Passaic County surrogate judge charged in estate nepotism case
TRENTON – State prosecutors have criminally charged the Passaic County surrogate court judge for allegedly falsifying a judgment she filed in order to appoint a friend as administrator of a more than $600,000 estate.
Passaic County Surrogate Bernice Toledo, 51, of Wayne was charged Thursday with fourth-degree falsifying or tampering with records by the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability in the state Attorney General’s Office.
The case began with a referral from the New Jersey Supreme Court Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct, which in December 2019 lodged a complaint that Toledo had appointed her friend and political supporter as administrator of a $600,000 estate over the objections of the dead man’s cousin.
Mark Halchak died in 2017. Toledo appointed Keith Stewart, who knew Halchak from their time as municipal workers in Wayne, to administer the estate. The state said Toledo didn’t disclose she and Stewart had been friends for more than three decades and that he had helped her political career.
In her response to the ACJC complaint, Toledo said she had candidly disclosed she had known Stewart’s family during childhood but said she didn’t know Stewart until they were adults and that – though they are Facebook friends – would have years-long lapses in any real-world interactions.
Prosecutors say Toledo falsified the judgment by stating that all of the competent adult next of kin and other persons having a prior right to administer the estate had renounced their right of administration.
In reality, they say, a relative of the decedent from New Hampshire who had a prior right of administration had not renounced her right and instead had made her right known to Toledo by appearing before her in person before Toledo signed and filed the judgment.
Toledo was charged by complaint-summons. Fourth-degree charges carry a sentence of up to 18 months in state prison and a criminal fine of up to $10,000.
Toledo is not seeking re-election.
Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.