TRENTON – Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal announced that a Philadelphia man was convicted at trial in Trenton, N.J., of conspiring with a temporary state employee to steal checks totaling $17,206 from the NJ Department of Labor and Workforce Development. This was the first verdict obtained by the Division of Criminal Justice in a socially distanced jury trial during the COVID 19 pandemic.
Phillip Stewart III, 39, of Philadelphia, Pa., was found guilty on Friday, Nov. 13, by a Mercer County jury of third-degree charges of conspiracy and theft by unlawful taking. He was acquitted of a charge of third-degree theft by deception. The verdict followed a trial before Superior Court Judge Peter E. Warshaw. Third-degree charges carry a sentence of three to five years in state prison and a fine of up to $15,000. Sentencing for Stewart is scheduled for January 8, 2021.
Stewart was convicted of conspiring with Shaminga Davis, 32, of Morrisville, Pa., a former temporary employee of the NJ Department of Labor and Workforce Development (NJDOL), who used her position to steal 11 checks totaling $18,222 that were made payable to the department. Davis gave nine of those checks, totaling $17,206, to Stewart, who deposited them into another person’s bank account and withdrew all of the money. Davis previously pleaded guilty to third-degree theft by deception and is awaiting sentencing. Under the plea agreement, the state will recommend that Davis be sentenced to a term of probation, conditioned on 364 days in the county jail and payment of full restitution.
Deputy Attorneys General Danielle Scarduzio and Kara Webster tried Stewart for the Division of Criminal Justice Specialized Crimes Bureau, with assistance from Technical Assistant Gabrielle Pichler, Deputy Chief of Detectives Ritchie King, Detective Brisa Mosley, who was the prosecution team’s trial detective, and Detective Christine Sullivan. Administrative Analysts Michael Kulyk and Anya Gayles investigated on behalf of NJDOL. Deputy Attorney General Adedayo Adu presented the indictment to the state grand jury and secured the guilty plea from Davis. The case was prosecuted under the supervision of Deputy Bureau Chief Jacqueline Smith and Bureau Chief Erik Daab of the Specialized Crimes Bureau.
In order to comply with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines and maximize safety, participants in the trial wore masks. Attorneys were permitted to remove their masks while standing at a socially distanced podium with a plexiglass barrier while questioning witnesses or addressing the jury. There were plexiglass barriers between each juror in the jury box and the two rows of jurors were six feet apart. There also were plexiglass barriers between those seated at the defense and prosecution tables. Jurors and witnesses wore clear masks provided by the court.
“I commend our trial team for meeting the challenges of a socially distanced trial to ensure that this defendant was held accountable for stealing from the State of New Jersey and its taxpayers,” said Attorney General Grewal. “I also commend the Judiciary for designing a courtroom and procedures that allowed this trial to proceed safely and justly during the COVID pandemic. While the Administrative Office of the Courts has now suspended in-person jury trials again due to the second wave of COVID 19 that has struck New Jersey and the nation, our Division of Criminal Justice and the Courts will continue the vital work of pursuing and administering justice in New Jersey in whatever format safety allows.”
“Our attorneys, detectives and staff in the Division of Criminal Justice did an outstanding job under difficult conditions to secure this verdict,” said Director Veronica Allende of the Division of Criminal Justice. “I also want to thank our partners in the Department of Labor for their excellent work. The COVID pandemic has created many challenges for law enforcement, but we will not be held back in our efforts to investigate and prosecute crime and protect the people of New Jersey.”
Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo said: “Anyone who steals from the state, and therefore from taxpayers, should be held accountable. The stolen checks were monies being returned to the Labor Department by honest citizens who had been overpaid. This theft hurt not only them, but also the trust fund used to pay Temporary Disability Insurance to New Jerseyans who are out of work and in need. I applaud the work of our own staff and the staff of the Attorney General’s Office.”
Attorney General Grewal and Director Allende urged anyone with information about theft, financial fraud or other criminal activity to contact the Division of Criminal Justice confidentially at its toll-free tip line 1-866-TIPS-4CJ. Additionally, members of the public can log on to the Division of Criminal Justice webpage at www.njdcj.org to report information confidentially.
Defense Attorney: Assistant Deputy Public Defender Matthew Mordas