By John Earl
Surf City Voice
Sunday, Sept. 26, was a hot day in Surf City.
For me, however, most of the heat came from a chance encounter on a street corner with a local politician, not from the late blooming summer sun.
That politician, Joseph John Carchio, a.k.a. Jersey Joe, possible former owner of Jersey Joe’s Italian Eatery at 424 Olive Street, would insult my integrity as a person and a journalist multiple times; no problem there, that goes with the territory.
But I was shocked—and nerve racked for the rest of the day—when Carchio, an otherwise congenial member of the Huntington Beach City Council since 2006, and with whom I had enjoyed a professional but cordial acquaintance the past four years, lashed out. In a fit of intense anger, expressed with squinted eyes, a tightly stretched face and deliberately pronounced words, Jersey Joe, everybody’s friend, threatened me with dire warnings of “war” and “9-11.”
Was the threat just a bluff of hot air from a reelection candidate, who is desperately trying to hold on to his seat on the council, amid embarrassing revelations by the Surf City Voice that he could have to pay back thousands of dollars to the taxpayers for health benefits that he had kept his ex-wife signed up for even after their divorce, a divorce which he had not revealed to the city or the public while maintaining on his two Facebook web sites that he is married and has eight children?
No doubt, with the emergence of Measure O—the city ballot infrastructure proposition that is partly aimed at the alleged excesses of the city’s public employees—in a time of great economic hardship and budget cutbacks for the city, the otherwise unemployed city councilperson has landed in the worst crisis of his political life.
Following up on a tip received by the Voice several months ago about the mysterious sale of his restaurant, I approached Carchio on the floor of the City Council chambers on Monday, Sept. 19, just before the start of a regular meeting. But before I could ask him anything, he complained that I was intruding into his personal life, that he had thought “we were kind of friends” but that now he thinks I have a “vendetta” against him.
“The situation about me and my wife has something to do with the way I make decisions,” he asked.
But why he had he told the public that he was married while his divorce is on record at the Superior Court in Orange County?
“Well, I don’t lie to anybody about anything. I mean, if somebody asks me, I tell the truth,” he answered.
So I asked Carchio if he was married and he confirmed that he was not.
The council meeting was about to start and there was no time to bring up the possible misuse by Carchio of his city paid health plan to provide his ex-wife health benefits.
But the results of a Public Records Act (PRA) request previously made to the City by the Voice revealed that from August 29, 2008, the exact day of his divorce, through March 2010, Carchio was insured by the city and its taxpayers for himself “plus one person” on the Blue Shield HMO, Delta Dental HMO and the Vision plan. Since March of 2010, the results showed, a “plus one person” was insured on the Vision plan only.
Using the premium rates listed in the City Council Member Information Handbook, and based on the information received after the Voice’s records request, Carchio’s benficiary add-on cost the city’s taxpayers $6,204.45 for 19 months of premiums for the Blue Shield HMO and Vision plans and 6 additional months of premiums for the Vision plan alone (the Dental HMO premium is the same price for two people). Editor’s note: Subsequent to the publication of this article, the City’s Human Relations department determined that Joe Carchio owed $2,782.73, not the amount originally estimated by the Voice. The Voice estimate was inaccurate because it did not factor in Carchio’s employee contributions. This article has been updated to reflect the correct amount. Editor’s note #2: The City subsequently confirmed that Carchio actually owed more than the Voice originally estimated: $6,627.
But Privacy laws prohibited the City from confirming the identity of Carchio’s beneficiary and it wasn’t until Sunday, Sept. 26, during the downtown encounter that the Voice learned from Carchio himself that the other (and now confirmed ineligible) insurance policy member was his ex-wife.
On the night of the council meeting, Sept. 19, the Voice investigation of Carchio’s unauthorized health care benefits was incomplete. There was still the unlikely possibility that he had registered his ex-wife or someone else as a domestic partner, that he had remarried or that one of his eight children was young enough to be on the policy.
With little time left before the council meeting started, and still seeking information from Carchio about his health care benefits as well as some related business and tax issues, I tried to set up an interview with him in the next few days.
But first, Carchio offered an explanation for hiding his divorce from the public: he was trying to protect a young family member, but not one of his own children, because it would “devastate” her to know the truth.
“There isn’t any reason for her to know about it. I am protecting her,” he claimed.
Carchio protested that his personal life was his own business and, besides, “You can look at my campaign stuff. I never said anything about being married.”
