, again, it was wrong to do, but it was just the mentality, and it was just a little different.”

Berrios’ criticism extended to the disparity in punishments, too, with him receiving 23 months in prison while Zacche received 6 months house arrest.

“I’m not saying I’m innocent,” Berrios admitted. “But 23 months and the chief gets 6 months house arrest? That’s a miscarriage of justice.”

Berrios also feels that Chief Michael Kelly wasn’t held accountable for Rodriguez and Iannicco’s handling of off-duty jobs while Kelly served as West District commander. The ex-JCPD cop sarcastically stated “you’re gonna tell me, if you’re the precinct commander, and you have these two guys, that you had no idea what was going on? Come on.”

Final Thoughts

Berrios did speak highly of one former police chief – Robert “Bubba” Cowan, who was ousted by Mayor Steven Fulop after 9 months on the job due to conflicts with Jersey City’s police unions.

“I think Cowan was a great chief and I say that because he looked out for the patrol guys,” Berrios stated. “He was going to regulate the off-duty… to make it less corruptible and have more accountability with bosses.”

Berrios believes if Cowan’s plan was implemented back in 2013 that he wouldn’t be in the situation he is today.

Cowan was ultimately replaced by Zacche in a move that was coordinated by Public Safety Director James Shea to protect corruption within the department and boost Fulop’s gubernatorial hopes.

In a separate interview with Real Jersey City yet to be released, Cowan indicated that he wanted to create a “precinct-sized command structure” to handle all off-duty jobs rather than moving the program to civilian control under Shea. Specifically, Cowan wanted police supervisors, not officers, to administer the program.

Additionally, though Cowan didn’t condone Berrios’ actions, he did say that Berrios was a “hard worker” like other “good cops” caught up in the pickmaster corruption.

Whether Cowan’s proposed reforms would’ve stopped the FBI’s investigation might be worthy of debate. Unfortunately, for the lives destroyed by pickmaster fraud, it’s all history now.

“I love Jersey City. I was born and raised here,” Berrios said as the interview wrapped up. “Im sorry. I take full responsibility for what I did.

“My only gripe is this could’ve been handled differently. If they knew the system was corrupt sixty years, why not fix it? Why wait until the feds came? Now it hurt a lot of people and there’s no going back.”

Berrios concluded that “when I get out, it’s going to be tough for me to pick up my life. I’ll do what I need to do, but it’s going to be real tough.”

VIDEO OF Q&A WITH JUAN BERRIOS (PLUS ROBERT COWAN) BELOW:

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