Morning News Digest: December 15, 2009

Fishman formally sworn in as U.S. Attorney

Pledging not to alter the traditional focuses of the U.S. Attorney's Office, Paul Fishman, already in office for two months, was formally sworn in this afternoon as the state's top federal prosecutor in a star studded ceremony that included both of the state's U.S. senators, its incoming and outgoing governors, the U.S. Attorney General and U.S. Supreme Court Justice. "Even with terrorism and national security as our number one priority, and even with new critical areas like health care fraud and mortgage fraud, I can assure you that my commitment and the commitment of the office on other traditional things on which we focus will not flag, and we will not relent," said Fishman in his address, after he was sworn in by Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, Jr., a Hamilton native who served as the state's U.S. Attorney from 1987 to 1990. Fishman, a 52-year-old Montclair resident, will oversee a staff of about 140 in the office where he built his career and which he was almost tapped to lead 10 years ago. "Today, the truth is that I have achieved something that has been a huge ambition and longing of mine to be the United States Attorney for this district," he said. Fishman started at the U.S. Attorney's Office in 1983 — a year after graduating from Harvard Law, where he edited the Harvard Law Review- and worked his way up to become First Assistant U.S. Attorney under then-U.S. Attorney Michael Chertoff. In 1994, he move to Washington to work as an advisor to then-Attorney General Janet Reno, before starting a private practice as a white collar defense attorney in 1997. (Friedman, PolitickerNJ)

Political and economic: Whelan on the terrain

State Sen. Jim Whelan (D-Atlantic City) doesn't publicly digest Jon Corzine's loss as much more than the cycles of politics. The real pain is upcoming – and will affect just about everyone, says the former mayor of Atlantic City; for although Corzine's a few day from gone, the same budget deficit craters in the consciousness of everyone in and around the purse strings of Trenton. "The sense I have from (Gov.-elect Chris Christie) is that he recognizes the dire financial straits the state is in," Whelan told "He's not going to raise taxes, so there's going to be a lot of pain. Certainly we're hearing more aggressive rhetoric than Corzine, but regardless of who's governor, you're looking at an $8 billion structural shortfall, or over 25% of the state budget. Everything across the board is likely to see reductions. Folks in my district are very worried and very nervous about the impact on charity care and pre-k monies. I wish I was in a position to tell them it won't be that bad." Whelan said he's relieved that Atlantic City – historically left out of economic stimulus bills because of the impact of the gaming casinos – can partake of the state's neighborhood revitalization and rail hub programs as a consequence of this legislative session; significant measures, he says, in an environment in which casino intake is down 20%. But he still anticipates a bloodletting, which at the very least will diffuse the possibility of local political conflagrations. (Pizarro, PolitickerNJ)

Long Branch’s Schneider to pursue 6th term as mayor

The government architect of the era that saw Long Branch transition from a burned down fishing pier where the Haunted Mansion once boomed its organ chords across the waters – to a high end shopping and eating district bounded by beachfront high-rises, Long Branch Mayor Adam Schneider said he's running for re-election next year. "I got one more in me – we're making too much progress on the pier," said the veteran, who's coming up on his 20th year in office. "I have a fundraiser this Thursday night. I like campaigning. I live here, work here. My business is here. I'm out there anyway. I go to more events than anybody else. The difference of a campaign is the nights you don't have an event, you got to knock on doors." If the mansion was already long gone – burned down in a so-called ocean fire in 1987 – Long Branch's bygone age came back to haunt Schneider most dramatically in 2006, when eminent domain issues impacting redevelopment of the historic waterfront made him not only controversial wharf side – but toxic in Trenton Democratic Party circles leading up to his run for a fifth term. "They threw me under the bus, but I created more jobs than he did," Schneider said of lame duck Gov. Jon Corzine and the power structure, which he said rejected him at the pier redevelopment's most critical stage. "There are more people working in Long Branch as a result of the development. Look, I walked down to the beach this weekend – this is in December – in the rain – and there were people shopping and eating. This is a governor who couldn't even send someone down here to come and look at how we did this. (Pizarro, PolitickerNJ)

Over objections of Christie, Corzine nominates dozens to state posts

Political warfare between the outgoing and incoming governors escalated tonight as Gov. Jon Corzine nominated dozens of people to coveted posts on state boards and commissions, over the objections of Gov.-elect Chris Christie. Only minutes after Corzine and Christie parted company at the Newark swearing-in ceremony of U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, Corzine’s office released more than 180 names for direct appointments and nominations to paid and unpaid posts. The list was heavy with key Democrats, including labor leader Ray Pocino, campaign operative Patricia Mueller and the current and former chiefs of staff to Senate President Richard Codey (D-Essex). More than four dozen nominations — including to the Sports and Exposition Authority and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, key government agencies with large budgets or regulatory authority — must be approved by the state Senate before the current legislative session ends Jan. 12. Christie, however, had previously threatened to use his allies in the state Senate to block as many of the nominations as he can. The nominations came after two weeks of intense behind-the-scenes negotiations between top aides to Christie and Corzine failed to resolve the impasse. The dispute began when Corzine — without warning to the Christie team — submitted the name of his chief of staff, Ed McBride, for a judgeship in South Jersey. Christie balked and sent word that McBride would face public scorn if Corzine didn’t compromise on other posts. (Heininger/Margolin, Star Ledger)

Paul Fishman is formally sworn in as U.S. Attorney for N.J. in Newark

In terms of political heavyweights, events don’t get much bigger than this in New Jersey. Today’s swearing in of U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman in Newark drew a state dinner’s worth of power brokers, including U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito Jr., former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Gov. Jon Corzine, Gov.-elect Chris Christie and both of New Jersey’s U.S. senators. Holder said it was bigger than his own inauguration. Chertoff joked it might be the biggest one, ever. And at the center of it all was Fishman, a 52-year-old former Justice Department attorney who is now New Jersey’s top federal law enforcement officer. The former defense lawyer served 11 years as a federal prosecutor in Newark, was the office’s second-highest ranking official under Chertoff and spent three years as a senior Justice Department adviser in Washington. "There are very few people in the country who match his integrity, judgment and skill," said Chertoff, who was the U.S. attorney for New Jersey from 1990 to 1994. Fishman was confirmed by the U.S. Senate two months ago and in October began running the office, which prosecutes most of the political corruption, organized crime and corporate fraud cases in the state. Today’s event was largely ceremonial. It drew more than 500 people to the Rutgers Law School in Newark, including what seemed to be nearly every member of the federal bar in New Jersey. Men wearing tiny headsets paced the room’s perimeter. Fishman’s mother, wife and two sons watched from the front row. (Ryan, Star Ledger)

N.J. Gov.-elect Chris Christie will not rule out cuts to public universities

Gov.-elect Chris Christie, who campaigned to increase state funding for higher education and called past levels of support "deplorable," will not rule out further aid cuts to public colleges and universities in his first budget. Following a meeting at Rutgers University today with the leaders of several colleges and universities, Christie said he hopes to avoid reductions in state aid, but "in this first year there’s going to be a lot of shared sacrifice, so I can’t make that commitment." He said his transition team now estimates next year's budget deficit at $9.5 billion — up from $8 billion projected earlier this year by the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services — forcing him to make painful cuts. "Other things will feel that brunt more quickly than higher education will, but I can't make a flat-out commitment that it won't be cut," said Christie, who takes office Jan. 19. Calling higher education a "top priority," Christie said he still plans to increase funding over the course of his four-year term. He declined to give a dollar figure of what is necessary. "It is an investment in our economy both in the short term and the long term," Christie said, adding New Jersey ranks in the bottom three out of 50 states for its investment in higher education. "We're going to change it. We're not going to change it overnight." Christie said more state support is needed to counteract tuition and fee hikes that discourage New Jerseyans from staying in-state for college. "We’re losing that advantage because of an incredible over-reliance on tuition and fees as a way to make up for what the state has not done," Christie said. In this year's $29 billion budget, Gov. Jon Corzine initially proposed a 5 percent cut to higher education, but was able to plug the hole with $40 million in federal stimulus money. To qualify for public aid, Corzine and state lawmakers required colleges to raise "tuition rates and required educational and general fees" by no more than 3 percent. (Heininger, Star Ledger)

Gov.-elect Chris Christie chooses Essex County Prosecutor Paula Dow as attorney general

Gov.-elect Chris Christie is to begin introducing his cabinet today by announcing Essex County Prosecutor Paula Dow as the state's next attorney general, according to an official familiar with Christie's decision. Christie is scheduled to introduce Dow during a noon news conference at the Statehouse. Along with Dow, Christie has also selected three top assistants for the next AG. And he will be announcing that Dow's office in Trenton is to have a structure similar to the setup of the U.S. Attorney's Office that Christie ran for more than six years. The incoming governor has kept his personnel deliberations incredibly quiet in stark contrast to some past transitions when most of the key appointees had been reported well before their official announcements. Christie's plans were laid out on the condition of anonymity because no one involved in the process was authorized to discuss the appointments before the formal announcements. The other officials scheduled to be introduced today are: Phillip Kwon, now a deputy chief of the criminal division at the U.S. Attorney's Office, who will be named first assistant AG; Marc Ferzan, another deputy chief of the criminal division, being tapped to serve as executive assistant AG; and First Assistant Essex County Prosecutor Carolyn Murray, who is to serve as counsel to the AG. (Margolin, Star Ledger)

Mulshine: Chris Christie is looking more like a Tom Kean Republican

Read my lips: New taxes. That’s what we can expect from our next governor if his stance on Gov. Jon Corzine’s plan to borrow $1.2 billion for transportation is any indication. If this is the way Chris Christie plans to govern, I’m afraid we’re in for a repeat of the Kean administration. Back in 1981, Tom Kean ran a campaign eerily similar to the campaign that just got Christie elected governor. Kean promised that he wouldn’t raise the income tax and that he’d knock a cent off the sales tax. He’d free up all the revenue he needed by cutting “waste and abuse” in state government. Once in office, though, Kean forgot those pledges and instead raised both the income tax and the sales tax. History will be repeating itself in New Jersey if last week’s events were any indication. Christie also campaigned as a tax-cutter who would free up revenue by ending “waste, fraud and abuse.” But if he intends to keep that promise, he’ll have to start cutting costs and killing projects immediately. Instead, he gave his approval to a plan by Corzine to borrow $1.2 billion as he’s going out the door. “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. Christie’s conservative critics pounced. (Mulshine, Star Ledger)

Judge to hold hearing on Rutherford recount

A judge will have a turn at settling a close race for borough council – two months after voters elected a Democrat by a single vote. The review will take place during a January hearing in which the state Superior Court can order voters to take the stand over the legitimacy of their ballots. Judge Estela De La Cruz, who sits in Hackensack, ordered the hearing Friday after Republican candidate Todd Hennessey identified potential problems with at least seven ballots cast in favor of his opponent, John Parnofiello. The Democrat placed second in a race for two seats in November. Parnofiello continued to lead Hennessey even after election workers recounted all machine and paper ballots two weeks ago. But a 30-page complaint filed on Hennessey’s behalf identifies, by name, four voters who allegedly failed to disclose individuals who helped them vote by mail. It also identifies three others who are believed to have cast ballots for Parnofiello even though they had moved out of the borough. An attorney for Parnofiello, Steven Kleinman, said he plans to carefully review each allegation.”At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be a lot there,” Kleinman said today. “But if we’re required to defend Mr. Parnofiello’s victory in court, we’re fully prepared to do so.” It was unclear today whether Parnofiello can take office as scheduled on Jan. 1. The hearing is six days later. Mayor John Hipp said the issue is under legal review. One interpretation of the law would allow incumbent Maura Keyes, a Democrat who placed fourth in the election, to keep her seat pending a decision from the courts, Hipp said. The outcome will determine whether Republicans retain a 4-2 majority or gain a seat next year. (Clunn, The Record)

Democrat lawmakers promote giving towns chance to defer pension payments again

Some Democratic lawmakers are pushing to give local governments the opportunity to defer half of their pension payments that will be due next spring, essentially repeating a stopgap maneuver enacted last winter. The bill would give municipalities, counties and other local government units that face reductions in state aid a way to put off spending, which could help them avoid or limit cuts in staff or services and scale back increases in property taxes. But that money, plus interest, would have to be repaid. Under legislation enacted last March, 174 local governments — including Hudson, Passaic and Union counties and 168 of the state's 566 municipalities — deferred a combined $220 million of their required payments to two pension funds this year. "Some mayors have a need for this," said bill sponsor Sen. Sandra Cunningham, D-Hudson. "They need this, so I hope we can get it done as soon as possible." The bill's prospects are uncertain, though it could be acted on quickly. In Hunterdon County, for example, Raritan Township opted to defer $354,955. Allan Pietrefesa, chief financial officer for the township, said at this point he is preparing to pay 100 percent of the township's pension obligation in 2010. "We didn't have a cap waiver or extraordinary aid situation. We just went for the pension deferment," said Pietrefesa. Pietrefesa estimated the township bill in 2010 for pensions would go to $340,000 over what was paid in 2009. In Somerset County, North Plainfield deferred $712,000 in 2009 pension payments. Borough Administrator Dave Hollod said the choice to do so was made easier by stern correspondence from the state. (Symons, Gannett)

Somerset County Business Partnership to push for state reforms

The Somerset County Business Partnership has unveiled a reform agenda based on an Oct. 2 forum it helped organize on the state's affordability problems. The partnership plans on using the agenda as a blueprint for developing specific recommendations it will broach with lawmakers. The business-advocacy group wants the state to reform the public employees' pension system to make it affordable and sustainable, reform the public sector bargaining system to reflect the public's ability to pay, reform tax structure to keep businesses and residents in New Jersey, and reform New Jersey's dependence on local property taxes. “We don't want to just stop with the four policy statements coming out of the forum, we want to take the next step,” said partnership President/CEO Michael Kerwin, who said the organization wants to continue meeting with legislators, testify on matters of concern in Trenton and partner with other groups. More than 300 people attended the forum, which included panels on tax solutions to prevent businesses from leaving the state as well as reforms to reduce property taxes. The Courier News and joined the partnership in staging the event with the support of Raritan Valley Community College and other sponsors. Kerwin said reforming the pension system and tax structure to retain businesses will probably see the most attention in the short term, and the fact that the state will have a new governor by next month could help. (Bricketto, Gannett)

Anti-corruption report calls for ban on private meetings with developers

Jersey City officials are considering major changes in the rules of engagement with developers, in the wake of last summer's corruption sting that led to dozens of arrests – including a deputy mayor. Under a series of recommendations by an outside law firm, to be released today, elected officials would not be allowed to talk privately with anyone seeking development deals in the state's second largest city. The city's ethics code would be strengthened as well. Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy endorsed most of the recommendations, which still face city council review. Jersey City was a major focal point of the massive federal corruption and money laundering sting operation that came to light in July, with the arrests of 44 people. Among those arrested was Leona Beldini, a deputy mayor who also served as Healy's campaign treasurer. Beldini is accused of promising a government informant – Solomon Dwek – to help secure building approvals in exchange for thousands of dollars in under-the-table contributions to Healy's campaign. The mayor is not charged in the case. Beldini, who was suspended without pay, denies any wrongdoing. After the corruption sting, Healy sought an independent audit of the city's development process, retaining the law firm of McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter LLP, to examine records and interview city employees. (Sherman, Star Ledger)

Stile: Senator’s marriage vote fires up liberals

Jeffrey Gardner introduced Democratic Sen. John Girgenti to the modern age of politics, designing and managing the Web site for Girgenti’s 2007 campaign. But Gardner, who lives several blocks from Girgenti in Hawthorne, now views Girgenti as a fossil of the political Old Guard, a forceful and reactionary foe of legalizing same-sex marriages in New Jersey. It’s not just that Girgenti voted against the bill in a Senate committee last week — it was his argument that the issue should be decided directly by voters through a referendum, a position shared by most staunch conservative opponents of gay marriage, like Bergen Republican Sen. Gerald Cardinale. This was no way for a moderate Democrat to behave.

Morning News Digest: December 15, 2009