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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

New Breed of Prosecutors Arrive for 2010

For Passaic County prosecutor, some new priorities
The New Jersey Record by JOHN PETRICK - January 3, 2010

Like anybody in economically stressed times, Passaic County Prosecutor Camelia M. Valdes says she's been spending the past six months trying to figure out how to make the most of what's there. “Forget about as a prosecutor. As a taxpayer, I am very conscious about how we spend money,” says the Wayne resident and Passaic County's chief law enforcement officer. She acknowledged that she recently hired three new junior assistant prosecutors. But since taking over in July, Valdes says she has mostly been consumed with reallocating from within. One of her biggest initiatives has been the creation of a new Public Integrity and Organized Crime Unit, which she staffed by repositioning some existing personnel. “Anything having to do with official corruption, organized crime, police corruption, is all part of the new unit,” she said. “I felt those subjects deserved their own specialized attention.” Prior to her arrival, those tasks were the duties of the White Collar Crime Unit, which handles insurance and credit card fraud, employee theft and the like. “I know that when you're dealing with police officers and sensitive matters, it's all-consuming. So to have it in there with a general white collar unit just didn't seem right,” she said. Thus far, the new public integrity unit's most publicized case has been that of Passaic Police Officer Joseph Rios III, who was indicted Sept. 28 by a Passaic County grand jury on one count of aggravated assault and another of official misconduct. The charges stemmed from a video showing Rios throwing 49-year-old Ronnie Holloway of Passaic against the hood of his cruiser before flinging him to the ground and delivering several blows while Holloway was on his back. He has pleaded not guilty and the case remains open. Prior to her administration, the county was rocked by another high-profile police scandal. Five officers from Pompton Lakes, West Paterson and Ringwood were charged with protecting drug-dealing friends and eventually pleaded guilty to lesser charges that resulted in non-custodial sentences.

September's indictment was Valdes' first big press conference since taking office. Standing before the cameras and microphones, Valdes seemed assured - if not a little nervous - giving her sound bite. But that's about all she would give. Most follow-up questions were politely dismissed. She knows she appeared tight-lipped, she now says, months later. But it's a sensitive case, she noted, and she wasn't about to take any chances by saying too much. For as accessible and friendly as Valdes comes across, it so far seems a more controlled administration. Whereas her predecessor, James Avigliano, was always quick to take or return a phone call, Valdes has, until now, been elusive. To help information flow, her office began a new system of regularly issuing press releases announcing various cases of public importance. But it got off to a rough start. The releases were sometimes issued days after the fact, peppered with errors or lacking necessary details. “Some people may have been initially concerned about her being relatively young, and relatively unknown in Passaic County,” said Fairfield attorney Patrick Caserta, a former Passaic County prosecutor and seasoned observer of the county's legal scene. “From what I've seen so far, I think that she has very effectively and quickly dispelled any misconceptions about herself and disproved her naysayers. She carefully went about an analysis of the organization as it existed and talked to a lot of people on the staff about the organization, and the county, and the issues, and then made decisions as to what she wanted to do. Now we have to see how effectively her office works.” It seems a contradiction that Valdes tackled white collar crime and public integrity issues first off. When discussing her plans last July, she said that reduction of violent crime would be her number one priority. But she says there's no conflict. “I certainly had my notions of what I wanted to focus on, and that hasn't changed: violent crimes, and making sure that as an office, we serve the county community as a whole. The issues you have in Paterson may or may not be the issues you have in Ringwood,” she said. Toward that end, she's been trying to improve future joint investigations by spending a lot of time with each of the municipal police chiefs, she said. An example of recent county and local collaborations under the new administration was the Dec. 22 arrest of 14 people in breaking up an alleged narcotics trafficking network in Ringwood and West Milford. The arrests were the result of a joint effort between the Ringwood Police Department and her office's Narcotics, Gangs and Violent Crimes Task Force. “I see my role more as a legal adviser to the municipalities,” Valdes said. “They need someone to prosecute their cases, and it just works better when there's true collaboration. For example, when there is a homicide or a fatality, typically, our investigators are not the first responders. The first responders will be local police. They will then call us in and we will either assist, or supercede. Then we will end up maybe keeping the case, depending on the severity of the crime. If we're not called on time, if we don't have full facts from people first on the scene, then that's a negative.” E-mail:

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