The trial of the century – at least in small claims court – resumed this morning with a judge possibly deciding today if ex-congressional candidate Phil Rizzo cheated the Morris County Republican Committee out of $1,500 they say he owes them after not paying for a table fee at their 2022 convention.
The trial began on December 19 and will begin its fifth day over the low-dollar lawsuit, which includes a counter-complaint filed by Rizzo seeking the return of $600 he paid the Morris GOP, claiming that they never displayed an ad he paid for at the convention.
Superior Court Judge David Weaver, who has appeared hopeful that the trial will end before he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 70 in October, said last month that he wants today’s hearing to be the last.
Rizzo’ attorney, Ronald Berutti, indicated in February that he has two more witnesses t call.
It’s not clear if Weaver will make an immediate decision from the bench today.
Rizzo had also sought a venue change, claiming that he could not receive a fair trial in Morris County because of the outsized control the local GOP holds over the court.
Weaver pushed back on those claims.
“There just no evidence of that there’s substantial doubt that a fair, impartial trial can be reached because the Morris County Republican organization is a part to this action,” Weaver said in December. “I am a Sussex County judge.”
The GOP organization alleges that Rizzo’s political director, Daniel Laucik, Jr., agreed to pay for a table inside the convention room to distribute literature, display their signage and have “home base” during the convention. Court filings show that the Rizzo campaign had produced a copy of an online contribution for $1,500, but never hit submit on the payment platform.
Now-Rep. Thomas H. Kean, Jr. (R-Westfield) won the Morris GOP convention on the second ballot. Kean led newcomer John Henry Isemann on the first ballot by a 48-36 vote, with 23 votes for Assemblyman Erik Peterson (R-Franklin); Rizzo finished fourth with just 20 votes out of 127 cast – a mere 15.7%.
“Upon entry, Mr. Laucik, acting as a campaign representatives, showed our staff a picture of a donation to our organization that was not yet submitted in a successful attempt to mislead the staffer into thinking the donation has been made,” Republicans allege in their court filing.
Morris Republicans charge that Rizzo and his staff lied about their payment in a deliberate attempt to gain the benefits of a table without having to pay for it.
Rizzo faced considerable condemnation for selling his Harding home to the City Baptist Church, a tiny, now-defunct storefront church in North Bergen where he had been the pastor, for $1.65 million. That allowed Rizzo to live there without paying property taxes.
The Morris County Board of Taxation revoked Rizzo’s tax-exempt status in May. He has since sold the home and moved to Somerset County.
Rizzo ran for governor in 2021 and received 25.6% of the vote in the gubernatorial primary, losing to Jack Ciattarelli by 24 percentage points. Rizzo received just 23.6% and lost to Tom Kean, Jr. by 22 points in the 2022 House primary.