On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.
For affirmance -- Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Clifford, Handler, Pollock, O'Hern, Garibaldi and Stein. Opposed -- None. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Stein, J.
[115 NJ Page 39] In this case we focus on the interrelationship between two sections of chapter 27 of the Code of Criminal Justice (Code), which enumerates various offenses under the title "Bribery and Corrupt Influence." Specifically, we consider whether evidence offered by the State primarily to prove a violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:27-3a(2) ("Threats and Other Improper Influence in Official * * * Matters") is sufficient to sustain defendant's conviction
under N.J.S.A. 2C:27-2b and d ("Bribery in Official and Political Matters").
The State charged defendant, Louis Thomas Scirrotto, a teacher at the Warren Hills High School in Washington Township, with bribery in official matters in contravention of N.J.S.A. 2C:27-2b and d; threats and other improper influence in official matters, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:27-3a(2); and compounding, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:29-4.*fn1 Following presentation of the State's case, defendant moved for a judgment of acquittal, R. 3:18-1, on all three counts of the indictment. The trial court granted the motion with respect to the "threats" and "compounding" counts, but declined to dismiss the bribery count. After the jury returned a guilty verdict on the bribery count, the trial court sentenced defendant to three years' probation with a special condition of 120 hours of community service, and a twenty-five dollar violent crimes penalty. The Appellate Division, in an unpublished opinion, reversed defendant's bribery conviction on the ground that the evidence presented failed to establish a "benefit" within the meaning of the bribery statute. We granted certification, 110 N.J. 306 (1988), and now affirm.
The trial testimony fully supports the following account of the material facts. From 1981 to 1984 defendant taught history at the Warren Hills Senior High School in Washington Township, New Jersey. In April 1984, during his third year of
teaching, defendant was notified that he would not be rehired.*fn2 Defendant filed an appeal contesting his termination. While the appeal was pending, defendant spoke by telephone with John Mulhern, Superintendent of Schools, on June 7, 1984, and met with Warren Hills Principal Robert Fluck in Fluck's office the following day. The conversation between defendant and Fluck was recorded, as a consensual intercept, by a microphone concealed in Fluck's clothing, and the tape was presented as part of the State's evidence at trial. The telephone call with Mulhern and the meeting with Fluck constitute the subject matter of the bribery charge.
Mulhern testified that when defendant called him on June 7, 1984, he complained about the Board of Education's failure to renew his contract. According to Mulhern, defendant "told me that he knew of a serious problem in the school district and that the problem was more serious than what he called the 'Yrigoyen matter.'" (Yrigoyen was a former teacher at the high school who had pled guilty to charges of aggravated sexual contact with students in his home, and to charges of endangering the welfare of children.) Mulhern testified that defendant's reference to the Yrigoyen matter suggested to him "the situation where a teacher in the school system had been involved in criminal behavior which involved children on the premises of his home," and stated that the "Yrigoyen matter" resulted in unfavorable publicity for the Board of Education. Defendant stated that he had a number of supporters in the community, and that he had access to various media through which he might publicize his cause. Mulhern reported this conversation to the Warren County Prosecutor's Office, declining defendant's request to discuss the matter further.
Scirrotto and Fluck met the following afternoon in Fluck's office.*fn3 At the request of the Warren County Prosecutor's Office, Fluck agreed to wear a concealed microphone and transmitter in his clothing. While the exact referents are unclear, defendant made the following remarks during his taped conversation with Fluck: "I've got a lot of dirt"; "you've got such a tremendous shock coming to you"; "we've got it documented"; and "[w]e have enough stuff to rattle sabers." Fluck asked defendant several direct questions. When defendant was asked specifically about his knowledge of illegal activities concerning the school, he replied, "I'm in a defensive posture at this point. Six months ago I would have sat here and probably told you. At this point I can't tell you but I can tell you this, we're not bluffing."
Fluck questioned defendant about "the one thing * * * that you told Mulhern that was worst [sic] than Yrigoyen." Defendant replied, "you'll have to wait until after I've discussed it with my lawyer," and added, "When that information is given out to the lawyer, then I'm gonna leave it up to the lawyer as to whether he thinks that I should use this now or not to tell you about it." When Fluck asked if "[i]t's a problem with a teacher," defendant responded, "Well, no, I'm not going to say that. I say, it's a problem with the school * * *. This is an accumulation of three years * * * of things that I've gathered and that parents have gathered over that three-year period that we're gonna put together in a package if we have to and use it." When asked if the information involved "teachers and kids," defendant replied, "Everybody. It involves teachers, it involves the management of this school. It involves everyone * * * from the janitors across the board."
Defendant acknowledged that there was a connection between the information he possessed and the Board's decision to terminate him:
DEFENDANT: * * * We have a tremendous statement to make. And again, the statement won't be read if I get tenure. If I'm rehired in this school in some capacity, the statement won't be made * * *. We'll retract it * * *. And, um, apologize if anybody had any indications or any accusations, uh, we, it's not true because it's easy to say that since we didn't make any specific statement.
DEFENDANT: I'll tell you what I'll do, Bob, if I'm rehired * * *. I'll give it to you because I think it's worth giving and I think it's worth, I'll tell you what it's worth doing. It's worth watching. It's worth watching because if, if other things were worth watching ...