Morning News Digest: December 11, 2009

Roque worried about attorney looking over clerk's shoulder while she assesses signatures Four days into the sifting and counting process

Roque worried about attorney looking over clerk's shoulder while she assesses signatures

Four days into the sifting and counting process in West New York, Dr. Felix Roque said he's worried about the presence in the clerk's office of Township Attorney Daniel Horgan. On Monday, Roque and his supporters delivered ten boxes to Township clerk Carmela Ricci crammed with what they said are 6,000 legitimate signatures of voting residents who agree with Roque that Mayor Silverio "Sal" Vega should be recalled from office in a special election. But Horgan's hovering too close, according to the would-be challenger to Vega's power. "Let Carmela run the show," said Roque. "The town attorney has no business in there. Let democracy take its course. If he wins, God bless him, but don't have this town attorney in there influencing the action. I know from the military, if the general is in the room, even though the private is honest, the general just by his presence has an influence. They should let Carmela run the show. She is honest and has integrity but the town attorney is in there making it difficult for her. (Pizarro, PolitickerNJ)

Feds indict Van Pelt on corruption charges

Former Assemblyman Daniel Van Pelt (R-Ocean Twp.) was indicted today for accepting a $10,000 bribe. He was arrested on July 23 and resigned soon after. His arraignment has not been scheduled. Van Pelt allegedly met with a cooperating witness, widely believed to be Solomon Dwek, on February 11 at a Waretown restaurant. He is accused of promising to help with development approvals with the state Department of Environmental Protection on Coastal Area Facilities Act (CAFRA) permits. "You should hire me as a consultant," federal prosecutors say that Van Pelt told the witness, boasting that he had relationships with state officials that pre-dated his election to the Legislature. Van Pelt is a former mayor and served as the Lumberton Township Administrator. The Indictment charges Van Pelt with one count of attempted extortion, which carries a maximum statutory penalty of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine; and one count of accepting corrupt payments in connection with a business or transaction or series of transactions with the State of New Jersey, an entity receiving more than $10,000 in federal funds during a specified one-year period, which carries a maximum statutory penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Lori Serrano, a former Jersey City Council candidate, was indicted today. (Pizarro, PolitickerNJ)

Going up against Booker juggernaut, low-key Minor insists he can win in Newark

Bashed on the street early for not projecting the energy to match and mete out the kind of verbal punishment opponents say Mayor Cory Booker deserves, retired municipal Judge Clifford Minor said that's not his style, and though he knows also he won't have the money to keep up with Booker next year, he intends to win his long-shot challenge. In his particular low-key, grassroots way. "No, I'm not fired up like Sharpe James, but I don't think you need to run heated campaigns in order to win, and I don't believe you have to run a negative campaign," Minor told "My strength is going to come from grassroots support, and there's recent evidence of that kind of support offsetting the money advantage. Gov-elect Chris Christie was absolutely well under the numbers of Governor Corzine in terms of money. Look at Mayor (Mike) Bloomberg, who had a much closer race than he anticipated, while significantly outspending the challenger. "I'm grasroots, I'm not afraid of the community," added Minor, a former police officer and prosecutor. "I don't need 15 cops to walk with me on the streets. I'll be knocking on doors and walking. That's worth more than the $8 million that he (Booker) has." Minor admits the incumbent may be a good politician, but seriously questions the younger man's ability to manage the sprawling power center of Newark. Although this is his first political campaign, he says he personally effectively administered Newark Municipal Court. It wasn't paying for itself, and when he left, he left it solvent, he says. (Pizarro, PolitickerNJ)

GOP: Wisniewski shouldn't audition for Dem State Chairman on taxpayers' dime

Republicans say that Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Sayreville) should stop using tax dollars to run for Democratic State Chairman. Wisniewski, a Middlesex County Democrat who has been mentioned as a possible candidate to head the state party, circulated a press release today bashing Gov.-elect Christopher Christie. "John Wisniewski is obviously more concerned with petty politics than addressing New Jersey's considerable financial problems," said Kevin Roberts, a Republican State Committee spokesman. "Wisniewski's careerism was on full display in a release from his legislative office today, which can only be viewed as a taxpayer-funded audition in his well-known pursuit of the slot of Democratic State Committee chairman. If Wisniewski can't put the well-being of New Jerseyans above his ambitions, the very least he can do is not campaign on the taxpayer's dime." Wisniewski's press release, sent from the Assembly Majority office, accused Christie of "apparently learning that governing involves more than vague promises and rants." (Editor, PolitickerNJ)

