WAKE UP CALL WILL RETURN ON THURSDAY, DECEMBER 27
Mercer County prosecutor removed from state trooper rape case, some Republicans upset over ballot position policy, Corzine taps new gang, gun and violent crime coordinator, New Jersey might sue EPA.
LOOKS LIKE BOCCHINI FOUND A WAY TO GET HIMSELF OFF THE “NIGHTMARE” CASE
The state attorney general yesterday removed Mercer County Prosecutor Joseph Bocchini from the investigation into an alleged sex assault by state troopers, hours after his comments on the case appeared in a newspaper.
Attorney General Anne Milgram reassigned the headline-grabbing case to the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office, saying Boccini’s statements to The Star-Ledger were “inappropriate.”
“In the best interest of the case, it should be transferred,” Milgram said in a statement.
During a lengthy interview in his office Tuesday, Bocchini said the case would be very difficult. “It’s a nightmare,” he said. “The puzzle is complex. Any prosecutor who would look for this type of case, I think, has a psychological problem.”
The attorney general made her decision after meeting with Bocchini, who asked Milgram to use her authority as the state’s chief law enforcement officer to “supersede” his office. Milgram declined to comment further.
Typically, a criminal case is handled by the prosecutor’s office in the county where the alleged offense occurs unless prosecutors have a conflict of interest or lack the necessary expertise in a highly technical matter.
In a two-paragraph letter to the attorney general, Bocchini said his comments “could very well create a public perception that my office should not handle this investigation. While I have the utmost confidence in the entire staff of the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office and their ability to fairly and thoroughly investigate this matter, I believe that in the best interest of this ongoing investigation that supersession is appropriate.” (Margolin, Star-Ledger)
NOW IT’S THE REPUBLICANS’ TURN, BUT IT’S TOO LATE
Republicans not endorsing former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani fretted yesterday that the GOP’s balloting procedure would unfairly impact their own presidential candidates, and fought an email war with the state party chairmen to try to get him to intervene.
What made the matter worse for some proud party members was having to watch the Democratic State Committee relinquish its prior commitment to giving establishment candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton the line A position virtually statewide.
They argued that while Republicans were essentially handing the ballot pole position to Giuliani, the Clinton-centric Democratic leadership was mercifully loosening its stranglehold on the process to allow rival campaigns to get an equal shot at the line.
“Why is it that the New Jersey GOP isn’t following the Democratic State Committee’s lead in holding an open draw for presidential candidates?” Republican counsel Brian Nelson asked State Committee Chairman Tom Wilson. “Why are the Republicans still following the process the Democrats are abandoning?”(Pizarro, PolitickerNJ.com)
GANGS, GUNS AND VIOLENT CRIME
In the 3 1/2 years Jose Cordero has been police director in East Orange, the city’s crime rate has plunged nearly 70 percent.
Now Gov. Jon Corzine wants the former New York City police inspector to help fight violent crime, gangs and guns statewide.
Cordero confirmed yesterday that he has been tapped to fill a newly created state position of gang, gun and violent crime coordinator. Corzine called for the post as part of a $48 million anti-crime effort unveiled in October.
“It was not a decision I made easily,” the Bronx-born Cordero said in an interview. “I made it just recently. In reaching this decision, I considered the realization that by helping to make East Orange safer, we have contributed to a safer county and a safer state.” (Dilworth, Star-Ledger)
IT’S LIKE THE MOVIE “TWINS,” WITH CORZINE IN DANNY DEVITO’S PART
New Jersey will consider suing the federal government over the Environmental Protection Agency’s refusal to let states adopt stricter-than-federal auto emission standards, Gov. Jon Corzine said yesterday.
Corzine’s comments echoed those of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and several other states in reaction to the EPA’s long-awaited decision Wednesday.
“It’s a horrendous decision,” Corzine said at the Statehouse. “The fact that the EPA has used sort of crazy reasoning to get to their solution is just a horrible decision. Some of us are considering pursuing legal action on this score.”