In fact, he did claim marriage on two Facebook accounts, one of which is for his city council campaign. In each instance under “Info” it said, “Joe is married to Valerie and they have eight children and ten grandchildren.”
Carchio acted surprised to hear that, said he didn’t put the information on Facebook and that he would take it off. On Sept 27, the day before publication of this article, the marriage claim was removed from his main FB page, but remained on his other, must less visited campaign FB page.
He agreed to call me the next morning and set up an interview, but warned that if I wasn’t fair with him “this is the last time I’ll talk with you.”
But Carchio never called, nor did he return emails, phone calls or a message left on the door of his ex-wife’s condo where he lives.
‘You’re Not My Friend’
On Sunday, Sept. 26 in downtown Surf City, I met up with Carchio by chance.
As I walked toward the of Olive and Main I saw Carchio walking in the same direction with his long-time close friend, Dave Garofalo, the former mayor of Huntington Beach, who was convicted in 2002 of a felony for misusing his office and banned from political office for life. Carchio’s daughter, Shawn Prince, and one or two other men were also with him.
As I approached, Carchio sat on a bollard, scowling, silent and pensive. I asked him when we could talk and he agreed to talk with me for a few minutes right then.
As we walked north on Olive together one of the men who was with him on the corner followed and urged Carchio not to do the interview, saying he was expected at another meeting. Carchio decided to talk to me anyway and we sat down at a small table outside of an Olive Street deli owned by another one of his friends.
“You’re not my friend,” he blurted out immediately, picking up his theme from our conversation almost a week earlier.
“You know, you’re not my friend,” he continued. “No matter what I tell you, I know it’s going to be bad. I know the way you are, John. I can’t trust you anymore. I thought you were my friend and I can’t trust you anymore. I can’t trust you. There’s no sense in my really talking to you.”
I started by asking if it was him or his wife who originally bought the Downtown Deli, later to become Jersey Joe’s. Carchio stood up from his chair, told me “I’m not answering that,” and started walking back toward Main Street.
I quickly followed directly behind him and asked about the “ineligible person” on his health care plan that “cost the taxpayers $6,000”, but I didn’t really know yet who that other person was.
Carchio stopped and turned around.
“… I’m asking you…You had a person other than yourself on your health care for almost two years…”
“It was a mistake,” he confessed. “It was a mistake on my part and I rectified the mistake.”
“So you took Valerie off of it?”
“I—It was inadvertently put on there,” Carchio started to explain.
Carchio quickly changed the topic back to me. “I thought that—John, I’m just going to tell you once. And I know that you can’t be honest with me. I know you’re not. You’re not an honest person.”
“But you haven’t been honest,” I said, reminding him that he had been telling people that he was married when in fact he was divorced.
‘Mistakes’ Were Made
He denied that he had told anyone he was still married, although he obviously had not told city officials that he was divorced. How did he make that mistake? Carchio’s answer was that he thought that after his divorce he had taken his ex-wife off of his insurance policy during the annual month-long period that allows public employees to make changes.
Mistakes are always possible, of course, but Carchio would have had to miss multiple reminders and opportunities in order to accidentally maintain his ineligible ex-wife on his health care plan.
Those reminders come in two forms, “triggering events” and open enrollment.
Divorce, like child birth, is a triggering event, which allows the insured to change their health care options accordingly, City Attorney Jennifer McGrath explained to the Voice. The only other time that health plan changes can be made is during annual month-long open enrollment periods, she said.
Apparently, Carchio didn’t take advantage of either option for at least two years. That means that Carchio missed three events, including his divorce, which should have reminded him to take his ex-wife off his city health plan.
“I checked it off as changed. I realized that the mistake was made…because I looked at my [pay] check and I was getting more money,” Carchio explained, claiming that he went to HR and paid it all off—whatever amount the was that the City told him he owed—and that nobody except him is on his city health plan anymore.
Besides, he added, “I’m the one that took the loss,” not the taxpayers of Huntington Beach.
True, Carchio took a loss of over $4,000 worth in premiums for the Blue Shield plan, according to calculations based on City records. But the taxpayers are still stuck with the cost of the City’s share of the premiums unless, as Carchio says, he paid it all back.
The Voice is waiting for confirmation from the City that Carchio gave back to taxpayers that which he took, whether by accident or not, from them.
