Where are the Big Fish in New Corruption Scandal?

Grewal in Sussex

For anyone who lived through the famous Bid Rig III busts of a decade ago, the latest batch of criminal charges is like Déjà vu all over again.

Sudhan Thomas, one of five political figures charged on Dec. 19, professes his innocence, and claims this is the result of political aspirations of an attorney general he says hopes to become governor when Phil Murphy leaves office in 2025.

Thomas is seen as a loyal supporter of Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, as is witnessed in the form of campaign contributions. Attorney General Gurbir Grewal was supposed to be part of Fulop’s campaign for governor three years ago.

If Thomas’ claim is true about the Attorney General seeking to become governor, then Fulop – who is rumored to be seeking that seat in 2025 – could be a significant obstacle.

If true, then these indictments may play a similar role in dismantling the Jersey City political machinery as Big Rig III did to dismantle the state Democratic machine in 2009 that allowed Christopher Christie to become governor.

The arrests are suspicious for a number of reasons – partly because it is so similar to the routine that Christopher Christie used as U.S. Attorney for New Jersey to get elected governor in 2009. You have to wonder if Grewal and Christie shared beach chairs one summer night to plot out the scenario.

Christie, while U.S. Attorney, mapped out a strategy ahead of his election that allowed him to take apart the state’s Democratic fundraising apparatus leading up to the 2009 election.

Like Christie, Grewal‘s office made use of a political operative who roamed northern New Jersey recording countless encounters with people he proposed deals with, and thus developed a body of evidence that eventually led to the arrest of Thomas, former Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell, and three Morris County politicos, one of whom had ties to Fulop’s 2017 bid for governor.

Unlike Christie’s brilliant use of law enforcement for political gain, however, Grewal doesn’t appear to have actually gotten anybody significant, and launched the pre-Christmas strike partly in order to get Thomas before Thomas stepped down as a member of the Jersey City Board of Education.

The preemptive strike suggests that Grewal had hoped to get others to turn in order to eventually bring down someone of actual importance.

This seems an utter waste of a confidential informant, and perhaps suggests that these criminal charges are designed to scare other possible targets into cooperating by making example of Thomas, O’Donnell and the others.

Grewal and Murphy have in the past made good use of Fulop’s castaways to get what they need politically. This is partly how Murphy was presumably able to force Fulop to abandon a run for governor in 2017, by using the police chief Fulop forced out as a political informant. This time, Grewal used an attorney Fulop fired in 2018.

This confidential informant was just trusted enough by enough people to lure them into believing he was legitimate, unlike Solomon Dwek, who Christie and the U.S. Attorney’s Office used in a similar role in 2009.

The informant even managed to record conversations at Fulop’s birthday political fundraiser in Bayonne earlier this year – although it seems this fishing expedition didn’t get what he and Grewal intended.

The charges coming just before Christmas also appear to have violated the unwritten rule of not busting people during the holidays.

Most politically motivated charges tend to be done late in the week – Grand Juries meet on Thursdays – and either just after an election or just prior to a swearing-in.

Big Rig III actually waited until Peter Cammarano was sworn in as mayor so that the charges got more bang for the buck.

Political use of criminal charges is nothing new. There are still people who believe that then-Jersey City Mayor Gerry McCann, was a victim to such a campaign since his 1991 indictment came at a time when he was poised to take control of the Democratic Party from then-County Executive Robert Janiszewski. There have been other politically convenient charges raised before than and since. But it took Christie to create a scenario that allowed him to derail a whole political party in a dramatic statewide sweep.

Thomas says he also believes that the charges were pushed up partly in response to his and Fulop’s stand on the recent terrorist attack in Jersey City. Fulop embarrassed both Murphy and Grewal by insisting that they label the attack as domestic terrorism, something Grewal apparently was reluctant do to immediately, but eventually did.

Thomas – again, his opinion – claims he was the second Hudson County officials to call out Grewal on this and believes that the charges were pushed ahead as an act of revenge.

Although listed as bribes, the charges are likely to fail the smell test when it comes to people like O’Donnell since he was not an elected official when the alleged incident took place, and the charges will likely be down-graded to an election violation. These could result in jail time, but most likely won’t for O’Donnell.

But it clearly shows just how arguably amateur politically this investigation was compared to Big Rig III in which Christie and his surrogates made sure they nailed the political coffins once they put their victims in them.

While Grewal, if Thomas is right, may be a student of Christie’s political tactics (or even resolving, perhaps, a case launched during the Christie era), he’s clearly in the minor leagues when it comes to implementing the attack.

But even if the charges failed to bring down (so far) any real political heavy weights, it does help Murphy bolster his “tough on corruption” stance, giving him a significant present to put in his Christmas stocking this year – even if later, when the attorneys get their say, some of these cases get downgraded.

Perhaps these pre-Christmas charges will have an impact on other as yet named politicians to give up names in the future. If so, we can expect more fireworks in the future.

This is not to say the charrges failed to clear the political pond of questionable activity, but it’s a lot like going fishing with dynamite.

Why waste such fire power on such small fish?

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