The EPA on Wednesday rejected a request from California for a waiver to federal pollution laws so the state could implement tougher limits on greenhouse gases. EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson said there should be one national standard, not a “patchwork” of state laws governing emissions. (Star-Ledger)
MCGETTIGAN WENT FROM POPULAR TO VULNERABLE IN A FEW SHORT MONTHS
The 22-year veteran of the Police Department here said he wants to restore leadership, integrity and pride to a sheriff’s office that he alleges has “steadily declined over the past decade.”
Balles said his first goals as sheriff would be to renew relationships with local police chiefs and increase patrols in under-served communities.
“I want to direct a sheriff’s office that will partner with local departments to deter violent crimes and drug activities, to pursue fugitives from justice and to make our roads safer through traffic and drunk driving enforcement patrols,” said Balles, a lifelong county resident who currently lives in Egg Harbor Township. “The men and women of the Sheriff’s Department are professionals who want leadership and direction so they can accomplish their mission to provide for the safety of Atlantic County’s residents, businesses and visitors.” (Barlas, Press of Atlantic City)
“STATE SANCTIONED EXECUTIONS ADD TO THE ‘FESTIVE’ QUALITY OF THE SEASON”
Religion and politics are a volatile combination. It doesn’t matter if the politics are local as a school district or national as federal legislation. Once politicians start inserting personal religious precepts into public policy, the public’s interests take a back pew.
New Jersey took a strong moral stand when Governor Corzine signed legislation abolishing the death penalty on Monday. Last week, the Legislature passed the landmark bill during the so-called lame duck session.
Not surprisingly, there are critics of the new law. They believe the death penalty is a fitting punishment for certain murderers. Assembly Republican leader Alex DeCroce is one of those critics. He sent out a press release after Corzine signed the bill:
“At what should be a festive time of the year, I consider it abominable that the governor would repeal the death penalty for cold-blooded killers,” he wrote.
Think about it. DeCroce is using the Christmas season as a reason for continuing capital punishment. He is suggesting that to properly celebrate Christmas, New Jersey should not abolish the death penalty. State-sanctioned executions add to the “festive” quality of the season. Someone should explain this revelation to the religious leaders who have been tirelessly advocating for a repeal of capital punishment. (Doblin, Bergen Record)
WALL STREET WILL LOVE IT… BUT WILL NEW JERSEYANS?
Gov. Jon S. Corzine on Thursday was confident Wall Street would welcome his plan to tackle state fiscal woes by issuing bonds backed by increased highway tolls, partly because the deal will be shielded from politics.
Corzine plans on Jan. 8 to unveil his plan to create a new state agency that would issue bonds paid back by higher New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway tolls.
The Democratic governor has neither said how much tolls may increase nor how much the deal might be worth, though a recent report suggested a 45 percent toll hike was needed to widen the turnpike and fix bridges on it and the parkway.
Experts have said Corzine’s plan could be the largest public bond issue ever, but his plan comes amid market troubles sparked by rising mortgage defaults.
Still, Corzine, the Goldman Sachs chairman from 1994 to 1999, said his plan would be backed by reliable revenue — highway tolls.
“I actually think, from what I understand of the marketplace’s evaluation of infrastructure financed projects, that there is no serious worry or even negative aura surrounding those kinds of debt instruments,” Corzine said.(Hester, AP)
PROGRESS, NOT MIRACLES
Halfway through his first term, local legislators say Gov. Jon S. Corzine’s success still depends on the yet-to-be-unveiled plan to fix the state’s finances.
Senate Minority Leader Leonard Lance believes that while the Legislature made some progress, much more needs to be done.
That includes further property tax reform and resolving the state’s projected $3 billion deficit for next year, which takes into account $530 million for the just-announced new school funding formula.
“So much is dependent on the asset monetization plan,” said Lance, R-Warren/Hunterdon.
