CAMDEN, N.J., March 30— The ills of this desperate city deepened today with the indictment of its mayor, Milton Milan, on 19 charges of corruption, ranging from laundering drug money and taking bribes from organized crime leaders to stealing his own computer, collecting the insurance and then selling it to a naive office volunteer for three times its worth.
Mr. Milan, who was elected in 1997, is the third Camden mayor to be indicted in the last 20 years. He was ensnared in a rolling investigation into drug dealing and official corruption that federal officials have conducted for more than a year. As one defendant after another pointed the finger at Mr. Milan, the expectation grew that he would one day follow them into the dock.
This morning, trailing a parade of Cabinet members, other city officials and friends, the mayor walked the two blocks from City Hall to the new federal courthouse on Cooper Street to surrender to a United States marshal. He was handcuffed, and entered a plea of not guilty. After he was released on $150,000 bail, Mr. Milan was jaunty at a news conference on the courthouse steps in which he said the charges against him were unfounded and insisted that he would not step down.
”I’m a fighter; I’ve always been a fighter,” said Mr. Milan, 37, who was wearing a Camden Library team jacket. ”And just because you get hit once and fall down doesn’t mean I’m not going to get up and keep fighting.”
Later, Robert J. Cleary, the United States attorney for New Jersey, was just as combative. ”The mayor designed his pay-for-play system for his own selfish benefit, and the rest of the public be damned,” Mr. Cleary read from a statement that touched on elements of the indictment. ”He put the office of mayor in this city up for sale, and anything you wanted, you could buy from him. You want a contract? Buy him a car. You want to get paid faster? Install windows in his house. You want a job? Bribe the mayor.”
The maximum penalties for all 19 counts add up to 119 years in prison, said Renee M. Bumb, the assistant United States attorney and a lead prosecutor in the investigation of Mr. Milan. If convicted, the mayor could also face hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.
In all, 16 local men have been convicted or pleaded guilty to narcotics distribution in the federal investigation. In addition, the city’s former municipal prosecutor, Joseph S. Caruso, has admitted to conspiring with Mr. Milan to solicit a $5,000 campaign contribution from the public defender, an action that forms one of the counts in today’s indictment. And Mr. Milan’s business partner in the Atlas Construction Company, Gholam Joseph Darakshan, was indicted two weeks on charges that he laundered drug money with the mayor.
The mayor has his supporters on the City Council, but this afternoon several Council members said they would try to seek enough votes to force Mr. Milan to step down. Legally, he can remain in office unless he is convicted.
Mr. Milan’s indictment is one more blow to Camden, the poorest city in New Jersey. With most of its jobs and money having fled to suburbs like Cherry Hill in the last 40 years, the city teetered on the edge of bankruptcy last summer and required a state financial rescue, along with spending controls. Many city police functions have been taken over by state troopers, and Camden’s failing schools were recently investigated by state officials, who urged financial and educational reforms.
Mr. Milan’s predecessor, Arnold B. Webster, pleaded guilty to federal wire fraud charges in 1998 and was sentenced last August to six months’ house arrest and three years’ probation. An earlier mayor, Angelo J. Errichetti, was convicted of federal corruption charges and went to prison in 1981.
Mr. Milan, the city’s first Hispanic mayor, rose from poverty in Camden to start his own construction company. He ran as an outsider for City Council and, after being embraced by the Camden County Democratic Party, was elected mayor.
His indictment was handed up by a grand jury on Wednesday, and an arrest warrant was issued this morning. The crimes he is accused of committing either before or after he became mayor fall into six broad categories: fraud, accepting bribes, attempted extortion, wire and mail fraud, illegal currency transactions and money laundering. And perhaps the most serious of the charges — one that Mr. Cleary hammered at a news conference — was the accusation that the mayor was involved in taking bribes from associates of the Philadelphia organized crime boss Ralph Natale.
Although today’s indictment was voluminous, it did not mention any of the accusations of drug dealing by the mayor that several of the convicted dealers had made from the stand. And although Mr. Milan is accused of taking tens of thousands of dollars in cash and services, the federal document paints a picture of a corrupt mayor with small-bore ambitions to skim a dollar here and a dollar there — a trip to Florida with his girlfriend, some free carpet for his home — rather than a man bent on a grand criminal scheme.
The indictment charges that Mr. Milan began accepting bribes from an unnamed associate of Mr. Natale as early as March 1996. In exchange, it alleges, Mr. Milan helped crime figures win city contracts that directly benefited Mr. Natale.
In all, Mr. Milan took more than $30,000 from the Philadelphia mobster’s organization by trying to funnel city business to Cosa Nostra operatives, the indictment alleges. Mr. Natale is in prison on a narcotics conspiracy conviction, and newspaper reports have said he is cooperating with federal agents in their Camden investigation.
For example, the indictment alleges that on Oct. 30, 1997, the mayor met in his office with a Natale associate, called an unindicted co-conspirator by federal officials, to discuss the associate’s desire to win a contract to be a collector of fines and other charges by the Camden Municipal Court. When the city’s chief judge later objected to the contract, the mayor wrote a letter asking him to reconsider, and a week later the Natale associate, called Individual No. 2 in the indictment, paid $1,433 for the mayor’s Florida vacation, the indictment alleges.
The indictment also says that the mayor accepted two vehicles from a towing operator with a contract with the city, and that a second contractor seeking city work performed a garage demolition worth $4,000 and installed $700 worth of carpet in the mayor’s home.
A third contractor is said to have installed 25 new windows in the mayor’s North Camden home for the cost of materials only, in exchange for getting speedier payment from the Camden Housing Services Department. In another count, a city heating and air-conditioning contractor is said to have installed a $3,346 central air-conditioning system in the mayor’s home.
The money-laundering charge accuses Mr. Milan of borrowing $65,000 in drug money and then, with his partner Mr. Darakshan, parceling the money out to numerous friends to evade the $10,000 federal threshold for reporting cash deposits. The friends then wrote checks in the amount given them to Atlas Contracting, and the money was used as a surety deposit on a home-building project, the indictment says.
The mayor collected $4,743 in insurance for a staged theft at the Atlas Construction office in 1997, the indictment charges. He then sold one of the ”stolen” computers, worth $500, to a mayoral intern for $1,500, the United States attorney said.
”These crimes, described in painstaking detail, show a mayor more interested in serving himself than serving the people of Camden,” Mr. Cleary said in a statement, adding later, ”We believe this indictment is an important step forward for Camden.”
Photo: Mayor Milton Milan of Camden, N.J., on his motorcycle, said the charges against him were unfounded. (Associated Press)