In picking his former boss’s firm to oversee a company and earn up to $52 million in the process, U.S. Attorney Chris Christie did something rare: he opened himself up to public criticism from Democrats.
Over the last couple years, Christie has been one of the most visible and popular Republicans in the state – and widely assumed to be seriously considering a gubernatorial bid in 2009. But he has remained nearly immune to public attacks by elected Democratic officials, even as discontent brewed just below the surface in some Democratic circles about his investigation of Bob Menendez while he was running for reelection to the U.S. Senate, or about his public style that has some Democrats quietly grumbling about his political aspirations.
But U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone’s letter to Christie criticizing his choice of former Attorney General John Ashcroft, his former boss, to oversee Zimmer Holdings — a company that made a $311 settlement with the government over paying kickbacks to doctors to use its medical implants — appears to have struck a chord with fellow Democrats. And just today, U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell sent his own letter to the House Judiciary Committee calling for hearings on the ways in which U.S. Attorneys hire overseers (Pascrell said that his letter was not inspired by Pallone’s).
Today, several members of New Jersey’s Democratic Congressional delegation said that they would stand with Pallone and Pascrell in looking into creating legislation to change the way overseers like Ashcroft’s firm are chosen, and to investigate the practice of deferred prosecution – ending a criminal investigation by allowing companies to pay a fine and undergo federal monitoring.
But even in criticizing Christie’s actions, Pallone and Pascrell were careful to point out their respect for Christie.
“I said it before and I’ll say again that he’s done a good job fighting public corruption. There’s no question about that,” said Pallone, who said he had heard complaints from lawyers about the way overseers are chosen by U.S. Attorneys, but decided to act on it after reading the article that broke the Ashcroft story in the Star-Ledger . “Now it’s gotten to the point that there’s too much potential for abuse and it’s time to step in and take a look at this thing….. It’s no different from a mayor awarding a no bid contract.”
Pascrell echoed Pallone’s sentiment about Christie’s effectiveness, saying that, in the past, the Menendez investigation was the only thing that ever gave him pause about. But Pascrell said he couldn’t ignore the way that Christie quietly hired Ashcroft’s firm – and that the fees the firm could generate would not have been revealed had they not turned up in Zimmer Holding’s filings with the Security and Exchange Commission.
“When the US Attorney from New Jersey, who I have a great deal of respect for, goes and hires under shadow his former boss, I’m suspicious, and I believe that the congress should have some oversight in these matters,” said Pascrell.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews stood by the calls of Pallone and Pascrell to look into the subject, as did his Democratic Colleagues Donald Payne and Steve Rothman. Of the two other members of the delegation, a spokesman for Rush Holt said he had not studied the issue enough to weigh in on it, and Albio Sires could not be reached for comment.
“No contract at any level of government should be given out on the basis of favoritism. It is a perfectly legitimate question as to how and why this contract was given, and I look forward to a full answer on the public record,” said Andrews’s statement.
Payne said that, in cases like this, the U.S. Attorney has far too much authority.
“(The U.S. Attorney) is really the judge and the jury all in one, because he cites the wrongdoer, and then appoints someone to oversee it, and then he evaluates the overseer to make sure he’s doing the job well,” said Payne. “I’ve never seen any legal, any governmental entity that is so unregulated or supervised by anyone outside of the principal as the U.S. Attorney.”
But Republicans point out that Democrats have gotten lucrative oversight positions too, like former U.S. Senator Robert Torricelli, who was appointed by a federal judge to oversee Honeywell International’s clean up of a chromium-contaminated site in Jersey City at a rate of $375 per hour.
New Jersey Republican State Committee Chairman Tom Wilson said that there was nothing wrong with deferred prosecution, using the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey – whose trustees chose to be overseen by a federal judge rather than have its federal funding cut off and have its hospital closed, as an example.
“It is a very thinly veiled effort to inject partisan politics where there really ought not be any. This has been a tool that has been used by the US Attorney’s office and I assume others in law enforcement and state level for decades,” said Wilson. “This is really just a cheap shot by a couple of very partisan Democratic congressmen looking to throw some mud on somebody who’s been widely hailed as the single brightest beacon of ethics and corruption busting in the state.”