N.J. Attorney General pushes for better pay for state prosecutors

Lawyers and prosecutors fed up with low pay are leaving the Department of Law and Public Safety in droves, damaging the state’s ability to prosecute crimes and defend itself against lawsuits, the attorney general said today. "I cannot say it starkly enough," Attorney General Anne Milgram told the Senate Labor committee. "I do not believe the department will continue to succeed unless we solve this problem." Milgram said low wages have made the department an "employer of last resort." Although private law firms generally pay more than the state, wages for deputy attorneys general have fallen behind those of county prosecutor offices and other state agencies. Former attorney general Robert Del Tufo said salary issues have consistently been a problem at the department. "Every attorney general tries to fight it," he said. "But it’s worse now." Milgram said it would cost almost $16 million over two years to pay prosecutors at the same level as lawyers in the state public defender’s office. Every time a lawyer leaves, Milgram said, the department loses years of expertise. (Megerian, Star Ledger)

Editorial: Gov.-elect Chris Christie's team got its signals crossed on education funding application

A few weeks ago, a spokesman for Chris Christie said the governor-elect was "completely frustrated" by Gov. Jon Corzine because his administration decided against applying for a new federal grant for education in this time of pressing need. Now, it turns out, the request to stand down came from the Christie transition team itself. Corzine’s people were responding to a written request from Susan Cole, the president of Montclair State University, made on behalf of Christie. Okay, during a transition, you can’t expect the new team to have its act together. But how about a tad more humility, at least until it gets the facts straight? The tiff is over a $4 billion pot of money the Obama administration wants to award to states that come up with the best plans for education reform. Corzine’s people were working on it until they received Cole’s request to stop. And that probably makes sense. New Jersey will have a second shot at this money in June, and by then, Christie will have an education plan of his own. Now, however, politics has entered the calculation. In response to the criticism from Christie, Corzine folded, as usual, and has agreed to apply now. So the Department of Education will waste its time devising a reform blueprint that has no chance of being enacted under Christie, and so has almost no chance of winning this competition. This is nonsense, on top of nonsense. (Star Ledger)

N.J. Gov.-elect defends borrowing $1B to pay for transportation funds

Gov.-elect Chris Christie today defended his decision to support borrowing more than $1 billion to pay for highway and mass transit improvements, saying it would be "irresponsible" to cut off funding for projects that have already started. Christie, who agreed this week to expand a scheduled bond deal by six times over, promised to review all state borrowing once he takes office, but said he told the Corzine administration: "I don’t object to him paying the bills." "I’m not going to be irresponsible and stop the payment of bills for people who are working, laborers who are working right now on transportation projects," said Christie, appearing at City Hall in Manhattan with Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The move comes after Christie has criticized the state for adding to its debt that is nearly $34 billion and counting. His support of the bond deal, however, drew criticism from other Republicans who said Christie is running "contrary" to his previous position on borrowing. Steve Lonegan, the former mayor of Bogota who ran against Christie in the GOP primary, called Christie’s support "a travesty" that will merely continue the policies of Democratic administrations that relied heavily on borrowing to pay state expenses. (Davis, Star Ledger)

Former Ocean County assemblyman, Jersey City council candidate indicted in massive FBI sting

A former assemblyman from Ocean County and a one-time Jersey City council candidate were indicted today for allegedly taking bribes from the FBI informant at the crux of last summer’s money-laundering and corruption sting. Daniel M. Van Pelt, a Republican elected to the Legislature in 2007, is charged with accepting $10,000 in exchange for promising to help the informant secure environmental approvals for a real estate project in Ocean Township. Lori Serrano, a Democrat who lost her council bid in May, is charged with taking $10,000, allegedly saying that if elected she would help the informant obtain approvals for condominiums in Jersey City. The two are among scores of defendants initially charged in July in the epic sting that hinged on a failed Monmouth County developer who began wearing a wire for federal investigators after being charged in 2006 with bank fraud. Solomon Dwek spent more than two years secretly working for federal prosecutors, targeting rabbis who supposedly laundered money and public officials who allegedly took bribes. (Ryan, Star Ledger)

N.J. Gov.-elect Christie, N.Y.C. Mayor Bloomberg agree on recession budgeting

With the notable exception of gay marriage, Gov.-elect Chris Christie and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg found common ground today as the two men met for the first time. Christie said he shares the mayor's approach to budgeting in a recession: preserving core services and cutting elsewhere without raising taxes. Christie said he wants to avoid laying off unionized state workers through "vigorous collective bargaining," but warned that in light of high private sector unemployment, public employees cannot expect a planned 7 percent salary increase for the coming fiscal year. "Who do they think is paying for this?" Christie said during a joint press conference at City Hall. "I'm not looking to lay off state workers, but what I am willing to do is to have them come to the table understanding the reality of the economic situation the state is in."Christie declined to give other specifics on his plans to close an estimated $8 billion budget deficit. After meeting privately with a few close aides, the governor-elect and mayor told reporters they planned to work together on economic, homeland security and education issues. Bloomberg, who was elected for a third term in November, has agreed to visit a charter school in Jersey City within the next month, Christie said. "We are in this together," Bloomberg said. "We really do depend on New Jersey, and they on us." (Heininger, Star LedgeR)

