(Published in The Press of Atlantic City on Aug. 24, 2007.)
(Reported with Ed Van Embden. Ed was brand new on the beat, so I took the lead on the story and worked together on it.)
Donald and Grace Stirneman had a problem.
In March 2005, Millville building inspectors put their dilapidated, vacant house at 333 Howard St. on the city’s first abandoned properties list. Donald had spent 45 years as a truck driver and, despite a bookcase full of home improvement books, never had the time to refurbish the home.
Chief building inspector Milton Truxton told him to renovate or sell it. Donald went to work, but he said he felt pressured by Truxton to sell the property or face foreclosure by the city.
“They forced us to sell,” Donald Stirneman said.
They shouldn’t have faced a foreclosure threat yet, under city law, but they didn’t know that. They claim Truxton nixed a potential sale to a real estate agent — whose name they don’t remember — because there was no time. Then Michael Harvey, a Millville detective and son of the police chief appeared with an offer. They say Truxton dropped the foreclosure threat and allowed the sale.
“The building inspector did say something, that he didn’t mind doing a favor for one of the police officers,” Grace Stirneman said.
Truxton called the Stirnemans’ account “100 percent false.”
The Stirnemans and Harvey closed a sale Sept. 28, 2005, for $25,000, less than one-third of the home’s assessed value, according to property records.
Harvey resold the renovated home nearly eight months later for $172,500. He and his financial partner, his father and then-police Chief Ron Harvey, had made a hefty profit.
Cumberland County Prosecutor Ron Casella is now investigating this and other real estate deals by the Harveys. County investigators have seized city records pertaining to reimbursement for police officers since 2004. They interviewed several people who sold to the Harveys and, according to those sellers, asked whether city officials pressured them to sell. Casella confirmed the investigation Monday.
Ron Harvey took a 30-day sick leave beginning June 28 and announced his unexpected and immediate retirement July 12.
That same day, city officials served Michael Harvey and another detective, Steve Jones, with administrative charges, according to City Administrator Lewis Thompson. Capt. Tom Riley, the acting police chief, transferred Michael Harvey and Jones to the uniform patrol division this month.
Jones and Michael Harvey said Jones had no role in the Harveys’ business, other than them selling Jones a house. They denied wrongdoing and that they’d received administrative charges. They said they didn’t know Casella was investigating them.
“They can do their investigation first,” Michael Harvey said Wednesday, “and they’ll find there’s nothing wrong.”
Michael Harvey said if city officials put pressure on property owners, it had nothing to do with him. He said he could buy properties such as the Stirnemans’ for less than their assessed values because of their poor condition.
“The property was gutted,” said Harvey, who disputed parts of Stirneman’s account. “He was so old; he can’t do nothing with that house.”
Ron Harvey could not be reached for comment despite multiple phone calls and a visit to his home.
Truxton not only disputed the Stirnemans’ account, he also said neighbors complained about their property, which sat vacant for about 20 years.
“The Harveys are just people who work next door,” Truxton said. “I don’t have any relationship with them.”
City officials began their investigation after Officer Robert Colle, an Egg Harbor Township resident, filed a grievance claiming the two Harveys and two other officers harassed him because he was gay, Thompson said. Michael Harvey said he had no part in any harassment.
After hiring Vineland law firm Gruccio Pepper DeSanto & Ruth to investigate, city officials turned the case over to Casella.
The investigation broadened to real estate as county detectives investigated whether the Harveys used their government status and connections to make a profit off homeowners.
Michael Harvey began investing in Millville properties as early as 2003 after seeing his uncle, Edward, succeed in the business. His father became his financial backer, he said, while the son did about 80 percent of the home repairs.
In many cases, the Harveys bought and restored rundown houses and sold them at substantial profit. They obtained some after foreclosures. Michael Harvey said he found others on the city’s abandoned properties list, which is published in a newspaper.
“You find it as cheap as you can,” Michael Harvey described the business. “You sell it for as much as you can.”
Several of the houses are along Third, Fourth and Main streets. (Michael Harvey’s grandfather transferred ownership of his home to his grandson.)
Others are elsewhere, such as a three-property subdivision on Peek Avenue and Fowser Road in south Millville. County property records show no activity outside Millville.
Several people said they told police there was nothing unusual about their deals with the Harveys. Businessman Kevin Reed said he was happy to unload rentals in bad neighborhoods such as Fourth Street, where he routinely had difficult tenants.
“To buy and sell properties around the city,” City Commissioner Joe Derella said, “whether you’re an officer or a car salesman, I don’t know if that’d be a conflict of interest unless you used your power to coerce someone into selling their property.”
The Harveys often bought properties at prices below their assessed values.
The Harveys got into the business just as Millville hit a real estate boom. Property values spiked and prompted a city-wide reassessment in 2005. Realtors said most homes sold for more than their assessed values. If a home sold for less, there probably was a good reason.
“They’re a distressed seller,” said Larry DePalma of DePalma Real Estate, which has offices in Millville and Vineland.
“When somebody’s getting ready to lose, they have to drop, drop, drop.”
William and Verna Reed were distressed sellers. In July 2003, they bought the dilapidated house at 515 E. Main St. for $27,500 and said they closed the deal in a Second Street trailer park.
