PORTASH: The Fate Of Joe Portash's Widow
An interview with Adelaide Portash, whose husband, Joe, led Manchester's famous scam to loot more than $10 million from the township's treasury.
The next installment of a series on Joseph Portash, who helped fashion the township as a seasonal alternative for retirees who thought Florida was too far, and too hot for them to treat as a year-round home.
This installment deals with Portash's wife, Adelaide, a former mayor herself who has been living in Maine since her husband died. She was briefly interviewed by Manchester Patch.
Two decades ago, you could find Adelaide "Adge" Portash or her husband, the late Joe Portash, all over the newspapers.
And not just local ones. And not just in the newspapers.
You'd find them not just in The Asbury Park Press, but also on the T.V. news broadcasts in New York and Philadelphia, the same ones who once thought Manchester was merely a place to drive through, on Route 70, en route to the beach.
Back then, in the early 1990s, the Pine Barrens town that Joe Portash built had become the home of the worst political corruption scandal in New Jersey's history, one that he helped mastermind.
Two decades later, however, barely the only thing you'll find on Adelaide - in any form of media - is some obscure Internet listing with a small map of her current hometown, Harrison, Maine.
A part of her wishes she could still find a way to get her story out there. She did once serve as a township committeewoman, and was in the public eye as her husband was escaping a bribery charge, thanks to a Supreme Court decision to overturn it, back in the 1970s.
She did once serve her husband with divorce papers, citing his gambling and womanizing habits. That story made its way into the media, too, just as virtually every aspect of the Portashes' life was, perhaps, the most talked about Jersey Shore story of the early 1990s.
But peace and serenity, as well as anonymity, is the way Adelaide prefers it. It's the way she wants to keep it, even as she admits that the scandal that chased her family away from Manchester for good, and into Maine where Joe Portash kept a vacation home, still weighs on her.
"I'm still affected by it," she said in a recent telephone interview.
She has no computer, no Internet. No email address. She was actually shocked to hear that her name can be found anywhere on the web.
Even those divorce papers Adelaide once filed are not in any easily accessable domain. Indeed, you won't find the papers unless you go to the Ocean County Courthouse.
Once you get there, you'll see those papers are so old that finding them won't be easy.
"My life is so personal," she said. "I couldn't imagine opening up about it."
After Joe, then the Manchester Township administrator, died in 1990, it was discovered he had rifled hundreds of thousands of tax dollars paid by those same senior citizens he helped bring to this Ocean County community and provide them some sort of safe haven, as the Philadelpha Inquirer put it in an article back then.
He and his gang of supporters raided as much as $10 million from the township's coffers to pay for his real estate holdings in Maine and gambling in Atlantic City and Las Vegas, according to the Inquirer.
He helped himself to money in bond funds set aside to pave roads; he paid himself thousands of dollars above his regular salary for work he was supposed to do as administrator; and he emptied bank accounts and investment funds - "anything that was green" - said one state auditor in news reports.
What Adelaide's role was in the scam, if anything, is unclear. She did indicate that she knows enough, and has a wealth of information that she could - if she wanted to - make public and attract a lot of interest.
It's a story she believes many - even two decades later - would find interesting.
"I was thinking about writing a book on it," she said. "I thought about writing one one time."
Two weeks after she was first contacted for this story, however, Adelaide had a change of heart. In a second telephone interview - one that was even shorter than the first - she acknowledged that she spoke with her daughters, and decided to stay the way she's been for two decades: private.
To put herself back in the limelight, she said, would be too much.
"You think I want to bring any embarrassment to my family? No," she said. "We're so tired. They bring it up and rehash it all the time."
Adelaide's first time in the limelight came in the mid-1970s. By then, her husband was largely known for being the catalyst in bringing the senior communities to the township in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. The idea was a thing of genius, bringing in tax ratables to the community without the hinderance of having to pay for additional schools for families with kids.
Trouble arose, however, in 1976, when Portash was convicted of taking a $30,000 bribe from one of the developers of the township's retirement communities. The conviction was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, because prosecutors used testimony he had given to a grand jury under a grant of immunity, according to news reports.
Portash, who was then mayor, was ousted from office after the bribery conviction. Adelaide herself was then appointed to take his seat on the Township Committee; she, in turn, had her husband appointed township administrator in 1977.
From then on, township officials said, there was little difference between Portash's personal checkbook and the township's, according to the Inqurier.
In her first short interview with Manchester Patch, Adelaide didn't address those years; indeed, she seemed more concerned about the reporter she was talking to.
She had never heard of Patch.com, even though the news organization has been running a series of stories that look back, two decades later, at her husband's fraud case. She wanted proof from this reporter that the questions about her own life would be sincere.
She's lived in the same town, presumably in the same vacation retreat her husband went to when he died; indeed, Joe Portash's death certificate says he passed away in Bridgton, Maine, across Long Lake from Harrison, where his widow currently lives.
Adelaide and Joe had five daughters, one of whom, Lisa, died in August 2009. She's lived quietly there for a long time, looking for the kind of peace she never got when her husband ruled the town whose population, at one time, was 80 percent senior citizens.
At the same time, she's torn. When first asked if she would be willing to have a story done about her, she replied:
"Will I be paid anything?"