Ingle: Gravy train to Macy’s basement

Looks like NJ Transit is working as fast as it can to tie the hands of the Christie administration. In a meeting attended by soon to be former Gov. Corzine, the NJ Transit board awarded a $583 million contract for what has been described as the train to Macy’s basement. New York City won’t pay for any of it. The full cost is estimated to be $8.7 billion, but we all know it will be more. Corzine pushed the project to help his re-election effort, saying it would create jobs. This first construction contract went to a Queens, N.Y. company and one from Montana that will set up a sbranch office in New Jersey. Jeff Titttel of the Sierra Club pointed out Corzine’s tunnel doesn’t connect directly to Penn Station, doesn’t help commuters going to Manhattan’s east side and is being built where it can circumvent environmental requirements. The NYC end winds up near Macy’s basement. Tittel told the Star-Ledger it is a rush to contract. And that the bad location for the tunnel came about so Corzine could get a photo op for his election campaign. Maybe Christie Christie should find a way to halt this effort until it can be determined if the tunnel is in the best interest of commuters. (Ingle, Gannett)

Doblin: What’s love got to do with it?

RECENTLY, I spent two weeks on vacation in California. I stayed with close friends, a married couple who have been together for more than 31 years. They have lived in the same middle-class neighborhood of Los Angeles for decades. They have put down roots. On Thanksgiving, they sent some food over to an elderly shut-in who lives on their street. They keep tabs on their next-door neighbor who is going through chemotherapy. Aside from Thanksgiving dinner being meat-free – the couple has crossed over to the Dark Side where there is no dark or white meat – it was a traditional feast with many guests. Other than the wonderful mild weather, it could have been Thanksgiving anywhere in America. Well maybe not. My friends are a legally married couple. But they are gay. They are part of a small subset of gay and lesbian couples who legally wed in California before a voter referendum took that right away from future couples. Even in a state known for loony politics, California’s adoption and then rejection of same-sex marriage is a legal and ethical quagmire. Same-sex couples married before the ban are still legally married. They are an anomaly like the grandfathered-in dual officeholders of New Jersey’s Legislature. There was something almost comic about listening to Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Wood-Ridge, one of those dual officeholders, praise himself this week for running a fair public hearing on same-sex marriage on Monday. As the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, that was his job. How low a standard for good government has been set in New Jersey that fair, civil debate is considered praiseworthy. (Doblin, The Record)

Stile: Gay marriage supporters renew efforts

Marsha Shapiro and Louise Walpin are the gentle, candid icons of the New Jersey gay marriage movement, discussing in television ads and Internet videos the discrimination they faced raising four children. But Thursday, the amiable Middlesex County couple suddenly found themselves under a gag order as they stood in a gantlet of gay activists lining the hallway outside the Senate. Lieutenants of Garden State Equality, on red alert for the media, swooped in and politely halted several attempts at an interview. Media inquiries were referred to the group’s leader, Steve Goldstein. Candor was out, message management was in. "Do you have his number?" a woman named Leslie said as she scrolled the screen of her cellphone, ready to provide it. She was polite, but firm, and had no intention of going away until I went away. "He can answer those questions." It’s easy to understand the new discipline. The group suffered twin public-relations setbacks this week, one beyond their control and one self-inflicted. A vote to legalize same-sex marriage by the full Senate was canceled when it became clear that it would go down in defeat — and taking the national gay rights movement with it, at least for the foreseeable future. The Senate punted the controversial bill to the Assembly, where advocates are hoping to win and eventually corner the resistant senators with some late-stage momentum. It’s a long shot at best. (Stile, The Record)

Same-sex marriage advocates delay NJ Senate vote

A crucial New Jersey Senate vote on same-sex marriage, expected to be held today, was called off late yesterday as advocates struggled to find the support needed for passage. The measure's sponsors, Sens. Raymond Lesniak (D., Union) and Loretta Weinberg (D., Bergen), asked for the delay, hoping the bill would begin moving through the Assembly, where it is believed to have more solid support. But no Assembly hearing has been scheduled. The maneuvering appeared to be a setback for the same-sex marriage movement, which has been focused on New Jersey since the defeat of a similar measure in New York state last week. "The 21 votes to pass this, it's not there," said John Tomicki, a leading opponent and president of the Coalition to Preserve and Protect Marriage. The Senate is seen as the biggest political hurdle to making New Jersey the next state to allow gay and lesbian couples to wed. Some supporters of gay rights had hoped a public vote today could force lawmakers to take a stand and potentially roust the final votes needed. But several Democrats have come out in opposition to the measure, and others have remained publicly ambivalent, raising questions about its fate. Some gay-rights advocates are wary of a failed public vote, especially in the wake of recent same-sex marriage defeats in Maine and New York. (Lu/Tamari, Inquirer) Morning News Digest: December 11, 2009