By FRANK KUMMER, RENEE WINKLER and KATHY MATHESON
His voice cracking with emotion, former mayor Milton Milan apologized Friday for betraying the trust of city residents before an unsympathetic federal judge who sentenced him to more than seven years in prison.
"People believed in me and trusted in me. I let them down. I'm sorry to them, to my family and to my children," Milan said as his wife wept in the gallery.
U.S. District Judge Joel A. Pisano was unsparing as he castigated Milan for taking mob payoffs, using city contractors to perform free work on his home, laundering money from a drug dealer, committing insurance fraud, using vehicles supplied for free by a towing contractor and selling a stolen computer to an intern.
Milan, the judge said, was "more enamored of the trappings of the office than his duties."
Because of that, Milan deserved no special consideration, the judge said.
"Your conduct was pervasive," Pisano said. "It was common knowledge in the city that Mr. Milan's influence was available. It is self-evident that a dishonest mayor undermines the confidence of the public."
The judge gave Milan seven years and three months in prison, the maximum allowed under federal sentencing guidelines. He bumped up the sentence proposed by the probation department after agreeing with Assistant U.S. Attorney Mary Futcher that the ex-mayor had damaged the public's confidence in their government.
Milan could be released in less than six years. He will get credit for time served since his Dec. 21 conviction, and defendants can be released after serving 85 percent of their term if they do not violate any rules.
The judge spared Milan a fine, saying he had no ability to pay. But he found him responsible for $14,761 in restitution to three victims who sought it - a towing contractor, an insurance company and a leasing company.
Milan will remain under court supervision for three years after release. State officials have already permanently barred him from seeking public office again.
Milan became Camden's first Hispanic mayor on July 1, 1997, a relative political newcomer who convinced voters he could turn the city around. His sentencing comes with the city still in a financial crisis and the state considering a takeover of government operations.
The former mayor appeared in court thinner and paler than when he was removed from office. He wore a white, prison- issued T-shirt, khaki pants and blue slip-on sneakers.
"I'd like to apologize to the residents of the city of Camden for my very poor judgment," Milan said, the closest he has come to admitting guilt.
After Milan's brief statement, the judge recounted the former mayor's list of crimes and spoke at length about why he was giving Milan the maximum sentence.
"When you took office, there was no question that Camden was a city of great despair," the judge said. "But the people believed in you. Your own people believed you. You squandered your opportunities. The people of this city do have a problem, but they do not deserve to be the laughingstock of urban America ... you've made them that."
Over the last decade, the city lost 9 percent of its population, dropping to 79,904 residents. The number of vacant houses also soared during the period, and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development lists the city as the nation's second-poorest. The state funds 70 cents of every dollar in Camden's budget.
Pisano told Milan he came into office with great promise " but violated every oath ofoffice."
"It appears to me that it was your purpose to achieve personal aggrandizement," he said.
"You are a remarkable individual, at least you were," Pisano said, recalling Milan's rise from a one-parent family living on a blighted North Camden street.
"You had a job as the mayor of the city. You had a salary of $75,000, a driver and a car," Pisano continued. "You now have nothing."
After sentencing, Milan was returned to the Federal Correctional Institution at Fairton, Cumberland County, where he has been held since his conviction. It will be up to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons to determine whether he serves out his term there or at a correctional facility at Fort Dix.
Milan was indicted March 29, 2000, by a federal grand jury in Camden. A jury convicted him of 14 of 19 counts of mail and wire fraud, conspiracy and money laundering, making him the third Camden mayor in 20 years to be found guilty of corruption.
The jury found, among other things, that he accepted as much as $30,000 in payoffs from former Philadelphia/South Jersey mob boss Ralph Natale between 1996 and 1998; laundered a $65,000 cash loan in 1994 from now-convicted drug dealer Jose "JR" Rivera; used part of $7,500 he skimmed from campaign funds to pay for a trip to Puerto Rico with friends and supporters in 1997; and staged a burglary at his business, Atlas Contracting, in 1995 to collect insurance money.
Milan was stripped of his office the day after his conviction.
His court-appointed attorney, Richard Coughlin, asked Pisano on Friday to set aside two of his client's convictions. The judge turned down therequests.
A pre-sentence report recommended a maximum sentence of 67 months, or five years, seven months. But prosecutors got it bumped up 20 months, to 87 months, by arguing that Milan had abused the public trust and damaged the city.
"The defendant decided that his greed was more important than his duties to the citizens," said Futcher.
Milan grew up in a tough neighborhood on Bailey Street in North Camden, where homes were as likely to be abandoned as lived in and drug dealers flanked street corners.
He dropped out of high school and eventually entered the Marines, where he learned to operate heavy machinery, became a marksman, went to Beirut, and earned an honorable discharge. He returned home to Camden in the mid-1980s and began hanging around with felons and drug dealers.
He started two construction companies and was elected to city council in 1995. He rose quickly in political ranks and was named council president on Jan. 1, 1996. He was already taking bribes from Natale.
In May 1997, he was elected mayor after a brash campaign that was tainted with accusations that he had been affiliated with Rivera and had been questioned in a 1988 gangland slaying.
Despite those questions, Milan took a firm grip on the city's helm. In July 1999, he rocked Trenton when he had the city file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy, until stopping the proceeding when the state agreed to pay $74 million in aid it had been holding. While the move scored him points in some quarters, it hurt the city's financial reputation, scaring off investors.
As mayor, Milan lived in a nicely rehabilitated home on North 33rd Street in East Camden. It turned out that much of the work was performed for free by vendors working on or seeking government contracts.
Milan's name began surfacing in connection with separate federal investigations of Rivera, the drug lord, and Natale, the Mafia boss. Both were key witnesses at his trial.
On Aug. 16, 1999, federal and county agents raided Milan's home and office, carting away boxes of materials in search of evidence.
Throughout the investigation, Milan maintained his innocence, complaining he was being politically persecuted.