Category Archives: 2006

Ex-Prosecutors in Trenton Respond to U.S. Scolding

Two former New Jersey attorneys general on Thursday defended their office’s investigation into the political dealings of George E. Norcross III, the Democratic power broker, and said they were bewildered that federal prosecutors had accused them of botching the case.In a scathing letter dated Tuesday, Christopher J. Christie, the United States attorney for New Jersey, wrote that his office would be unable to bring charges against Mr. Norcross because lawyers for the state attorney general had mishandled their investigation under two administrations before turning it over to his office in 2004.

Mr. Christie’s pointed critique startled many in the legal community because prosecutors rarely publicly criticize other law enforcement officials or explain their decisions not to prosecute.

While Mr. Christie did not release the letter to the press, his office did give it to two witnesses whose complaints against Mr. Norcross led to the investigation, and who have been aggressive in seeking news coverage about the case.

In his six-page letter, Mr. Christie chastised state officials for failing to use rudimentary investigative techniques like wiretaps and telephone records to corroborate their suspicions that Mr. Norcross and his political allies were engaged in a plot to deprive two political rivals of jobs and government contracts.

His letter also harshly criticized state prosecutors for deciding not to secretly tape conversations at a Camden County Democratic fund-raiser in 2001, where Mr. Norcross and his associates were expected to discuss a wide variety of political deals. Mr. Christie said that that decision was so inexplicable that it raised the possibility that state investigators were trying to shield political figures.

But John J. Farmer Jr., who was attorney general in 2001, called that suggestion ”utter nonsense.” Mr. Farmer said he was not personally involved in the tactical decisions, but asserted that the two assistant attorneys general who led the case were ”professional and 100 percent nonpolitical.”

”I totally reject any suggestion that any political figure was being protected by anyone in my office,” said Mr. Farmer, a political independent who worked for Govs. Christine Todd Whitman and Donald T. DiFrancesco, both Republicans.

Mr. Christie also said that former Attorney General Peter C. Harvey erred in 2003 when he agreed to allow two figures in the investigation to plead guilty to tax evasion charges, a deal Mr. Christie said was too lenient to yield meaningful cooperation.

But Mr. Harvey said the agreements were fair and helpful. ”These plea agreements were negotiated by experienced former federal prosecutors and helped lead to other convictions in this case,” he said.

The investigation and secret recordings of Mr. Norcross, a bank executive whose prowess as a fund-raiser has given him vast statewide influence, has offered a rare view of the inner workings of New Jersey’s tough, money-driven politics.

The case began in 2000, when John Gural, now the mayor of Palmyra but then a councilman, told the authorities that he had been pressured to fire the town solicitor, Ted Rosenberg, who had opposed one of Mr. Norcross’s allies in a local political race.

Investigators from the state attorney general’s office asked Mr. Gural to wear a concealed recording device. He ended up taping more than 330 hours of conversations, many of them with local officials allied with Mr. Norcross. In some of those conversations, they threatened to withhold government contracts from Mr. Gural’s employer, a local engineering firm, unless he acquiesced.

Mr. Norcross was also caught on tape boasting about his influence with then-Gov. James E. McGreevey and then United States Senator Jon S. Corzine.

Mr. Norcross’s lawyer dismissed his client’s taped comments as idle boasts, and said that Mr. Christie’s letter was proof that no crime had been committed.

Mr. Rosenberg said on Thursday that Mr. Christie, who has been mentioned as a candidate for governor himself, might have released the letter to protect his image as an ardent corruption buster.

”Chris Christie is first and foremost a political animal,” Mr. Rosenberg said. ”He gave us the letter and didn’t say anything about keeping it private, so of course we gave it to the media. The way he handled this he was freed of any responsibility for letting George Norcross get off of the hook.”

But in an interview on Thursday, Mr. Christie said he was proud of his record. Since being appointed United States attorney in 2002, he said he had brought public corruption charges against nearly 100 people. He said he felt that the attorney general’s office deserved a detailed explanation of why he was not pursing charges, since Mr. Harvey publicly referred the case to him in 2003
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Christie faults N.J. on probe of JCA

POSTED: January 26, 2006

 

New Jersey’s top federal prosecutor has offered a scathing critique of the way the state Attorney General’s Office handled a political corruption investigation that included secretly recorded conversations with South Jersey Democratic Party kingpin George E. Norcross III.

