F.E.A.R. Chronicles newsletter
volume 3 number 2 (March 1996)
New Jersey's Forfeiture King Indicted: Somerset prosecutor Nicholas Bissell, Jr. faces 30 counts.
by Peter Gorman
In a sweeping indictment of one of the nation's most overreaching and vindictive property forfeiture zealots, on September 28 a federal grand jury in Newark NJ charged Somerset County Prosecutor Nicholas L. Bissell, Jr. with 30 counts of criminal activity. Among the charges are mail fraud, conspiracy, tax fraud, financial-aid fraud, obstruction of justice, perjury and making false statements to federal agents. Also charged in the indictment is Bissell's wife Barbara, who handled the books for two gas stations owned by Bissell, around which much of the alleged criminal activity centers.
The 33-count indictment names Bissell's wife Barbara in 13 of the counts; Bissell is named in 30. If convicted on all counts he faces "substantial prison time" says Assistant US Attorney Kimberly Guadagno, who is co-prosecuting the case with Assistant US Attorney Perry Carbone.
Bissell, who surrendered to authorities within days of the indictment, is currently out on a $200,000 bail while awaiting his April 15, 1996 trial date. His wife is free on a $100,000 bond.
Immediately following the indictment, New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman fired Bissell, who had been prosecutor of Somerset County since 1982.
Among other specific charges, Bissell is accused of "concealing...private business interests [he] had with a lawyer who represented clients with cases pending before the Prosecutor's Office," according to a US Justice Department news release. The same release notes that Bissell is also accused of "threatening to plant cocaine in the car of an unidentified person with whom [he] was dealing in connection with his private business interests...and to have that person arrested and prosecuted by his office in an effort to extort an economic benefit from that person." The person referred to was a partner of Bissell's in two gas stations they jointly owned. The indictment further alleges that Bissell, with his wife's help, skimmed nearly a quarter of a million dollars from one of the stations, fraudulently inflated gasoline receipts from one of his gas stations in order to illegally obtain rebate monies from the gas distributor, solicited a vendor "to create false tax returns in an effort to obtain over $18,000 in student aid" for his son, and filed false tax returns. He is also charged with obstruction of justice and perjury stemming from his conduct in a federal civil rights case which arose from his handling of a forfeiture case.
It was Bissell's overreaching tactics in his forfeiture work that sparked the investigation which led to the indictment. The case involved James Guiffre, a homebuilder in Somerset and an admitted casual drug user who was arrested in 1988 after detectives found 17 grams of cocaine in his home.
According to Guiffre, "After l was arrested. l was not taken to jail. Instead, l was taken to the Somerset Trust Bank building where the county rents space on the second floor. Then l was handcuffed to a chair for nearly two days during which I was not allowed to contact an attorney despite repeated requests. l was also threatened physically, and the officers threatened to shoot my dog." During the two days. Guiffre claims he was repeatedly asked to sign two residential properties he owned over to the prosecutor's office and sign a paper admitting that he bought the properties with drug money. If he did, Guiffre claims, Bissell's office said it would dismiss all criminal charges against him and not attempt to forfeit his home.
"After almost two days of thinking they were just going to take me out back and shoot me, I signed. l would have signed anything they wanted. And I was immediately released. The prosecutor's office filed the deeds to the property within two hours."
The two properties, each a three acre homesite, were later sold for $10,000 apiece at a supposedly public auction, but which was attended by only one bidder, the girlfriend of a friend of Bissell's. Guiffre had originally paid over $200,000 for them.
Guiffre claims he has taped conversations with Bissell offering to sell him back the properties for $100,000.
In his civil rights suit against Bissell, Guiffre charges him with extortion. The indictment alleges that Bissell ordered the destruction of a police report which had references to Guiffre's requests for legal representation and that he later lied about ordering a new report omitting Guiffre's requests.
"It was a set-up from the beginning," claims Guiffre. "The whole idea was to shake me down to get the land to sell to his friend."
Such tactics to forfeit property were typical of Bissell. When Greg F. was arrested for growing 20 marijuana plants in his backyard, he was offered a deal by Bissell in which he was asked to give up his life savingsÄnearly $70,000Äin exchange for a dismissal of charges and no forfeiture proceedings against his house. When Greg F. refused, Bissell seized his house, cars and bank account and charged him with possession with intent to distribute marijuana. He was convicted and drew a one-year sentence.
A number of similar cases have come out of Somerset during Bissell's tenure as prosecutor. But a state investigation found nothing wrong with either his forfeiture tactics or his personal financial dealings "We were banging on that door for two years before they decided to take a look," says Guiffre. "And the state found nothing. It wasn't until the feds came in that they began to see what was going on."
Co-prosecutor in the case Perry Carbone acknowledges that it was Guiffre's insistence that led to the ongoing federal investigation. Neither Carbone nor Guadagno could comment on whether a second investigationÄperhaps into Bissell's handling of forfeituresÄwas underway, though they asked that anyone with evidence of impropriety on Bissell's part contact the US Attorney's office in Newark at (201) 645-2700.