The plan to make money off state toll roads was initially pitched as a way to fund school construction, open space preservation and other state programs.
Despite litigation by Republicans to obtain initial work done on the plan, lawmakers have yet to get any details. Corzine plans to unveil the proposal Jan. 8 during his State of the State address.
“It’s certainly the unanswered question,” said Assemblyman Mike Doherty, R-Warren/Hunterdon. “He obviously has a plan.” (Graber, Gloucester County Times)
Governor Corzine is looking at 2008 to, at long last, win over the public on his plan to cut state debt by leveraging toll-road revenue.
The governor is also going to overhaul public school funding in the name of tax relief, send out big rebate checks again and take on new energy initiatives in the new year, he said.
Corzine — whose life-threatening accident gave him “a greater sense of enthusiasm” — spoke during a wide-ranging news conference Thursday morning inside Drumthwacket, the governor’s official mansion in Princeton. He defended the work his administration did in 2007, including the recent repeal of the death penalty and extension of low-cost health coverage to uninsured children from middle-income families.
He cited this year’s record property tax rebate checks, a new law that bans future dual-office holding by lawmakers and efforts to combat global warming among his other accomplishments.
“We didn’t promise miracles, we promised progress,” Corzine said. “I think that is exactly what we’re delivering.” (Reitmeyer, Bergen Record)
KENNY’S STATE TROOPER
State officials say a state trooper assigned to chauffeur state Sen. Bernard Kenny, D-Hoboken, to Trenton is necessary to provide the outgoing lawmaker with protection following the July 18 hit-and-run accident that left him badly injured.
They add that the incident –
in which Kenny was found lying on the street just before 7 a.m. with several broken bones and other injuries – is still being investigated by the State Police.
Though Kenny initially said he fell while jogging, authorities have determined his injuries indicated he was struck by a car.
He “was obviously a victim of a hit-and-run accident,” according to a police official. The explanation about the trooper was provided in response to a Political Insider column that appeared in The Jersey Journal on Wednesday. (Torres, Jersey Journal)
JOE VITALE: TOM MORAN’S LEGISLATOR OF THE YEAR
Just in time for Christmas, we have a winner of the coveted Legislator of the Year Award. It’s a new honor, conceived just now. And the selection process was untainted by input from anyone other than this columnist.
The 2007 award goes to Sen. Joe Vitale, the owner of a small family business, and the man who is driving health care policy in the state. Vitale clinched the win by finding a way to help middle-class families get health care for their children at about one-third the normal price — without costing taxpayers a dime.
Vitale clinched the win by finding a way to help middle-class families get health care for their children at about one-third the normal price — without costing taxpayers a dime.
These days, that is the trick. The state is caught in a never-ending budget nightmare, so we have to find clever ways to meet our needs on the cheap. And that is Vitale’s game.
“He’s very sophisticated in his thinking about these issues,” says Joel Cantor, head of the Rutgers Center for State Health Policy. “These things are enormously complex, and he’s a master.” (Moran, Star-Ledger)
CONSERVATIVES PREPARE FOR COMMUNIST INVASION
Gov. Corzine said Thursday he hopes the state takes more steps toward universal health coverage in 2008, although he doesn’t expect to reach everyone in the coming year.
“We have relatively finite resources,” Corzine said a day after he formally unveiled a plan to make sure every child in the state has access to free or low-cost health insurance. “There there are some great ideas that I think that we may be able to implement, but it will not be full, universal coverage in 2008.”
Corzine said it would be a step-by-step process and hopes that a new administration in Washington in 2009 may lead to more federal help in providing health care.
Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, has said he expects to unveil his own plan for universal coverage in New Jersey in the next two months, and while Corzine has said he agrees with the goal, the two do not agree on the timing. (Tamari, Gannett)
INTEGRITY IN ATLANTIC CITY?
ATLANTIC CITY – The mayor is looking to fill a vacancy at City Hall: Chief Legal and Integrity Officer. Never heard of it? You’re not alone.