Alluding to the “protection of political figures and the manipulation of evidence,” U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie said the state had botched its four-year probe of JCA Associates, a now-defunct engineering firm with ties to Norcross.

But after a 10-month review of the case, Christie said, his office will not take up the investigation into allegations of bribery and extortion. In essence, he said the Attorney General’s Office had so muddied the waters that “it would be inappropriate to initiate a federal prosecution.”

Christie’s comments were contained in a letter sent Tuesday to acting New Jersey Attorney General Nancy Kaplan, who took over after Peter Harvey stepped down this month.

A spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office said that the letter was being reviewed and that he would not comment.

Christie said the state’s probe, which began in December 2000, “was materially hampered by poor oversight, inexplicable strategic decisions, and a failure to fully develop potential evidence.”

His comments were aimed at the offices of former Attorneys General John Farmer, a Republican, and David Samson and Harvey, both Democrats.

Some of Christie’s harshest criticism was directed at the way Farmer’s office handled the early stages of the investigation. Like Farmer, Christie is a Republican appointee.

He said the “integrity of the investigation” was undermined by the office’s “illogical approach” to the probe, which lent itself “to a number of damaging inferences, including the protection of political figures and the manipulation of evidence.”

The JCA case, which resulted in minor tax charges against three JCA officials, has been a hot-button item in political and governmental circles for five years.

Norcross has not been charged with any wrongdoing, but his name has been consistently tied to the probe. He has insisted that the allegations of corruption are without foundation and part of a ploy by two disgruntled political opponents, Palmyra Mayor John Gural and Moorestown lawyer Ted Rosenberg, to discredit him.

William Tambussi, a lawyer for Norcross, said yesterday that Christie’s assessment reinforced that position.

“Christie had ample opportunity to say that a crime had been committed, and he did not,” said Tambussi, who said the federal prosecutor instead had detailed an “unholy alliance between state investigators and Rosenberg and Gural . . . to get George Norcross at any and all costs.”

Among other things, Christie referred to a “conflicted relationship” that blurred the roles of Gural and Rosenberg, who were “initially treated as investigative partners” rather than witnesses.

The case included secretly recorded conversations that Gural made for the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice between December 2000 and February 2001, after he alleged that JCA officials had pressured him not to reappoint Rosenberg as solicitor in Palmyra.

Gural was a JCA employee. Rosenberg had fallen out of favor with Norcross, and Gural alleged that his bosses at JCA, in currying favor with Norcross to steer government contracts their way, wanted to scuttle Rosenberg’s reappointment.

In a statement yesterday, Rosenberg and Gural said Christie’s findings “in no way exonerate the culpable parties.”

“The bottom line is that once again in New Jersey politically connected individuals have escaped punishment . . . with the complicity of the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office.”

In his six-page letter, Christie detailed shortcomings in prosecutors and investigators.

Among other things, he pointed out that they “never sought a court-ordered wiretap,” even though the alleged conspiracy being investigated “was executed primarily over the telephone.”

He said Gural had been encouraged to record many meaningless conversations with “innocent third parties.” Yet, he said, when Gural offered to record conversations at “a political function” with “individuals directly associated with the case,” he was denied permission because of the risk of recording innocent third parties.

Finally, Christie blasted an agreement, negotiated in 2003 by Harvey’s office, that promised JCA president Mark Neisser, director of marketing Henry Chudzinski, and chief financial officer William Vukoder probation in exchange for their cooperation and guilty pleas to minor tax offenses unrelated to the Palmyra allegations.

Christie said the Attorney General’s Office had approved these “charitable agreements before the defendants had provided any information regarding the full scope of their criminal activity or any information about potential coconspirators.”

“Not surprisingly,” he added, the defendants then “provided no valuable information.”

Contact staff writer George Anastasia at 856-779-3846 or ganastasia@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Jennifer Moroz contributed to this article.

Palmyra Tapes Case Timeline

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SUMMER 2001: Gural cooperates with state investigators, secretly tape-recording conversations with Norcross. Gural claims Norcross promised rewards for Gural if he voted to not reappoint Rosenberg. Norcross denies this.

