By John Burton
FREEHOLD – An official responsible for soil conservation for property developments pleaded guilty Tuesday to accepting a bribe.
John Tonon, a 51-year-old Manasquan resident and district official for the Freehold Soil Conservation District pleaded guilty in state Superior Court to official misconduct and bribery, according to the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office.
Tonon had solicited a $700 bribe from a builder constructing a home in Hazlet, authorities said.
The prosecutor’s office initiated an investigation after getting a tip and used an undercover officer to catch Tonon on tape accepting the $700, authorities said.
Tonon was a resource conservationist for the Freehold Soil Conservation District. As a conservationist, Tonon would inspect construction sites for soil erosion, storm water run-off and sedimentation problems that can occur from land disturbances caused by building.
During a walk-through at the Hazlet construction site, Tonon told the builder that the Freehold Soil Conservation District inspections and subsequent reports could cost between $1,400 and $3,000. Tonon, the prosecutor’s said, offered to speed up the process and offered the needed approvals for the property in exchange for the $700 payoff.
These approvals, authorities said, would allow the developer to obtain the needed certificate of occupancy for the property.
Tonon met with a person he believed to be the builder’s partner, but was, in fact, an undercover detective, who recorded the conversations. Authorities said Tonon accepted the bribe, promising the quick issuance of soil approvals.
Tonon is expected to appear in court again on Oct. 5. Under the terms of the negotiated plea agreement, the prosecutor will recommend that Tonon receive a five-year prison term in a state facility, with a two-year statutorily mandated period of parole ineligibility, authorities said.
The Freehold Soil Conservation District, where Tonon worked, is responsible for inspections in Monmouth and Middlesex counties. It is one of 15 districts in the state, responsible for soil and water resources management and conservation.