Based in part on U.S. Attorney Chris Christie’s awarding of a potentially fat contract to ex-boss Attorney General John Ashcroft, U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-Long Branch) and U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-Paterson) don’t want U.S. attorneys appointing federal monitors.
To that end, they announced their intentions today to introduce legislation they say would take politics out of the appointment process, and prevent unelected officials from having "unfettered leverage against companies and corporations who have potentially engaged in criminal behavior," Pallone said.
As it is now, "The U.S. Attorney in this case has total discretion about when to decide who to appoint as a monitor and what the terms are," the 6th District Congressman told PolitickerNJ.com. "Everything we’re addressing is at the discretion of the U.S. Attorney, and it has led to the appearance of political cronyism and a lot of cynicism."
In an effort to break up the power U.S. attorneys now enjoy in the appointment process, the legislation would require the establishment of guidelines by the U.S. Justice Department.
"The choice is to be made by the Justice Department, not the prosecutor involved in the case," Pallone said. "And that all has to be brought before a federal judge, and the agreement has to be made public."
The bill, which would have to go through a legislative hearing either later this month or in September, comes on the heels of spring hearings in which Ashcroft testified before Congress about his acceptance of the contract from Christie – which is estimated to be worth up to $52 million.
Pallone said he remains interested in Christie’s explanation of his appointment of Ashcroft, although the U.S. Attorney insisted numerous times publicly that he chose him on the basis of his former boss’s fitness for the job.
"We still feel he should testify," Pallone said of Christie. "For one, in the case of the Ashcroft contract, no one’s admitting what the basis was for his being chosen. His group or firm didn’t have much experience, and they weren’t experts for any means. There was no objective criterion met to say he was the best qualified person."
For his part, Pascrell insisted the legislation he’s proposing with Pallone is comprehensive and balanced.
"It allows federal prosecutors to retain use of deferred prosecution agreements but insists on the oversight, accountability and public disclosure that are the hallmarks of our justice system," said Pascrell. "This legislation completely reforms the selection of federal monitors by creating an open, competitive process. It is my hope to end the unmitigated power that federal prosecutors hold to serve as judge, jury and sentencer in the deferred prosecution process."
State Sen. Bill Baroni (R-Mercer) chided the congressmen for pursuing whatBaronisees as a blatant political hit on Christie, a possible GOP candidate for governor in 2009.
In hard times with high gas prices and record home foreclosures, "They should be focused on the economy and not attacking the U.S. Attorney," Baroni said.
But Pascrell said tighter government oversight of the federal monitoring process and deferred prosecution agreements protects citizens against corporate cronyism.
"We need real oversight by the courts and the Congress," said Pascrell, whose interest, he admits, was sparked by news last year that Christie had given the nod to Ashcroft to oversee the deferred prosecution agreement of Zimmer Holding, Inc.
"A lot of these corporations deal with senior citizens, be it finances or be it medical," said Pascrell. "What we’re doing here is getting to the core of fraud. We want the process to be open and fair. We don’t want the process to be a ticket to riches."