They had no lawyer and no title search to check the tax records.
What they did have, but didn’t know yet, was more than $17,000 in tax liens on the property.
They say city officials told them they’d foreclose. Assistant Tax Collector Sherri Ball said that wouldn’t have happened because the city didn’t hold the liens.
“When they told me they settled in a trailer, it was like, ‘Shame on you,’” Ball said. “I felt bad for the Reeds because they didn’t seem very educated. They had a deal that was too good to be true.”
Then Michael Harvey showed up. They still don’t know how he found out about their tax problem, but they knew he was a police officer and trusted him.
They sold him the house for $37,000, about half its assessed value. They said they’d already sunk about $20,000 into repairs.
Harvey sold the house nearly two years later for $130,000. The Reeds got stuck paying off the liens.
“I spent a lot of time fixing up that property, but I lost it all,” Reed said. “That’s what put me in this shape today.”
It’s unclear whether other deals the Harveys were involved in worked out the same.
Barry Sofsky, who has residences in Brigantine and Pittsgrove, sold Michael Harvey a duplex at 101-103 N. Fourth St. for a combined $39,000 in January 2005.
Harvey sold it three months later for $130,000 to the nonprofit Affordable Homes of Millville Ecumenical, which is now renovating it. Sofsky, who was reluctant to speak about the property because of the investigation, said he was under no duress to sell it.
Wilbert Martucci of Millville sold 106 S. Fourth St. to Michael and Ron Harvey for $32,500 on Feb. 16, 2007, according to property records, which show it assessed at $72,400.
A month earlier, city inspectors had warned the boarded-up house would be placed on the abandoned properties list if not repaired, according to a Jan. 23 letter.
Truxton said county investigators were interested primarily in this property when they questioned him.
The Harveys still own it.
Martucci could not be reached for comment.
Michael Harvey questioned why he was drawing attention for his real estate interests when other city other police officers own more property.
When asked, he said it could be disgruntled police officers targeting his father, the former chief. Jones described Michael Harvey as “by the book.”
“I’m a cop before anything,” Michael Harvey said. “I love my job. Swinging a hammer is what I choose to do in my off time.”
City officials hope that off time stops drawing attention.
“I want to get it over with,” said City Commissioner Jim Parent, who oversees the city’s public safety operations. “It’s a cloud that’s hanging over the city. It’s hanging over the police department. We have some very good police officers. Our police officers do a great job, whether they’re under investigation or not.”
To e-mail Daniel Walsh at The Press: DWalsh@pressofac.com
To e-mail Edward Van Embden at The Press: evan firstname.lastname@example.org
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HARVEY REAL ESTATE TRANSACTIONS IN MILLVILLE
Chart shows property deals made by former Millville police chief Ron Harvey and his son, police Sgt. Michael Harvey, between 2003 and 2007.
Property address Year Assessed Sale Resale
sold value price price
515 E. Main St. 2004 $70,000 $37,000 $130,000
101-103 N 4th St 2005 $104,900 $39,000 $110,000
333 Howard St. 2005 $77,800 $25,000 $172,500
* 106 S. 4th St. 2007 $72,400 $32,500 NS
312 N. 4th St. 2003 $58,400 $62,000 $140,000
31 Rieck Ave. 2004 $46,600 $66,000 $120,400
421 N. 3rd St. 2004 $37,100 $56,000 $56,000
430 N. 3rd St. 2005 $121,700 $50,000 $70,000
1021 Carmel Rd. 2006 $182,700 $295,000 NS
532 N. 4th St. 2006 $99,200 $75,000 NS
904 S. 2nd St. 2006 $203,400 $210,000 $100,000
RON HARVEY PURCHASES:
416 W. Main St. 2005 $85,800 $82,500 NS
10 Harrison Ave. 2006 $135,000 $170,000 $235,000
901 Leonard Dr. 2006 $80,800 $62,500 $95,000
*Jointly purchased with Ron Harvey
Source: Cumberland County property records and the New Jersey Association of County Tax Boards online database – Press graphic
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OTHER POLICE INVESTIGATED IN MILLVILLE
The prosecutor’s investigation into the Harveys’ real estate business is the latest controversy at the Millville Police Department.
* 2006: Sgt. Robert Vanaman charged with the murder of his wife.
* 2005: A state grand jury subpoenas Millville police overtime records.
* 2004: Eight officers claim they quit because of Ron Harvey’s nepotism within the department, highlighting a longstanding feud between the chief and now-retired Capt. John Olah.
* 2004: Officer Steve Felice is charged with assault against his girlfriend. He later resigns, and the charges are dropped.
* 2003: Sgt. Michael Harvey is charged after he allegedly threatens to kill his sister-in-law. She later drops complaint.
* 2003: Officer Kris Frank is charged with official misconduct over alleged sexual liaisons with teenagers. He later resigns, and the charges are dropped.
* 2002: Officer Angel Rodriguez is charged with official misconduct over alleged sexual liaisons with teenagers. He later resigns, and the charges are dropped.
* 2000: Chief Bill Herman is charged with performing unauthorized criminal background checks. He resigns, and the charges are dropped. Ron Harvey becomes chief.