Update 11/04/17: A criminal defendant named Candido Mayas alleged in his Post Conviction Relief application that Branco and Helmer colluded with one another. Specifically, Mayas claimed that Branco, who “allegedly negotiated [a] favorable plea agreement with [Mayas’ codefendant who cooperated with the prosecutor] was terminated from his employment with the Cumberland County prosecutor’s office two years after [Mayas’] case was decided [and that Branco] was thereafter hired by [Helmer’s firm].” The cooperating codefendant, who is named Michael Perez, was represented by Helmer.
Even though Judge said that Mayas’ “bald assertion . . . flies in the face of logic and common sense,” I wanted to post both Judge Cristen P. D’Arrigo’s February 19, 2016 opinion and the October 24, 2017 affirming Appellate Division opinion for any readers who are interested in the relationship between Helmer and Branco. Also, Judge D’Arrigo’s opinion is the first record of which I am aware that states that Branco’s separation from employment with the Cumberland County Prosecutor’s office was “involuntary.”
On March 20, 2015, the New Jersey Office of Attorney Ethics filed a formal ethics complaint against a former Cumberland County First Assistant Prosecutor who now is a named partner in a Haddon Heights law firm.
According to the ethics complaint, which is on-line here, Yaron Helmer, who served as an assistant prosecutor in Camden County before working for Cumberland, agreed to collect money for a Cherry Hill based company named NFI from another company named Trident, LLC. According to the ethics complaint, Trident paid NFI over a million dollars over a seven month period until a March 17, 2008 check for $100,000 was dishonored by Trident’s bank due to insufficient funds. In an attempt to make good on the $100,000 bad check, Trident reportedly wrote four checks. each for $17,000, which were also dishonored by Trident’s bank.
In response, NFI went to the Vineland Police Department to complain that by issuing bad checks with knowledge that they would be dishonored, Trident corporate officers James Land and Michael Pessiki violated N.J.S.A. 2C:21-5 which criminalizes the act of knowingly issuing bad checks. After Vineland Police conducted an investigation, which included sending Vineland Detective Phillip Martinez to Harrisburg, NFI’s security manager James Matlock signed criminal complaints against Land and Pessiki on July 24, 2008. However, on September 17, 2008, Cumberland County Assistant Prosecutor Charles J. Wettstein dismissed the complaints informing Matlock that “[t]he Cumberland County Prosecutor’s Office is not in the business of operating as a collection agency on your company’s behalf.”
NFI, which was “dissatisfied with Wettstein’s decision,” hired Helmer to “act as a middleman” to “persuade the [Cumberland County Prosecutor’s Office] to take criminal action against” Trident’s Land and Pessiki. For his “middleman” role, NFI agreed to pay Helmer $10,000 up front plus 20% of the first $500,000 and 15% of any money above $500,000 that Helmer could collect from Trident. After Helmer became involved, a meeting was held between Matlock, NFI’s lawyer Robert Barron and Cumberland County Assistant Prosecutors G. Harrison Walters and David R. Branco (Branco now works at Helmer’s firm) where a plan was allegedly hatched involving “a sealed indictment, a meeting where [Land and Pessiki] would be arrested on warrants with high bail after the indictment was unsealed and a seizure of the bail monies was to be used as restitution.” According to the ethics complaint, Helmer actually drafted the text of the indictment and testified before the Grand Jury on June 17, 2009.
As a result of the indictment, Judge John W. Waters issued an arrest warrant for Pessiki with a bail amount of $150,000. Judge Waters later said that the $150,000 bail amount “was already typed onto the warrant when it was presented to him.” The complaint recites that an arrest warrant against Land could not be located, but that the bail amount on it was also $150,000. A mediation session was then scheduled in Woodbury for August 6, 2009 at which both Land and Pessiki would travel from out of state to attend. The plan became for Pessiki and Land to be arrested at the mediation session.
Superiors at the Cumberland County Prosecutor’s Office, after becoming aware of the plan to arrest Pessiki and Land, were “not comfortable with the idea of serving arrest warrants on the defendants while they were in New Jersey for . . . a business meeting” and decided not to allow the arrest to occur.
Still, Land and Pessiki were arraigned on the bad check charges on September 15, 2009 before Judge Robert P. Becker, Jr. When Judge Becker asked Walters about how the case might be resolved, Walters indicated that the charges could be downgraded but that “restitution would be a – the big chunk of the – of the plea.”
Land was represented in the criminal matter by Carl Poplar. Poplar, in response to Helmer’s demand for a large restitution amount that exceeded the amount of the bad checks, moved to dismiss the indictment based on what “he perceived to be fundamentally wrong with the Grand Jury presentation.” In sum, Poplar questioned why Helmer assumed such a large role, having testified as a State witness and having drafted all ten counts of the indictment. He argued that he grand jury had been improperly utilized for the purpose of pursuing a civil remedy on behalf of NFI. In his submission, Poplar wrote “that it cannot be denied that the independence of the Grand Jury was compromised.” The court, however, ruled that Helmer’s role before the Grand Jury was appropriate. In a September 2010 letter, however, the Prosecutor’s office conceded “without equivocation or hesitation” that “as a matter of professional responsibility that the manner of presentation to the Grand Jury was not proper and shall not be sanctioned or condoned by Prosecutor Webb-McCrae.”
The Office of Attorney Ethics claims that Helmer’s role in this matter violated R.P.C. 3.4(g) which prohibits “presenting, participate in presenting or threatening to present criminal charges to obtain an improper advantage in a civil matter.”