A public defender and a court interpreter allegedly schemed to extort cash from a Spanish-speaking defendant who was told he had to pay $800 for representation.
Mario Persiano Jr. worked in concert with interpreter Ana Baisden and received half the $800 the drunken-driving defendant paid her, Camden County Prosecutor Warren Faulk said in announcing the indictment.
Faulk added that evidence suggests others were similarly victimized and that detectives are working to determine the the alleged shakedown’s scope.
Baisden, of Pennsauken, allegedly implied to the unnamed defendant that paying the fee would get him more effective representation from Persiano, and she even gave him a receipt after he paid.
Faulk said Persiano and Baisden chose a victim who didn’t speak English because he would not be knowledgeable about the court system or question them about the $800.
Persiano received the funds from Baisden for providing her with legal representation in a personal matter, says Jason Laughlin, a spokesman for Faulk, though he adds that the nature of the representation is unknown.
Persiano, 34, and Baisden, 57, were charged with official misconduct and conspiracy to commit theft by extortion after the defendant reported the solicitation to the prosecutor’s office during the second week of October.
Persiano was suspended without pay from his public defender post after he was charged, says Pennsauken Township administrator Edward Grochowski.
The job, which entails two sessions a week, pays $35,488 and includes pension benefits under the Public Employees Retirement System. Persiano has held the job since 2007. He is also solicitor for the Pennsauken Library Board of Trustees, and previously worked as a prosecutor in Gloucester Township, Lindenwold, Somerdale and Brooklawn.
Persiano was elected to the Pennsauken Township Board of Education in 2005 and served until 2007.
In addition to his public defender role, Persiano practices criminal and municipal law at Salvatore Siciliano’s firm in Haddonfield, where he is of counsel.
He graduated from Villanova University and Michigan State University School of Law, passing the New Jersey bar in 2004.
Baisden earns $800 a month in her job as court interpreter in Pennsauken, she said in a September 2011 filing for bankruptcy under Chapter 13.
Official misconduct is a crime of the second degree if the benefit obtained exceeds $200, as in the case at hand.
A conviction carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison without eligibility for parole and would result in pension forfeiture.
Conspiracy to commit theft by extortion, a second-degree offense regardless of the amount, carries a 10-year sentence.
Persiano’s attorney, James Gerrow Jr. of Sitzler & Sitzler in Hainesport, declines to say whether his client received money from Baisden or is representing her in any matter.
He adds that Persiano does not speak Spanish and had no direct contact with the defendant.
“I am confident once they do a full and complete investigation…Mario will be exonerated,” Gerrow says.
Courts impose up to $250 for the services of a municipal public defender, who is appointed for those who qualify based on their income, Faulk said.
“In no scenario should a public defender be receiving money from a court translator in relation to his work defending people in municipal court,” Laughlin says.
“He is accused of conspiring to commit theft through extortion. It’s implicit in the very nature of the charge that he was complicit in shaking down this defendant, and possibly others at the Pennsauken municipal court,” Laughlin adds.