It’s a new position, but not really.
“It’s a synonym for the city solicitor,” newly appointed Mayor Scott Evans says. It’s also the mayor’s way of trying to convey to the public the city’s new initiative to keep corruption out of the city’s government.
“I want to make a difference today so that tomorrow we don’t find ourselves nursing yet another black eye,” he said.
But it’ll take more than just a play on words to restore the public’s confidence that has been unsettled by a year filled with federal corruption charges against the city’s most prominent political leaders.
“It’s not limited to that, but we want someone of that kind of high standard,” said the mayor, who wants to fill the position within the next 30 days and is considering hiring a search firm. “I haven’t spoken to any candidates, but we’ve reached out to several people familiar with judges, U.S. attorneys and people like that. (Clark, Press of Atlantic City)
The New Jersey Supreme Court yesterday overturned the murder conviction of a Hudson County man who wasn’t read his rights until officers had interrogated him for 95 minutes.
Calling the right to remain silent one of the most fundamental and venerated constitutional protections, the court said Michael O’Neill deserves a new trial because police used a “question-first, warn-later” approach.
O’Neill was not given the so-called Miranda warnings until he had implicated himself in the 2003 shooting death of a cabdriver.
“The detectives exploited defendant’s admissions from the initial unwarned questioning, undermining his ability to knowingly, voluntarily and intelligently waive the Miranda rights later given to him,” Justice Barry Albin wrote for the unanimous seven-member court. (Coscarelli, Star-Ledger)
MAYOR BLOOMBERG DEIGNS TO DINE WITH OUR HUMBLE PUBLIC SERVANTS
Following a lunch of steak, string beans and salad with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Hamilton Mayor-elect John Bencivengo said he plans to take back at least one of Bloomberg’s ideas and implement it in Hamilton.
Bloomberg hosted lunch in City Hall yesterday for Bencivengo and a group of other newly elected mayors from New Jersey, New York state and Connecticut. Bencivengo is particularly interested in starting a 311 hotline for residents to call with concern
s about local government, similar to the one Bloomberg started in New York in 2003.
The hotline allows residents to call about non-emergencies like noise complaints or to ask about government services. (Kitchenman, Trenton Times)
When it comes to Toms River — or any municipal politics — New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg advised a group of newly elected mayors Thursday that honesty is always the best policy.
Bloomberg made his comments during a working lunch with 15 incoming tristate area mayors to discuss policies and strategies that have worked for New York City. Toms River Mayor-elect Thomas Kelaher and Hamilton Mayor-elect John Bencivengo joined 10 New York state mayors and three Connecticut mayors to meet and talk with Bloomberg.
During a news conference via telephone after the luncheon in the Blue Room of New York City Hall, Bloomberg said the most important advice he could offer Kelaher would be to be candid with the residents of Toms River, the seventh-largest municipality in New Jersey.
More than half the school districts in New Jersey are spending too much to educate their children, according to Gov. Jon Corzine’s new school funding plan, so upwards of 100 could be forced to pass much of their projected state aid increases directly to local taxpayers.
Those details and others emerged yesterday in a draft bill that would usher in a sweeping reform of the way the state funds public education. Corzine and legislative leaders want the $7.8 billion funding plan approved in the current session, which ends in two weeks.
The plan includes $532.8 million in new spending, but the new details had school officials rethinking its implications. Lobbyists getting their first look at the 106-page draft said scores of school districts could be in a tougher bind than initially thought when the conceptual plan was unveiled by Corzine last week.
“When districts figure this out, they won’t be as happy as they were when they first saw these increases,” said Michael Vrancik, chief lobbyist for the state’s school boards association. (Mooney, Star-Ledger)
SOUNDS LIKE A GOOD CASE FOR SEXUAL HARASSMENT
A remark made moments before a board meeting in February sent ripples throughout the Long Hill school district.
