No Comment — August 19, 2009, 12:04 pm

Manure for the Garden State

On July 23, Acting U.S. Attorney in New Jersey Ralph Marra grabbed the nation’s attention by stepping before the cameras to announce the fruits of a long political corruption investigation managed by his office. Forty-four individuals had been indicted on charges that demonstrated the “pervasive nature of public corruption in this state,” he said. The haul included two state assemblymen, the mayors of Hoboken, Secaucus, and Ridgefield, and numerous lesser figures. “The politicians willingly put themselves up for sale,” Marra told the press. “For these defendants, corruption was a way of life. They existed in an ethics-free zone.” He praised the long work of the FBI and his team. But of course the media proceeded to credit the man who launched and oversaw the probe for most of its course, former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie.

As it happens, Christie is the Republican candidate to replace Jon Corzine as governor of New Jersey. He’s running on an anti-corruption platform, and this news—which stole headlines for a solid week—helped to propel him to a solid lead over the incumbent in the polls.

Watching this unfold, it was hard not to notice how convenient it all was for the Christie campaign. The announcement reflected a substantial number of largely unrelated cases, but they had been aggregated and held for arrests all on the same day as a sort of batch-release. Whatever law-enforcement considerations justified this step, it clearly helped gain newspaper headlines. Moreover, the announcement came at the end of July, which is the last possible moment for indictments with political impact in an election year cycle. Department of Justice guidelines preclude a U.S. attorney from announcing politically-charged indictments in a campaign season, which, by general reckoning, would begin the following month.

So it all looked good for Chris Christie—his accusations of public corruption were dramatically validated in newspaper headlines, and he was presented as a sort of Thomas E. Dewey—a clean prosecutor in a position to right the situation. But now, suddenly the Associated Press reported that the

Justice Department was examining whether acting U.S. Attorney Ralph Marra made inappropriate public comments that boosted Republican Chris Christie’s political challenge to incumbent Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine. Before running for office, Christie was the U.S. attorney for New Jersey, and Marra was his top deputy.
Marra made the comments last month while announcing the corruption case against dozens of suspects.

But the investigation may wind up reaching far beyond an error in judgment about specific words used at a press conference or the timing of the announcement of indictments. The Justice Department’s internal probe comes just as The New York Times reveals the existence of a significant, undisclosed financial relationship between Christie and Michele A. Brown, another prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s office. In response to an appeal from Brown, whose husband had lost his job, Christie loaned her $46,000 and took a mortgage on her home as security. The matter raises interest because failure to report this dealing is potentially a crime—and indeed, in the group of 44 political figures whose indictment was announced on July 23, one—Bergen County Democrat Dennis Oury—was indicted specifically for filing financial statements that failed to disclose a holding in a company that received public funds.

Today, Christie sounds remarkably like Mr. Oury:

“When I make mistakes, I’m going to admit them,” he said, adding that he had already amended some of those filings and would finish the rest by Friday. “It was certainly nothing that I was trying to conceal or hide.”

Moreover, Christie’s attitude toward the process of contracting bears careful scrutiny. In a review of his public record, the Times writes:

He billed himself as a corruption fighter, questioned the ethics of those in power and promised to put an end to no-bid contracts for the politically connected. But when Christopher J. Christie was elected and his reform proposal was voted down, he gave up the fight and went on to approve hundreds of such contracts, including more than 50 for contributors to his campaigns.

The Times is writing about Christie’s term on the Morris County Board of Freeholders. But the same attitudes continued when Christie assumed office as U.S. Attorney in New Jersey.

As U.S. Attorney, Christie issued two high-profile no-bid contracts that drew critical attention. In 2007, he gave former prosecutor David Kelley a multi-million dollar no-bid contract to supervise an out-of-court settlement with five medical-device companies accused of having entered into kick-back arrangements with doctors. This raised eyebrows, because Kelley had managed the criminal investigation into improper practices at the Wall Street brokerage firm of Spear, Leeds & Kellogg—in which Christie’s brother, Todd Christie, was one of twenty traders listed in a Securities and Exchange Commission complaint. Kelley declined to prosecute Todd Christie, a major donor to G.O.P. causes, late in 2005.

In 2007, Christie decided to reward his former boss, John Ashcroft, with a no-bid contract to the Ashcroft Group (worth between $28 and $52 million) to serve as the monitor in a court settlement with an Indiana medical-devices company. The company initially objected to the fees—between $1.5 and $2.9 million a month—as excessive, but Christie noted that no fines would be sought because of the substantial fees paid to Ashcroft’s company. The deal produced an uproar and triggered a Congressional probe into corruption in the process of Justice Department contract awards, driving the Justice Department to revise its rules.

Chris Christie may be the very model of a Rovian U.S. Attorney. Here’s how the Times reports that process in a 2004 portrait piece:

Mr. Christie… and his wife have contributed more than $30,000 to Republican candidates and committees since 1999. He became counsel to the Bush campaign in New Jersey in 2000, while joining Mr. Palatucci to raise more than $350,000. After the Bush victory, Mr. Palatucci sent Mr. Christie’s résumé to Karl Rove, the president’s chief strategist. Mr. Bush, who dubbed Mr. Christie ”Big Boy” (an apparent reference to his hulking frame), chose him for United States attorney.

A memo recently released by the House Judiciary Committee suggests that Christie’s appeal was not just his fund-raising acumen, but also his potential for service in an elected office. When asked about Christie during his deposition, here’s how Rove answered:

I talked to him twice in the last couple of years, perhaps one time while I was at the White House and once or twice since I left the White House, but not regarding his duties as U.S. Attorney, but regarding his interest in running for governor, and he asked me questions about who — who were good people that knew about running for Governor that he could talk to.

So Christie was interested in seeking the governorship from 2003 forward, and actually discussed this with Rove. That suggests violations of ethics guidelines for U.S. attorneys and the Hatch Act. It also helps to put Christie’s ethics in government crusade in a different, and highly political, context.

No doubt New Jersey voters will agree with the U.S. attorney that much of the state’s political stage has become “an ethics-free zone.” But at this point, they may be increasingly concerned about the role played by the U.S. attorney’s office in that process.

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