New Jersey’s Politicized Prosecutions

By Margie Burns

The issue of selective, politicized federal prosecutions under President George W. Bush, highlighted by the non-partisan group Project Save Justice and previously reported in The Progressive Populist, is not dead. Indications are that Democratic local elected officials are still being targeted in some places.

Case in point: New Jersey, where former federal prosecutor Christopher J. (Chris) Christie is now locked in a tight race for the governorship with incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine and independent candidate Chris Daggett.

New Jersey hit the headlines July 23, when a massive federal sting swept up a raft of local officials and even several rabbis. Almost all the officials among the 44 people arrested — including the mayors of Hoboken, Ridgefield and Secaucus, the deputy mayor of Jersey City and an assemblyman from Ocean Township — were Democrats, and GOP candidate Chris Christie immediately launched a campaign ad titled “Fiercely independent,” saying on camera, “As US attorney, I put corrupt public officials in jail — Republicans and Democrats.” Christie goes on, “If you want partisan politics as usual, well, I’m not your guy.”

Critics, however, point out that Christie, who was nominated for US Attorney by Bush in December 2001 and resigned in December 2008 to run for the Senate, has a track record of targeting largely Democratic officials during his tenure — including Sharpe James, a New Jersey state state senator and former Newark mayor, and state Sen. Wayne R. Bryant — and of prosecuting around election time. His most prominent target was Sen. Robert Menendez, who was in a tight Senate race when Christie’s office leaked word that it had launched an investigation of Menendez two months before the 2006 Senate election. The probe concerned a rental agreement Menendez entered into in the 1990s. So far it has produced no results.

An attorney who majored in political science in college and ran for local office early, Christie was elected as a Republican to New Jersey Morris County’s Board of Chosen Freeholders in 1994. At that point, like Sarah Palin, he targeted intra-party rivals. USA Today has reported that Christie won the local election “after claiming — falsely — that two opponents were under investigation.”

“In newspaper and cable TV ads in the campaign’s final weeks, Christie claimed that [Edward] Tamm and Cecilia Laureys were being investigated for violations of open public meetings laws. But there was no investigation.

“Christie won the primary, then the general election. Tamm and Laureys sued for defamation. Christie later settled with them and apologized.”

Christie’s biggest politically sensitive investigation by far was “Operation Bid Rig,” initiated in 1999, expanded into a massive sting in 2007 and culminating in the July 2009 arrests.

The political plus for Christie was undeniable and instant. Corzine was not implicated in the investigation, but FBI agents raided the home and office of Corzine’s commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs, Joseph Doria, in the July sweep. Doria has not been charged with anything, but he resigned. At least one arrested mayor, youthful Hoboken Mayor Peter Cammarano III, was close to Corzine. Not all media reports at the time of the arrests noted that most of the alleged bribes were campaign contributions.

Meanwhile, Christie’s close ties with the prosecutor’s office he headed continue. Christie admitted in August that in an unusual gesture for a federal supervisor, he had lent $46,000 to his first assistant US Attorney, Michele Brown, in 2007. Christie also admitted that he did not report the loan or interest paid by Brown in his IRS returns or on New Jersey financial disclosure forms. Brown resigned her position in the US Attorney’s office later that month.

High time: The New York Times reported Oct. 20 that Christie, the candidate, continued to get help behind the scenes from his former office:

“In March, when Gov. Jon S. Corzine’s campaign requested public records about Mr. Christie’s tenure as prosecutor, Ms. Brown interceded to oversee the responses to the inquiries, taking over for the staff member who normally oversaw Freedom of Information Act requests ... The requested information included records about Mr. Christie’s travel and expenses, along with Ms. Brown’s travel records.”

Democratic state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, running for lieutenant governor, called on Brown in August to recuse herself from this task.

Also, “In mid-June, when FBI agents and prosecutors gathered to set a date for the arrests ... in the probe, Ms. Brown alone argued for the arrests to be made before July 1. She later told colleagues that she wanted to ensure that the arrests occurred before Mr. Christie’s permanent successor took office ... presumably so that Mr. Christie would be given credit for the roundup.”

Christie released the following statement when Brown resigned: “Michele Brown is a career prosecutor who has worked at the US Attorney’s office for 18 years, serving both Democratic and Republican presidents. Michele’s long and distinguished record of public service is impressive, and during that time she’s shown herself to be a fair and respected federal prosecutor among judges, adversaries and her peers. Her efforts have been instrumental to all the success the US Attorney’s office has had and her work ethic, determination and outstanding legal background will be missed by all those she has worked with over the years. I know Michele will continue to be a success at whatever she chooses for her next challenge.”

Christie’s office obtained a hundred convictions in public corruption cases, according to the Times. Given the frequency with which problems of conflict of interest or appearance of impropriety arise in such investigations, it seems remarkable in the circumstances that Christie and Brown did not hew to Polonius’ advice, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.” Polonius should have added, “Especially in the office.”

Apologizing for his failure to report the loan, Christie continues to stand by it and has declined to end the financial relationship. A campaign aide to Corzine has criticized Christie for giving Brown a raise and a promotion during the time when, as a subordinate, she also owed Christie money. The GOP in New Jersey has attacked such criticisms as besmirching a public servant.

Predictably the New Jersey prosecutor’s job became, as it so often is, a political springboard. The AP also reported in August that Christie as prosecutor had engaged in political discussions with Bush White House Advisor Karl Rove. Federal prosecutors are barred from political activity by the Hatch Act.

The Hatch Act, however, does not effectively prevent politically astute prosecutions or unsavory but convenient sting ops. As Talking Points Memo ( reported, Operation Bid Rigs was implemented largely through a hapless Jersey investor named Solomon Dwek, who in 2006 “allegedly deposited a $25 million check at PNC Bank, which was not backed by funds. He was charged with defrauding the bank out of $25 million.”

(PNC took over now-defunct Riggs Bank, where Bush uncle Jonathan Bush was a principal.)

“But Dwek was never officially indicted. And that appears to be because he proved such an able government informant. In 2007, the FBI began using Dwek to wear a wire while offering to bribe New Jersey mayors and public officials ... Dwek’s undercover work was the key” to the mass arrests.

Some features of this sweeping sting operation should probably have given pause to the press, but our Balloon Boy journalists rushed to take it at face value.

In February, President Obama nominated Paul F. Fishman, who was recommended by the two New Jersey senators, to be US Attorney. Fishman was finally confirmed, after GOP delays, Oct. 7.

Margie Burns is a Texas native who now writes from Washington, D.C. Email See her blog at

From The Progressive Populist, November 15, 2009

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