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Risley defeats Witherspoon for final Atlantic County freeholder at-large seat

MAYS LANDING — Republican John Risley defeated Thelma Witherspoon for the final Atlantic County freeholder at-large seat following a marathon board of elections meeting Monday night. 

Risley, an incumbent on the board, won by 200 votes after the Atlantic County Board of Elections inspected and counted 787 provisional ballots from last week's general election. 

The count, which began at 5 p.m., lasted until 10 p.m. After the count, Witherspoon congratulated Risley and the two candidates shook hands. 

With the win, Republicans will hold a 6-3 advantage on the board when the new members are sworn in early next year. 

The 6-3 advantage is down from an 8-1 advantage after Democrats Caren Fitzpatrick and Ashley Bennett won seats in last week's election. 

In another tight race, Republican John Kurtz defeated Democrat Dwight Melton by less than 20 votes to win a seat on the Hamilton Township Committee. 

None of the election results have been certified, and Atlantic County Democratic Chairman Mike Suleiman said he may explore a possible recount in the Hamilton Township race. 

For the freeholder race, Suleiman said that the combination of rain and a Green Party candidate kept the Democrats from sweeping the freeholder races this year. 

"If we had a slightly higher turnout, then Thelma would have won," he said. "The Green Party candidate also got 1,400 votes that would have otherwise been Democratic votes."

Keith Davis, chairman of the Atlantic County Republican committee, said that he thought Atlantic County Republicans did "pretty well" in the freeholder and municipal races despite the unpopularity of outgoing Governor Chris Christie. 

Counting the provisional ballots was a tedious process that took place in a small upstairs room of the Atlantic County Clerk Building. The four members of the county Board of Elections, two Democrats and two Republicans, had to review every one of the 787 provisional ballots and vote on whether they were valid.

Some of the disqualifying factors are if the voter did not sign the ballot or did not fill it out correctly, or if they were not registered to vote.

If the board could not decide whether a ballot was valid, that ballot was sent to a judge to decide whether the vote counted.

The board made clear they had to take their time because some of the races were so close, just a few votes could flip an election.

In attendance Monday night were Risley and Witherspoon, as well as freeholders-elect Ashley Bennett and Caren Fitzpatrick and current freeholder Amy Gatto. Tony DiPietro, who also ran for a freeholder at-large seat, came to support Risley. 

Going into the night, Risley held a 285-vote lead over Witherspoon. The largest chunk of provisional ballots came from Atlantic City with 215.

Other towns with large numbers of provisional ballots were Egg Harbor Township with 134 and Galloway Township with 79.

Risley said that he was proud of the campaign he and his Republican colleagues ran.

“We ran a clean campaign. We didn’t take any shots at our Democratic opponents,” he said. “I’m proud of my record in public office, and I admire anyone who takes the time to run for office.”

Ashley Bennett said she received a congratulatory letter from County Executive Dennis Levinson and that current Freeholders Amy Gatto and Ernest Coursey have reached out to congratulate her.

She said she was pulling hard for Witherspoon to win, which would have brought the board to 5-4 Republicans over Democrats. 

Ivanka Trump and Treasurer Mnuchin greeted with support for tax plan

BERKELEY TOWNSHIP — Ivanka Trump, special adviser to and daughter of President Donald J. Trump, looked out at a small sea of friendly faces Monday at the Bayville fire hall as she touted the impact the Republican tax plan will have on the middle class.

Trump and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin appeared at the invitation-only event alongside Rep. Tom MacArthur, R-3rd, and Gov. Chris Christie to discuss the plan, which supporters claim will benefit the middle class and spur job creation.

The Ocean County township, population 41,689, is one of the few Republican enclaves in a Democrat-dominated state. During the 2016 presidential election, the township voted for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton 66 percent to 30 percent.

“We need a tax code that reflects the modern reality, and we feel this does this,” Ivanka Trump told the 150 people at the fire hall Monday morning.

Republicans are calling for cutting corporate rates and reducing the number of income-tax brackets from seven to four.

MacArthur said the House bill won his support after the $10,000 property-tax deduction cap was included, while the Senate plan calls for the elimination of the deductions.

Ivanka Trump has been promoting the plan throughout the country.

At each turn, the audience, which included numerous local and county Republican lawmakers, applauded the plan.

Outside supporters stood in the rain hoping to get a seat inside the hall, while protesters picketed the event.

“People don’t understand that nothing goes down,” said Brian Gingrich, 72, of Berkeley Township. “There is nothing free, everyone wants to get something on the dime and we can’t do it. The middle class has been paying for so long for everything. ... Steps have to be taken.”

During the 45-minute event, MacArthur, Trump and Mnuchin did not take questions from the pro-Republican crowd. Those who attended were allowed to fill out question cards before the event and those questions were given to the group.

