Ocean County’s Prosecutor: Will He Stay Or Will He Go?

Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato (Photo courtesy Ocean County)

OCEAN COUNTY – It’s the governor’s prerogative to appoint county prosecutors. Can petitions to a Democrat governor sway him to reappoint a Republican appointee?

Ocean County officials hope so.

It’s not only the county freeholders who want prosecutor Joseph Coronato to keep his job, an appointment he’s had since 2013 under former Governor Chris Christie. The county’s Police Chiefs Association and Association of School Board Administrators, and a county-wide initiative headed by police chaplain James Occhipinti, is asking Gov. Phil Murphy to let the prosecutor finish what he’s started.

“This really represents an extraordinary outpouring of support from law enforcement, community itself, and from community organizations, that reflect the prosecutor’s distinguished service to Ocean County,” Freeholder Director Gerry P. Little said at the Feb. 7 freeholder meeting. “This board is requesting Gov. Murphy to consider Joe Coronato for reappointment as Ocean County Prosecutor.”

Joseph Coronato (Photo courtesy Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office)

Coronato has a long career in law, stretching back 43 years. He’s served as the state’s deputy attorney general, assistant prosecutor in Atlantic County, and a private-practice attorney in Toms River. He was sworn in as Ocean County prosecutor March 22, 2013.

“It’s a privilege and honor to be the prosecutor. It’s really the best job,” Coronato said. “I’ve instituted programs—as hard as it is to believe five years have gone by as quickly as they have—and I’d like to finish out some of the programs I’ve instituted. It’s not that easy to get them started, and it would be great to be reappointed and have another five years to finish out a lot of the work that I’ve done. So, the answer is if given the opportunity, I’d like to continue to serve, but that’s a little bit out of my hands.”

Although it’s been reported that his term ends in March—and it might—he will stay on until the governor appoints and senate approves either him or another candidate, however long that takes.

“He’s provided education to kids to avoid drugs…he’s done prosecutions and strict liability, the highest in the state in terms strict liability prosecutions. He’s tried to do whatever he can in terms of treatment,” prosecutor’s office public affairs director Al Della Fave said.

Strict liability can mean charging a dealer with the death of someone they sold drugs to.

The freeholders showed a united front (John Kelly was absent from the Feb. 7 meeting) in support for Coronato’s reappointment.

“When the governor changes, he changes everyone else, which is true. There’s no question about it,” Freeholder Joseph Vicari said. “Every several months I get a report from the medical examiner’s office, and every time I get it, I can’t believe what’s taking place in Ocean County.”

He said he came to Ocean County from North Jersey to escape the drug problems plaguing that area.

“Joe Coronato had done not only so much, and is respected by local law enforcement, he’s made a name for himself throughout the State of New Jersey,” Vicari said. “…Let’s put politics aside: who is the best person for the job?”

Freeholder John Bartlett Jr. called Coronato “passionate” and “proud” in his role as prosecutor. The county should have some say in who is prosecutor, he echoed Vicari, because the county does foot the office’s bills.

“We do pay the freight. Therefore, I think it is altogether reasonable that we have a voice, and again, not only a voice because we’re paying for that office, our taxpayers, but that we are also responding to all of these organizations and groups which have asked and requested of the governor that this reappointment be made,” Bartlett added.

Freeholder Virginia Haines spoke last on her support of Coronato’s reappointment, focusing on his work to combat the opioid crisis destroying families across the state.

“[Coronato] is recognized as the top prosecutor in the State of New Jersey,” Haines said. “There has been a reduction in the opioid deaths because of what he has done, and the one thing I think the governor needs to look at is to look at those statistics of what he has done. You have fellow prosecutors that call upon our prosecutor to go there and talk to them about what he has done, programs he has put in place to fight the opioid epidemic that is here.”

The Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office (Photo by Jason Allentoff)

Ocean County saw 53 overdose deaths in 2012, the year before Coronato took office. There were 112 reported overdose deaths the following year. During his tenure, such deaths peaked in 2016 at 216, a number slashed to 163 in 2017. There have been seven reported overdose deaths thus far in 2018.

“Fentanyl became a factor in the end of 2015 into 2016. We believe that is why we saw the increase in the OD deaths for those two years,” Della Fave said. Nearly 70 percent of overdose deaths now involve fentanyl.

The same year overdose deaths peaked, OD reversals saw their highest numbers, with 502 reported. Ocean County was the first county in the state to equip its officers with Narcan, a nasal naloxone spray for emergency treatment of suspected opioid overdose.

In addition, Coronato’s office has many other firsts to combat opioid use: the emergency room overdose recovery program; Blue HART program, used by seven county police departments to assist drug users for recovery; pawn shop registry database, which tracks known users to stop them from selling goods to feed their habit; K-9s in school to assure Drug Free School Zones; and training for school nurses in how to use Narcan.