“If you take your clothes off, you can have anything you want in negotiations,” a male school board member allegedly told an administrator after she asked about the status of contract talks. She, in turn, filed a sexual harassment complaint with the district.
She, in turn, filed a sexual harassment complaint with the district.
Then Superintendent Arthur DiBenedetto resigned, saying he was appalled by the remark and the board’s indifference to it.
And now, 10 months later, a school board critic is in court, trying to force the board to discuss the incident publicly.
“If a public official said that, it’s in the public’s interest to know,” said John Paff, an open-government advocate who lost an attempt to have the harassment complaint made public and now is seeking the unedited minutes of a later board meeting. (Kwoh, Star-Ledger)
HAPPY HOLIDAYS TO ALL BERGEN COUNTY ELECTED OFFICIALS
The Bergen County freeholders, in their final act of the year, voted unanimously Wednesday night to raise their pay and that of every county elected and appointed official.
With Election Day behind them and a budget deficit looming, the all-Democrat Freeholder Board increased the salary of County Executive Dennis McNerney by 3.9 percent, making his new salary, starting in January, $134,617.
McNerney got a 15 percent raise last year after he won reelection — to compensate, he said, for the raise he didn’t take during his first term.
The county’s seven department heads, who were awarded 8 percent raises a year ago, will get an additional 3.9 percent in January, increasing their salaries to $121,182.(Carmiel, Bergen Record)
SHOULDN’T HAVE BET ON SANTA’S LITTLE HELPER
New Jersey can expect to lose $6.6 million at the tracks next year as the horse-racing industry continues to suffer, according to the state agency that runs the Meadowlands and Monmouth racetracks.
The Meadowlands track anticipates losses of $2.7 million this year and $5.5 million next year, according to financial statements released yesterday. Monmouth Park is expected to lose nearly $8 million in 2008, a slight improvement over its $8.4 million loss this year. Other betting operations are expected to offset about half of next year’s track losses.
The agency’s top priority is finding a way to keep the horse-racing industry alive, according to Dennis Robinson, the agency’s newly appointed chief executive.
Boosting purses at the tracks “is a critical issue for the entire racing industry,” Robinson said yesterday.
Meanwhile, the sports authority’s administrative expenses will rise by nearly 20 percent next year, to almost $12 million, according to the agency’s $25.8 million budget.
“There have been a number of positions that have remained open that, to run a first-class operation, we’re going to need to fill,” Robinson said. (McDermott, Star-Ledger)
IN UNION COUNTY
The director of the Union County Jail has been reassigned and his top deputy sacked after last week’s dramatic escape by two violent inmates, officials said yesterday.
Frank Crose, who has overseen the Elizabeth facility since 2001, was informed earlier this week he will serve as an adviser to the prosecutor’s office as it conducts a top- to-bottom review of security at the jail, two officials with knowledge of the moves said.
Crose, 63, had previously announced he would retire Feb. 1.
Crose’s deputy, Assistant Director James Dougherty, was dismissed outright, the officials said.
The moves, the first in what’s expected to be a sweeping overhaul of security oversight and procedures, come less than a week after inmates Jos
e Espinosa and Otis Blunt systematically chiseled through a cinderblock wall and leaped to freedom from a rooftop 30 feet off the ground. Espinosa and Blunt remained at large last night. (Lucas and Gold, Star-Ledger)
IN ONE OF THE WASHINGTON TOWNSHIPS
A township committeeman has asked for an investigation into whether a colleague authorized a consultant to perform township work despite there being no money to pay for it.
But David Dempski is calling Michael Kovacs’ allegation against him unfounded and politically motivated.
Kovacs and Dempski are political adversaries on the heavily divided township committee. In November, Kovacs lost a re-election bid to a Dempski ally, R.J. Strunk.
Kovacs raised the allegation at Tuesday’s township committee meeting. He said Dempski authorized architect Alex Soffiantini to continue work on the township’s new municipal building though the township has no money to pay him until next year.
