Bergen County Prosecutor John Molinelli says that he doesn’t expect to experience any political fallout from the news that he took a trip to Italy accompanied by embattled State Senator Joseph Coniglio, the target of a federal corruption probe.
“I got a lot of calls from supporters who wonder why it’s even an issue…. I look at myself in the mirror and say ‘I don’t have an issue with what I did’,” said Molinelli, who paid for the trip with his own money.
But some powerful political insiders disagree — the news that the county prosecutor took a trip with an elected official under federal investigation may have further jeopardized his chance of being reappointed to the position, according to one high ranking Democratic official.
As it stands, Molinelli is a holdover as Bergen County prosecutor – since June, state Sen. Loretta Weinberg has exercised Senatorial courtesy and refused to sign off on his re-nomination. But even if Weinberg was to allow the nomination to proceed, the Senate Judiciary Committee will be unlikely to approve him.
“It makes us question whether he really wants to separate himself from potential wrong doers,” said the source. “It brings into disrepute his integrity and the office’s integrity.”
Weinberg has refused to comment on allegations against Molinelli that have caused her to hold up his nomination, acknowledging only that the Attorney General’s office is reviewing the circumstances and that she will make a decision on what to do about the nomination once the matter is resolved. Weinberg has stated numerous times that she will not reveal the allegations without Molinelli’s permission, and that she has no idea if they’re true.
According to a different source with knowledge of the case, Weinberg’s concerns were brought about by an anonymous letter she received that accused Molinelli of using law enforcement resources to examine the financial history of Weinberg and her Assembly running mates, Valerie Vainieri Huttle and Gordon Johnson. The letter says that the research was done on behalf of Bergen County Democratic Organization Chairman Joseph Ferriero.
The hold up of Molinelli’s nomination, combined with his recent trip with Coniglio, may make the judiciary committee hesitant to reconfirm him, said the Democratic source. But the more likely scenario would be that Molinelli’s nomination does not move past Weinberg’s desk until the legislative session expires, at which point Gov. Jon Corzine may decline to nominate him again.
“The governor’s office always reviews new information in relation to any candidate,” said Corzine spokeswoman Lilo Stainton. “It would be premature to say any decisions have been made in his case.”
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman John Adler would not comment on pending confirmations, but two Republican members of the committee agreed with the assessment.
“It not the trip, it’s the association with somebody who’s under investigation,” said state Sen. Gerald Cardinale, a Republican from Bergen County. “I have the same concerns that Loretta Weinberg has. I did not know about that before I signed off on him, but it is very troubling because he should be the first line of defense.”
State Sen. Joe Kyrillos, who also sits on the committee, said he was hesitant to comment on the issue when he had only given the story that revealed Molinelli’s trip a cursory glance. But he said it was “not a wise decision” to travel with someone under federal investigation.
But Democratic State Sen. Ray Lesniak said nothing appeared to be wrong with Molinelli’s trip, noting that as county prosecutor Molinelli has nothing to do with the Coniglio investigation, and that Coniglio hasn’t even been charged with a crime.
“It’s gotten so that not only are you not innocent until proven guilty, you’re not innocent before you’re even charged…. I do not consider Sen. Coniglio a leper,” said Lesniak. “It was politically insensitive for (Molinelli) to do that, but I don’t think it reflects anything about his qualifications to serve in that position.”
Lesniak and Cardinale agreed, however, that a prosecutor associating with politicians and high ranking political insiders is unavoidable. After all, the senators said, the prosecutors are appointed by politicians, and they can’t be expected to cut all ties with them.
But Molinelli’s Republican predecessor as prosecutor, William H. Schmidt, who was appointed by Gov. Christie Whitman, said that he kept a distance from politicians during his terms as a Paramus Municipal Court Judge and as Bergen County prosecutor – with the exception of former state Sen. Louis Kosco’s Superbowl party, where talking politics was strictly prohibited.
“I am troubled by any close, cozy relationship with active politicians, particularly those who are under federal scrutiny,” said Schmidt, who was particularly concerned about Molinelli’s relationship with lawyer Dennis Oury, who arranged the trip and serves as general counsel to the Bergen County Democratic Organization.
“Reading the article, the thing that hit me the most is the connection — why is the prosecutor, the chief law enforcement officer in the county, vacationing with someone who is clearly the target of a federal probe? That’s disturbing,” said Schmidt.