“The evidence the jury heard no doubt shows wrongdoing—deception, corruption, abuse of power. But the federal fraud statutes at issue do not criminalize all such conduct.”
Kelly vs. US et al.
When former U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman decided to prosecute the Bridgegate scandal his pursuit of the case provided a fig leaf of sort that obscured the true extent of the rot at the heart of our state’s political culture that endures from one generation to the next.
With the U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous rejection of the convictions of former Christie partisans Bridget Kelly and Bill Baroni that fig leaf was torn off.
And while the high court recognized the plot to punish Fort Lee’s Democratic Mayor Mark Sokolich for not endorsing Christie’s reelection, “jeopardized the safety of the town’s residents” the court held that Fishman’s use of the federal fraud statutes to hold the Bridgegate defendants accountable was a misapplication of those laws.
In the high court’s reprise of the facts of the case it references that as a consequence of the 2013 GWB lane closures school buses stood in place for hours, an ambulance struggled to reach the victim of a heart attack and “police had trouble responding to a report of a missing child.”
The Justices concluded the “upshot is that federal fraud law leaves much public corruption to the States (or their electorates) to rectify.”
‘GET THE MARSHAL’
Yet, as any consistent observer of our state has observed, we have had to rely on U.S Attorneys to provide any meaningful check on our homegrown corruption. Not unlike 19th century frontier pioneers, who relied on a U.S. Marshal, it has been larger than life Federal prosecutors like the Hon. Herbert J. Stern and the Hon. Frederick B. Lacey who checked in any meaningful way the systemic and endemic corruption that’s long defined our state’s politics.
Each chapter of New Jersey’s encyclopedia of political corruption features a Federal show trial like the 1970 successful prosecution of two-term Newark Mayor Hugh J. Addonizio. The former Congressman was convicted of getting $1.4 million in kickbacks from Mafia crime figures who had gotten a lock on municipal contracts.
Scroll forward, a decade later in the early 1980s to Abscam, the FBI sting, popularized by the 2013 feature film “American Hustle”. That legendary federal corruption prosecution produced the convictions of U.S. Senator Harrison Williams, Trenton are Congressman Frank Thompson, and Camden Mayor and State Senator Angelo Errichetti.
Ironically, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie spent eight years as U.S. Attorney in Newark and continued the tradition of that office of pursuing dozens of local political corruption cases that produced convictions.
BUSTS BY THE BUS LOAD
By 2009, in its Operation Big Rid III, the FBI had to resort to using buses to pick up the dozens of local elected officials and grifters implicated in a sprawling political corruption investigation that uncovered money laundering, organ brokering and bribery.
“New Jersey’s corruption problem is one of the worst, in not the worst in the nation,” said Ed Kahrer, the FBI’s special agent who led the public corruption probe at the time. “It has become ingrained in New Jersey’s political culture.”
And in the intervening years, well into the 21st century federal prosecutors have racked up a long list of one-offs public corruption cases sufficient to fill a rogue’s gallery.
So, why is it that out county and state law enforcement seem to be so blind to the political corruption that is such a part of New Jersey’s political landscape?
Legal experts have long observed that because New Jersey’s Attorney General, the top law enforcement official in the state, is appointed by the Governor, the office lacks the sufficient independence to freely pursue cases like Bridgegate.
“Yes, it is a weakness in the constitutional system,” said Bruce Rosen, a former journalist, who is now an attorney who specializes in news media right to know cases. Rosen added that while the Supreme Court inferred the pursuit of a Bridgegate type case should have been “a local job” all too often, without an independent state Attorney General “overwhelming political pressures” permits political corruption to go ignored.
“In our system, we don’t have an independent Attorney General although they have responsibilities,” he said. Rosen conceded that having an elected Attorney General was not necessarily a panacea, observing New York State’s constitutional provision for an elected Attorney General. “The problem with anything that is elected—an Attorney General or a judge, they have to get re-elected and a lot of times they do and say things that are geared to that re-election,” he said.
And in the case of Bridgegate, the independence of the state’s Attorney General was likely further undermined by the fact that the post was held down at the time by an acting Attorney General who was never confirmed by the State Senate.
In June of 2013 John Hoffman, who was already with the state’s Attorney General’s office, was named acting Attorney General, after Gov. Christie taped then Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa to fill out the remainder of Sen. Frank Lautenberg term.
It was Hoffman, not long after the Bridgegate scandal broke, who deferred to U.S. Attorney Fishman and opted to not pursue the case.
At the same time the Star Ledger reported the move rankled “some veteran prosecutors who say acting Attorney General John Hoffman was too quick to cede a major corruption case to federal authorities.”
The newspaper continued. “Lawyers and legal experts interviewed by The Star-Ledger said the Attorney General’s Office was better-positioned to investigate the September lane closings because violations of state law are more apparent, and state prosecutors would be more familiar with the cast of characters.”
“The Attorney General’s Office ought to be involved,” former Attorney General Robert Del Tufo, told the Star Ledger. “It may be that John Hoffman has talked to the U.S. attorney and is staying clear of it because of the implications of being in Christie’s administration.”
Hoffman’s acting status grew into further notice, as Christie’s plans to nominate Kevin O’Dowd, his Chief of Staff as Attorney General were stymied by the robust investigation undertaken by both the New Jersey Assembly and Senate of the Bridgegate gambit.
In 2016, Hoffman left his post as Attorney General that reportedly paid $141,000, for a legal position with Rutgers University for $395,000 a year.
SEE SOMETHING SHUT UP
At the time in 2015, when Fishman announced the Bridgegate indictments and his convoluted theory of his prosecution my questions to him centered around what I still believe to be the most unexamined facet of the case and perhaps the one that should concern us most.
It had nothing to do with the alleged fraud but with how Gov. Christie’s crew had put the entire region’s security at risk.
Back in 2013, the Christie partisans who executed the Bridgegate retribution on the George Washington Bridge, long considered a top terrorist target, picked the very anniversary of 9/11 to execute their plan. In the process, they hampered the ability of Fort Lee’s Emergency Services like police and fire to respond.
In September 2014, the Bergen Record reported that during the lane closures in 2013, when Port Authority police officers used their radios to communicate that the altered traffic pattern was creating “hazardous conditions” on local Fort Lee roads, their Port Authority police supervisors told them to “shut up.”
As it turned out, the weakest link in protecting the GWB from being compromised was its own police department that served as the boots on the ground that enforced the traffic pattern that closed the lanes.
By compromising the Port Authority police, the conspirators left us more vulnerable to a less-than-optimum response in the event of a terrorist attack on the George Washington Bridge over those four days when the police force’s priority should have been counterterrorism.
If that’s not a crime, it should be.