Asked about why more audience questions — especially critical ones — weren’t included, MacArthur said the event was about giving Trump and Mnuchin a platform to talk about tax reform.

“What we wanted was to give them a chance to speak and let people hear them speak,” he said. “As you know, town halls can get out of control. That’s not what I was after today.”

As the event wrapped up, Marianne Clemente, one of the few Democrats who was able to get in, loudly questioned the panel about not interacting with the public. Clemente drew the ire of many in the crowd, including some who confronted her.

“This is an outrage that they had an invite-only, when MacArthur doesn’t have any town hall meetings,” said Clemente, a resident of Barnegat Township. “Only Republicans got invited.”

MacArthur has held town-hall meetings, including two over the past year surrounding health care reform.

The makeup of the crowd was a topic even before the event started. Jason Ireland, of Brick Township, came inside the venue and yelled, “Why aren’t Democrats allowed?” before he was ushered back outside by security.

Ireland was one of the 30 people gathered outside the fire hall to protest the tax plan. The protesters held signs voicing their disapproval of the plan. One read “GOP Tax Bills Bad for NJ,” while another stated “Tom MacArthur vote no on tax bill.”

“They are trying to rush it through,” said Carla Loundsbury, 68, of Waretown, as she held an “RIP Middle Class” mock headstone. “This is going to hurt the middle class, and no one seems to care.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Craig Matthews / Staff Photographer 

Gov. Chris Christie, second from left, was among the Republican officials, many of them from the local and county levels, who attended to show their support for the tax plan.

jderosier-pressofac / Provided  

Witherspoon Former president of the Atlantic City Board of Education; currently an ordained minister at the Westminister Christian Worship Center in Atlantic City.

jderosier-pressofac / Michael Ein  

risley Headshot of Atlantic County Freeholder John Risley, Tuesday Jan. 2, 2012, at the Atlantic County courthouse in the Mays Landing section of Hamilton Township.

Galloway drug rep pleads guilty to health care fraud, becoming 11th conspirator

CAMDEN — A pharmaceutical representative from Galloway Township on Monday admitted his role in a yearlong scheme that defrauded two state health benefits plans out of tens of millions of dollars for compounded prescriptions.

Andrew Gerstel, 39, is the 11th person to plead guilty to conspiracy to commit health care fraud before U.S. District Judge Robert Kugler in the case, which involves pharmaceutical representatives from across South Jersey as well as teachers, firefighters, police officers and state troopers.

Gerstel, who according to his LinkedIn profile is an employee at WraSer Pharmaceuticals of Mississippi, said he defrauded both the State Health Benefits Plan and School Employees Health Benefits Plan, as well as other insurers, out of nearly $500,000. He is represented by attorney Ralph Paolone of Galloway.

Questions still remain over public employees' roles in fraud case

As part of his plea agreement, Gerstel must forfeit $184,389 in criminal proceeds he received for his role in the scheme and pay restitution of at least $483,946. He faces up to 10 years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine. Sentencing is scheduled for Feb. 26, 2018, in Camden.

The investigation into abuse of local government health benefits plans surfaced over the summer.

Plea agreements began in August and have included several Atlantic County pharmaceutical representatives, a Margate doctor and a former Atlantic City firefighter.

According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, from January 2015 through April 2016, Gerstel recruited individuals in New Jersey to obtain expensive and medically unnecessary compounded drugs from a so-far unnamed out-of-state pharmacy.

Compounding is the legal process in which a pharmacist combines ingredients of one or more drugs into a personalized prescription tailored for an individual patient. After filling a prescription, the compounding pharmacy would receive a large payout from the state health benefits plan administrator, which would then be used to pay off the recruiters, doctors and those whose names were used to obtain the prescription, according to court documents.

Brick Township woman admits to defrauding $940K from township health insurance program

The compound medication prescriptions — in these cases pain, scar, antifungal and libido creams, as well as vitamin combinations — were reimbursed for thousands of dollars for a one-month supply, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.

Gerstel was a mid-level conspirator, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. He and others received a payout from another top-level conspirator, who was first paid a percentage of each prescription filled and paid out by the yet-to-be-named “pharmacy benefits administrator.”

Gerstel then paid recruiters under him and individuals with insurance coverage to reward them for obtaining the prescriptions.

The court documents state that over the time frame of the conspiracy, the pharmacy benefits administrator paid the compounding pharmacy more than $50 million for compounded medications mailed to individuals in New Jersey.

Ten other conspirators — Matthew Tedesco, Robert Bessey, Michael Pepper, Thomas Hodnett, Steven Urbanski, John Gaffney, Judd Holt, George Gavras, Richard Zappala and Michael Neopolitan — have pleaded guilty to their roles in the scheme and await sentencing.

The government is represented by Assistant U.S. Attorneys R. David Walk Jr. and Jacqueline M. Carle of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Camden.