“He was told, ‘Do the work, we’ll pay you next year,'” Kovacs said at the meeting. (Olanoff, Express-Times)
GOODBYE ELIZABETH BERGUS
Elizabeth Bergus was the wife of a diplomat who raised a family in the Middle East and Europe through war, famine and peace. In retirement – if you could call it that – she settled in Upper Township’s barrier island, Strathmere, where she still volunteered with the local fire company and rescue squad. Bergus died Tuesday. She was 80.
“I hope people in Strathmere understand what they’ve lost,” Deputy Mayor Curtis Corson Jr. said. “She spent her whole life putting other people first.”
Bergus grew up in Philadelphia and graduated from nursing school. She and her late husband, Donald, raised three children. As ambassador he served in some of the most dangerous places in the world, including Lebanon and Sudan. Where he went, she and her children followed, even when it took the family into international hot spots, such as Egypt after the Six Day War in 1967. (Miller, Press of Atlantic City)
Saying they wanted to go in a new direction, the Millville Housing Authority’s Board of Commissioners hammered out a severance package for their embattled executive director.
On Thursday, the board unanimously agreed to a “negotiated settlement” — totaling at least $58,000 — allowing Dale Gravett to retire. It also allows him to keep his health insurance for up to two years.
Gravett had come under fire after admitting last month to drinking during work hours.
That admission came after a news crew from Fox 29 in Philadelphia videotaped Gravett and maintenance director Jim Hertig enjoying drinks at local taverns while on the clock — and sometimes climbing into their authority-owned vehicles. Hertig served a two-day suspension for his indiscretions. (Landau, Daily Journal)
IN PALISADES PARK
A police sergeant has been suspended and accused of trying to intimidate a councilman into voting to promote him.
Sgt. Richard Sopelsa, a 30-year veteran, is facing administrative charges that include conduct unbecoming an officer, violations of departmental regulations and trying to influence a councilman with voting power over promotions. The charges were lodged Tuesday.
Borough Attorney Joseph Mariniello said Sopelsa is accused of threatening council member David Lorenzo during the time that the council was considering candidates for promotion.
“The nature of the threats were: If he [Lorenzo] didn’t vote for [Sopelsa’s] promotion, than basically, it was, ‘Someday you’ll be riding into town and get stopped, and who knows what they might find on you,'” Mariniello said.(Henry, Bergen Record)
IN FAIRFIELD TOWNSHIP
Beverly initially fell nine votes short of winning the second seat in a three-man race. Conahey outpaced him, but the margin of victory narrowed to five votes after provisional and absentee ballots were recounted. (Walsh, press of Atlantic City)
IN PINE BEACH
The sentiments expressed for Mayor Russell Corby were sincere to say the least.
During the Dec. 12 Borough Council meeting, Freeholder John C. Bartlett and borough council members publicly said their goodbyes to the borough’s longest serving mayor.
Bartlett, a former Pine Beach mayor, said he was honored to have Corby’s picture hang in the Borough Hall along with his. “It is my duty to thank you for all you have done for this town,” said Bartlett.
Commending Corby for the renovation of the former Admiral Farragut academy, Bartlett said, “Times have changed and things have changed but you have done your best to see the borough through some difficult times.
“On behalf of the Rogue Gallery it behooves us to thank you most graciously,” said Bartlett. (Santoriello, Asbury Park Press)
Salaries for Roselle’s mayor and council members will not increase next year, according to an ordinance adopted at this week’s borough council meeting.
Proposals calling for a $23,000 raise for Mayor Garrett Smith and $6,000 pay hikes for council members were withdrawn from the salary ordinance.
“The majority of the council was not in favor of raises,” Councilman Jamel Holley said. “This is a victory for the residents and taxpayers of Roselle.”
As a result of Wednesday’s vote, Smith’s salary will remain at $12,000 per year; the six council members will continue making $9,000 per year. (Rothman, Star-Ledger)