But that claim seems unlikely for two reasons: 1) Carchio claims that his ex-wife was on his insurance policy for only a year and that he took her off in March, 2009 (indicating a period of seven months), but the City twice confirmed for the Voice that “From August 2008 [the month and year of the divorce] through March 2010, Councilman Carchio was insured for one person plus one person on the Blue Shield HMO, Delta Dental HMO, and the Vision,” and that; 2) “Councilmember Carchio is currently insured for one person on the Blue Shield HMO and Delta Dental PPO. He is insured for one person plus one person on the Vision plan.”
In other words, Carchio had a second person on his insurance policy a year longer than he claims and continues to have a second person on the policy.
Privacy laws preclude confirmation by the City Attorney, but City policy for recovering over payments in benefits to public employees virtually guarantees that barring any previous resolution Carchio is under investigation, now that city officials are aware of his confession.
“The city is consistent in pursuing whatever dollars have been extended inappropriately,” McGrath said.
The City permits a reimbursement plan, without penalties or fines, when it is unclear if the employee was aware of the inappropriate receipt of city benefits, McGrath told the Voice. Penalties are not issued until the violators have been billed but fail to pay. Civil litigation occurs only after failure to pay, and criminal prosecution would only occur if there was intent to steal.
‘You’re Going to Start a War’
Back on the street, Carchio insisted that he made an “honest honest mistake,” but at press time it remains to be seen what the outcome of the City’s presumed investigation will be.
Then, trying to switch roles, Carchio started to grill me with questions: are you married, where do you live, who works for you, who do you work for. He topped off his cross-examination by repeatedly asking me if I collect unemployment insurance, getting angrier as he went along.
“You are the city councilmember, not me,” I remind him.
“I know, but I’m—You know what, if you want to start a war”—
“Who owned the restaurant,” I ask, going back to the first question of the interview that he wouldn’t answer before. That’s when Carchio, the congenial councilperson affectionately referred to as Jersey Joe, declared war, 9-11 style.
“Wait a minute,” he demanded, his face flushed with anger. “If you’re going to start a war, you’re going to start a war. You’re going to start a 9-11 with me, John. I’m not going to put up with you attacking my family, attacking me and going after me because you”—
And, again, he accused me of having a vendetta against him, caused by my supposed ties with two local citizens groups, the Bolsa Chica Land Trust and Residents 4 Responsible Desal. Carchio stated, incorrectly, that I was on the board of directors for each organization. BCLT is involved in preserving the Bolsa Chica Wetlands upper mesa. R4RD is opposed to a desalination project to be built by Poseidon Resources Inc. and located in southeast Huntington Beach. Carchio voted in favor of Poseidon on the night of our previous meeting at City Hall.
Full disclosure: I have, in fact, never been a member of the BCLT, although I did donate $10 once to that group. And although I was indeed the first president of R4RD, that was five or six years ago for a brief time only. Since 2007 I have not been a member and on rare occasions I attend meetings for research purposes. “Advisor” is a strictly honorary position, but on several occasions I have offered advice on how R4RD can increase media awareness because it lacks the ability that Poseidon Resources Inc. has to manipulate the Orange County Register, Huntington Beach Independent, various water boards, and state and local politicians, including the Huntington Beach City Council, Joe Carchio included.
It would take more than a transcript or audio recording of Carchio’s 9-11 threat to feel the true intensity of the moment. It takes standing eye to eye with a furious Jersey Joe to understand that. But in willfully trying to intimate this journalist—knowing that I was investigating his actions as a public official—by invoking the Wise Guy stereotype attached to his New Jersey heritage, Carchio did more than demonstrate his loathing for transparency in government—he may also have crossed the line between heated political discourse and outright criminality.
Stunned by Jersey Joe’s emerging Wise Guy persona, but still following my instincts, I continued to ask him about two other related issues: over $270,000 in tax liens levied against him over the past 15 years and who actually owned Jersey Joe’s Italian Eatery located at 424 Olive Street in downtown Surf City.
The confusing facts behind that mystery will be examined in part two of this report coming soon.
In the meantime, Carchio’s campaign web site, sparsely visited, badly outdated and somewhat scarred with spam, continues at publication time to claim he is still married. His main Facebook page, however, which lists 863 friends to date, no longer makes that claim, but repeats the following message over and over:
“Dear Friends, Family & Huntington Beach Voters: The last 4 years on the City Council have been both exciting and rewarding. I wanted to take this opportunity to thank you for your support during my first term in office. It is now time for re-election and again I am asking for your support so that I can finish the job…”