NOVEMBER 2001: State investigators raid West Deptford municipal offices, searching for records of contracts awarded to JCA.

MARCH 2003: A former JCA employee — William Hampton Jr., the son of a founder of the company — pleads guilty to stealing $360,000 from the firm. Hampton took checks from municipalities and deposited them into his personal account.

DEC. 12, 2003: Three top executives at JCA agree to a plea bargain with the state Attorney General’s Office. The three — Mark Neisser, Henry Chudzinski and William Vukoder — say they will resign from the company and plead guilty to making illegal donations of more than $84,000 to West Deptford Democrats.

FEB. 17, 2004: West Deptford Democratic campaign treasurer Daniel Wilson is found guilty of tampering with public records and failing to report illegal campaign donations by JCA. Wilson is found innocent of charges he stole $28,000 in campaign funds.

MARCH 25, 2004: State Sen. Diane Allen, R-Edgewater Park, calls for an independent investigation of JCA by U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie.

MARCH 26, 2004: Superior Court Judge John Almeida throws out the plea bargain between JCA and Attorney General Peter Harvey. Almeida complains that JCA’s attorney, Kevin Marino, also personally represented Harvey in another ethics case. “The proposed plea agreement is not in the interest of justice,” Almeida said. “It is rejected.”

MARCH 31, 2004: Harvey fires back at Almeida, insisting the judge made “a rather serious error” in dismissing the three guilty pleas.

APRIL 2, 2004: Sen. Joseph Kyrillos, the state Republican chairman, calls for the U.S. attorney, a special prosecutor or a new attorney general to take over the criminal case against JCA.

MAY 1, 2004: The Schools Construction Corp. announces it intends to bar JCA and five of its top officers from working on the state’s school construction program for five years.

JUNE 8, 2004: Two months after rejecting a similar deal, Almeida agrees to a plea bargain involving the three former JCA executives. Almeida says circumstances have changed enough to convince him there was “no valid reason” to reject or delay a plea. Under terms of the deal, Neisser, Chudzinski and Vukoder will plead guilty to income tax evasion stemming from the campaign law infraction in West Deptford.

FEB. 25, 2005: Superior Court Assignment Judge John Sweeney orders that 330 hours of secret recordings of conversations between Gural and South Jersey power brokers, including Norcross, be released by the state within 15 days. Rosenberg, who filed a lawsuit to have the recordings released by state criminal investigators, said they will show “blatant examples of criminal behavior,” including Norcross attempting to bribe him. Norcross’ attorney, William Tambussi, said the recordings include just two conversations with his client and that state investigators have already found no evidence of wrongdoing.

APRIL 1, 2005: In the first series of released recordings, Norcross is heard denigrating a host of fellow Democrats, bragging about his influence with former Gov. James E. McGreevey and then-U.S. Sen. Jon S. Corzine, and describing the judiciary as a place to “get rid” of troublesome people. Tambussi says the tapes show Norcross to be a “tough fighter” for his party and South Jersey, and that “Mr. Gural and Mr. Rosenberg invented, fabricated and lied in all their wild accusations.”

JUNE 1, 2005: About 60 hours of new recordings are released. In one recording made in 2001, R. Louis Gallagher, then the chairman of the Burlington County Democratic Party, is heard telling Gural he should get a reward for agreeing to fire Rosenberg as borough solicitor at the behest of Norcross.

JUNE 27, 2005: A newly released tape shows that in July 2001, Norcross went to a high-ranking official in the Attorney General’s Office and asked that the investigation into allegations of political corruption in South Jersey be killed. “I’m not a thief. I’m not a crook. I can sleep at night,” Norcross told Anthony Zarrillo, then deputy director of the attorney general’s Division of Criminal Justice. “The only thing I have to worry about is a prosecutor or investigator who has an evil agenda.”

JULY 6, 2005: U.S. Attorney for New Jersey Christopher Christie says his office is “fully investigating” the Palmyra tapes case.

WEDNESDAY: Christie announces the federal government would not be able to prosecute Norcross even if he broke the law because the state Attorney General’s Office botched its investigation.

“If we desire respect for the law, we must first make the law respectable.” – U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis