Morning News Digest: December 17, 2009

Sweeney, Buzichelli defend Gloucester Dem Chairman

Two top Democrats from Gloucester County today defended Democratic County Chairman Michael Angelini, questioning the timing and motivation of a report by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) that lays out a slew of alleged pension abuses. Senate Majority Leader Stephen Sweeney (D-West Deptford) and Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-Paulsboro) wondered aloud why Angelini was singled out for a 62-page report that took two years to compile even though the report says that he was not the only professional service provider to take advantage of the system. "What really surprised me is the fact that the Inspector General did a single report – a single one. Why did they take two years to do one report? I'm curious about that," said Sweeney. "They weren't capable of doing more than one attorney?" The OIG report, released yesterday, laid out in painstaking detail how Angelini accrued a pension worth over $100,000 through holding 12 public jobs over the last 27 years. In several cases, Angelini was paid a salary although other attorneys from his law firm showed up to most legal proceedings that required attendance. The OIG started to investigate Angelini after it checked out the internal controls of the South Jersey Transportation Authority (SJTA) – a function the office was tasked with upon its creation by Acting Gov. Richard Codey's 2004 executive order – and "identified issues concerning SJTA's agreements" with Sweeney and his firm. Although he did not mention anyone by name, Sweeney said that arrangements similar to Angelini's were common practice until 2007, when the legislature almost unanimously passed a bill explicitly barring independent contractors from participating in the public pension system. The inspector general's report characterized the bill as "clarifying" the law, but Sweeny and Burzichelli called it a wholesale change. (Friedman, PolitickerNJ)

Haines turns down judgeship

State Sen. Phil Haines (R-Springfield) finally got official word yesterday that Gov. Jon Corzine plans to nominate him as a superior court judge. Corzine sent a notice of intent about Haines' nomination to the Secretary of the Senate yesterday, getting the ball rolling on a nomination that has been talked about since June. Only now, Haines doesn't want it – at least not from Corzine. In a letter he wrote today to Corzine and Senate President Richard Codey (D-Roseland), Haines politely declined the offer, holding that he does not want to be part of Corzine's controversial push through of over 180 lame duck appointees and nominees. Wrote Haines: "I am writing today to respectfully ask that you remove my name from consideration for a judgeship at this time. While I am humbled by this nomination to the bench and thank both of you for this high honor, I am concerned by the manner in which this and other last minute nominations and appointments are being handled in Trenton. It has long been my strongly-held personal belief that the incoming governor should not be handcuffed with lame duck political appointments that are not his own. While it has always been and continues to be a lifelong dream of mine to become a judge, I cannot in good faith accept a nomination that conflicts with my beliefs." Had Corzine nominated Haines before the election, it would have been uncontroversial and likely would have sailed through the senate confirmation vote. But Corzine's last minute appointments and nominations have angered Gov.-elect Chris Christie, and Republicans have threatened to hold them up when possible. To hear Republicans tell it, Haines is sacrificing his "lifelong dream" on principle. But Democrats consider it political gamesmanship. (Friedman, PolitickerNJ)

Cryan criticizes choice of Guadagno for secretary of state

Democratic State Chairman Joseph Cryan today objected to Gov.-elect Chris Christie’s choice of Lt. Gov-elect Kim Guadagno as his secretary of state, which is expected to be announced at a Trenton press conference this afternoon. Cryan said that the appointment could create a conflict of interest, since Guadagno would serve as the state’s top elections officer while facing the prospect of having her ticket reelected in 2013. “Lt.-Gov.-elect Kim Guadagno is highly qualified to manage the many varied responsibilities required of the Secretary of State,” said Cryan (D-Union), who is also an assemblyman. “However, as one of the main functions of the Secretary of State is as the chief elections officer in New Jersey, there would be an apparent conflict of interest if a candidate seeking public office, such as the Lt. Gov., were to hold the position. To ensure the fairness and integrity of our elections it is vital that the person in charge of our state’s election process does not have a vested personal interest in the results.” Last April, Essex County Clerk Christopher Durkin, a Democrat, wrote an Op-Ed for that suggested that the new Lt. Governor also serve as the Secretary of State. "We should, at the very least, transfer the functions of the Secretary of State to the newly-elected lieutenant governor," Durkin wrote. A spokeswoman for Christie could not immediately be reached for comment. (Friedman, PolitickerNJ)

N.J. Lieutenant Gov.-elect Guadagno tapped to serve as secretary of state

New Jersey created the office of lieutenant governor as a backup job with an empty slate. Today, Kim Guadagno started filling in the blanks. Guadagno, set to become New Jersey’s first lieutenant governor when she’ll be sworn in Jan. 19 alongside Gov.-elect Chris Christie, will oversee economic development, tourism, elections, arts and cultural programs, and a swath of other areas as Christie’s secretary of state. "It’s a very nice synergy," Guadagno said at a Statehouse news conference. "It’s not a big leap of faith to look to the secretary of state’s office as a place for the lieutenant governor." Guadagno will also fill in for Christie when he is out of state or otherwise unable to serve, replacing the current system where the Senate President is first in the line of succession. "She will continue to be, as she is now, a full partner of mine in every decision of governance that we make," Christie said. "We want her at a moment’s notice to be prepared to take over the governorship if need be." Guadagno will be paid $141,000 a year. Her nomination is not subject to state Senate approval. While the selection of Guadagno was mostly cheered today, Democrats objected to her role in certifying election results, given she is a Republican elected official who may run for office again in the future. The next statewide election is in 2012, when Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) — a political nemesis of Christie — is expected to seek re-election. "It clearly raises the potential for a conflict, and hopefully they’re proactive in dealing with it," said Democratic state chairman Joseph Cryan, who called Guadagno "highly qualified." Christi said flatly: "There is no conflict." Arts groups, reeling from a freeze in state aid, reacted with cautious optimism to the choice of Guadagno, a 50-year-old former federal prosecutor who is now Monmouth County sheriff. (Heininger, Star Ledger)

Gov. Corzine, Gov.-elect Christie continue war of words over lame-duck appointments

Gov. Jon Corzine and Gov.-elect Chris Christie today ratcheted up their clash over dozens of last-minute nominations to state boards and authorities. Although Corzine defended his right to nominate officials in the waning days of his term — "People are elected for four years," he said — Christie called the moves a "de facto … extension of the Corzine administration." The flareup caused at least one senator to withdraw his name today from consideration for a judgeship. The incoming governor, who takes office Jan. 19, is threatening to have Republican senators block the nominations with senatorial courtesy, an unofficial process in which senators can hold up nominations in their home district. "The people of the state of New Jersey voted for a change on Nov. 3 and they expected that that change would begin on Jan. 19," Christie said. "But if you put a whole bunch of people on boards and authorities and commissions who are making policies … that change can be thwarted and that’s not what people voted for." The controversy began Dec. 3 when Corzine nominated his chief of staff, Ed McBride, for a Superior Court judgeship. In total, he has nominated 60 people for positions since losing his bid for a second term, and is expected to name more. Using senatorial courtesy — a practice Christie has criticized in the past — could stall Corzine’s efforts. Chris Eilert, a spokesman for Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), chairman of the upper house’s judiciary committee, said only those with local approval will get hearings. Senate President Richard Codey (D-Essex) said the transition has been nastier than others in recent memory. "I’m disappointed that they haven’t been able to reach a reasonable compromise at this point," he said. "I’ve been here a long time and I’ve never seen this happen before." (Heininger/Margolin, Star Ledger)

Mulshine: Obama could be related to great conservative Buffett

The New York Times reports that President Obama may be distantly related to financier Warren Buffett. That means he's also related to one of the great conservative leaders of the 20th century. That's not Warren, who has been a bit liberal of late. It's his late father Howard, who represented Nebraska in Congress and who was one of the last true conservatives in the Republican Party, which has since been taken over by the big-government types often termed "neo" conservatives. Here is a column I did on him following a concert in 2007 by that other famous guy named Buffett: Jimmy Buffett played two concerts in New Jersey last week. At the one in Camden Tuesday night, I spotted several people wearing T-shirts bearing the slogan "Buffett for President." I doubt they were aware that there was once a Buffett who could have been a serious contender for the White House. Only an expert in political trivia would know such a thing. And sure enough, before long I ran into Joe Roberts, a trivia expert who also has a day job as speaker of the New Jersey Assembly. "Who was Howard Buffett?" I asked him when I ran into him at the encampment of the South Jersey Parrotheads. "He was Warren Buffett's father," said Roberts, one of the few people you will ever meet who is up on all the Buffetts. Roberts is perhaps the most prominent Jimmy Buffett fan in New Jersey. And he's also a fan of financier Warren Buffett. Roberts told me that he owned shares in Berkshire Hathaway, the firm made famous by finance whiz Warren, and even got to talk with the great man on occasion. As for me, I once got to talk to Jimmy. In the spring of 2000, we discussed the upcoming presidential election. Jimmy was not a fan of George W. Bush. He was not a fan of government in general. "Most people want to be left alone," he said. "They want government out of their lives." (Mulshine, Star Ledger)

Stile: Corzine adds fuel to flap over patronage

Governor Corzine's dithering is largely to blame for sparking a bitter, public flap over patronage jobs with his soon-to-be Republican successor. But a Corzine flip-flop also may have fueled the furor. The issue escalated after Corzine pressed ahead with Middlesex County Sheriff Joseph Spicuzzo's nomination to the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, even though Corzine assured Christie's transition team shortly after the election that the nomination was being scuttled, three sources with knowledge of the negotiations said. Christie and his transition team were caught off guard on Nov. 23, when the nomination was posted for a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee. The nomination won enough votes to clear the committee, but a week later Christie blasted Spicuzzo as "probably the singular most unqualified candidate for the sports authority you could find." The Spicuzzo reversal, sources said, only fed the mounting confusion and distrust with Corzine, who also signaled that he planned to park only a modest number of loyalists in government posts — not the 180-person backlog that Corzine submitted this week, including nominations to high-profile posts on the Port Authority and the Board of Public Utilities, and others that could shape public policy during Christie's term in office. Christie would not comment on the Spicuzzo flap on Wednesday, but he said Corzine's lame-duck patronage push would effectively extend Corzine's influence after he formally leaves office on Jan. 19. Some Corzine appointees could serve on posts throughout Christie's four-year term and beyond. He complained that it will hamper his ability to govern. (Stile/Brennan, The Record)

N.J.'s Christie says sports authority in 'bad shape'

The New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority “is in bad shape,” Governor-elect Chris Christie said Tuesday, and he criticized Governor Corzine for making a pair of nominations to the agency that runs the Meadowlands Sports Complex. Christie called Corzine's decision to nominate dozens of people to various state boards and commissions a way of “extending the Corzine administration” well into the new governor's first term. “My view is he lost the right to make policy on Nov. 3,” Christie told The Record's editorial board. The nominations include Carl Goldberg, the sports authority chairman who has been a major contributor to the state Democratic Party. Christie said he is concerned about the future of the agency that is charged with managing the development of the troubled Xanadu entertainment complex. Christie said it is important for his administration to establish its own policies and to determine the viability of Xanadu and the state's two sports arenas — Prudential Center and Izod Center. Christie said he is not going to delay the inevitable by allowing projects and existing facilities to “bleed the sports authority of money, because the sports authority is in bad shape.” Goldberg, from Randolph, was nominated by Corzine for a third four-year term. Even if Goldberg is approved by the Senate, a Republican is expected to be selected as chairman early in 2010. “I know Carl,” Christie said. “Carl and I have to sit and talk.” Steven Plofker — a prominent Montclair real estate developer and leading Democratic Party donor — also has been nominated by Corzine for a seat on the sports authority board. Plofker gave more than $100,000 to Democratic causes in 2008, with about three-quarters of that money going to three major progressive committees — Democratic White House Victory Fund, ActBlue, and Committee for Change. His $77,000 in contributions was matched by Plofker's wife, renowned cosmetics executive Bobbi Brown-Plofker. (Brennan/Davis, The Record)

Albright: Hoboken, Harrison wave'bye with big $

G ov. Richard J. Hughes policy decision in 1968 to allow municipal employees to unionize still bears bitter fruit for local property taxpayers. Sanctioned through the Public Employment Relations Commission, its impact was shown at its worst in the Dec. 1 report by the State Commission of Investigation on "waste and abuse" in employee compensation and benefits; Harrison and Hoboken are among the most notorious examples. In 2005, Harrison gave a $305,000 payout to former Police Chief John Trucillo for unused sick and vacation time. Between 2004 and 2009, 19 Harrison firefighters and civilians were paid nearly $860,000 for accumulated sick leave and $498,000 for unused vacation. The town's former town clerk, Marion Borek, received $241,000 for unused sick leave. Hoboken stung its taxpayers with more than $7.3 million for retiring employees in exchange for accrued sick leave between 2004 and 2009, when Hoboken laid off workers, froze hiring, cut services and boosted property taxes by nearly 80 percent. Former Hoboken Police Chief Carmen LaBruno received a $350,000 payout. The SCI made seven proposals to curb abuses. Overdue. (Albright, Jersey Journal) Morning News Digest: December 17, 2009