Morning News Digest: December 3, 2009

Perhaps as payback, maybe to weaken his statewide standing, GOP mulls challenge to Pallone

A 20-year incumbent with $4 million cash on hand – by far the largest war chest of the state's congressional delegation – Pallone is the powerful chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Health subcommittee. He serves in the Democratic leadership (as communications chair of the Democratic Policy Committee). Democrats have a near 3-1 registration edge in his district, although GOP Gov.-elect Christopher Christie carried it last month. And he's considered a leading contender for the United States Senate, should Democrats be in need of a candidate anytime soon. Republicans would now like to take Pallone down a peg, or at least force him to spend some of that war chest. "It's still early. We're not at the resource allocation point, but given the way that the shore went for Christie, and given the national attitude towards Democrats in DC, it's really anyone's ballgame," said Joe Sciarrino, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC). Pallone's home county of Monmouth produced a massive plurality for Christie. But Pallone's environmental record on shore issues makes him popular in a county where Gov. Jon Corzine was toxic. Republican lobbyist Jeff Michaels, chief of staff to former Acting Governor Donald DiFrancesco, openly mused about whether Pallone is suddenly vulnerable in a column for this Web site. (Friedman, PolitickerNJ)

Codey willing to consider new way to fill U.S. Senate vacancies, but won't back McKeon plan

If the legislature is going to change the way the governor appoints U.S. senators in the event of a vacancy during the lame duck session, it will have to be tweaked the current legislation. Outgoing Senate President Richard Codey (D-Roseland) said today that he will not post a bill identical to the one authored by his running mate, Assemblyman John McKeon (D-West Orange). Instead, he would prefer a compromise that would give the governor a little more leeway in filling vacancies, but less than he currently enjoys. McKeon's bill, which has already been referred to the Assembly State Government Committee, would do away with the option of calling a special election and force the governor to appoint a senator from the same political party as the senator who just left the seat. Current state law allows the governor to appoint anyone to the seat, regardless of party. Asked about the bill yesterday, Republican Gov-elect Christopher Christie called it "garbage" and asked that Codey not post it and Gov. Jon Corzine not sign it. (Friedman, PolitickerNJ)

Another Jersey City pol pleads guilty to corruption charges

Unsuccessful Jersey City council candidate Mike Manzo pleaded guilty today to accepting a $5,000 bribe from an FBI informant posing as a developer. Manzo, a 53-year-old former arson investigator with the Jersey City Fire Department, admitted taking the money in exchange for helping the informant, Solomon Dwek, win approvals for a purported Garfield Avenue development project if he won a seat on the council. Manzo, who is not related to brothers Louis and Ronald Manzo – both of whom were arrested on corruption charges in the same July sting – will forfeit the $5,000 bribe and likely faces between 10 and 16 months in federal prison. (Friedman, PolitickerNJ)

N.J. mail-in votes may be vulnerable to election-fraud schemes

For generations, partisans looking to rig elections crowded polling places to cast ballots in the names of deceased voters who remained on the rolls. Then, donning the identities of others among the dearly departed, they’d do it again in some different precinct. Reforms over the years have dramatically reduced the dead vote, along with other election-stealing gambits, but fraud remains part of the landscape. These days, the vehicle of choice is the absentee ballot, now known officially in New Jersey as the mail-in vote. At a time when the state is pushing to expand the use of mail-in votes in all elections, a widening voting scandal in Essex County points to vulnerabilities that have been exploited in New Jersey and elsewhere, leading to stolen votes, arrests and, in a few cases, overturned elections. "It’s pretty well documented that widespread fraud no longer occurs in the polling place, but the mechanism of the absentee ballot is one where, if you’re determined, the very structure makes it possible to do it," said Ingrid Reed, director of the New Jersey Project at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics. (Mueller, Star Ledger)

NJ Gov- elect, US Attorney’s Office get subpoenas

New Jersey's governor-elect has been subpoenaed to testify in the trial of a blogger accused of threatening judges and lawmakers in two states. Gov.-elect Chris Christie, the former U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, and the U.S. Attorney's Office in Newark were served this week on behalf of blogger Hal Turner. Turner was arrested at his New Jersey home in June. Authorities said he posted threats against Connecticut legislators and three federal judges in Illinois. Turner's attorney claims Christie knew Turner was working for the FBI and issued a letter declining to prosecute him. Christie says he was served at his home Tuesday morning. He said he forwarded the subpoena to the U.S. Justice Department and will follow its advice on how to proceed. (AP)

Editorial: How N.J. towns give away your money in local government compensation abuse

In Parsippany, when a cop gets married, there’s no need to send a gift. Taxpayers already have. The township’s police officers get eight days of paid leave to get hitched, worth on average about $3,000. Which leaves us wondering: What do they get for just renewing their vows? The get-hitched-and-get-away-for-a-week-on-us provision — among dozens of examples of fiscal irresponsibility — was revealed in an extensive and infuriating report released Tuesday by the State Commission of Investigation. The timing couldn’t have been more explosive. With the state teetering on the brink of insolvency, the report proved what most residents already knew: While taxpayers are suffering layoffs and pay cuts and furloughs and struggling to pay skyrocketing property tax bills, some public employees are living large. Maybe that’s not a news flash. New Jerseyans always have known municipal waste is everywhere. But they didn’t know how much of it is hidden in the fine print of public employee contracts. While negotiations with state union workers grab headlines, most municipal pacts escape scrutiny. And this is what happens. (Star Ledger)

N.J. Gov.-elect Christie to re-evaluate all future borrowing

Gov.-elect Chris Christie said today he will re-evaluate all planned borrowing for the coming year now that a state report says New Jersey owes nearly $34 billion and counting. "It’s awful," Christie said of the state’s debt burden after a meeting with school superintendents in North Brunswick. Christie, who defeated Gov. Jon Corzine last month after preaching a conservative message during the campaign season, said he will bring a new approach to borrowing when he takes office in January. "Any projections of future borrowing that is scheduled to happen after Jan. 19, if you’re the investment bank on that, don’t spend the fees yet," he said. "We’re going to re-evaluate everything and make sure that we have folks look at it and tell me whether or not this is something that is absolutely necessary in light of that burgeoning debt problem." The state expects to borrow $200 million in general obligation bonds this budget year and another $200 million for each of the next two years, according to a report prepared by the state Department of Treasury to be presented to lawmakers tomorrow. (Reitmeyer, Star Ledger)

Millionaire businessman Peter Pantoliano launches campaign for Newark council seat

Ironbound millionaire businessman Peter Pantoliano opened his campaign for Newark’s East Ward council seat with a barrage of accusations against 10-year incumbent Augusto Amador, in a race that promises to be a gritty battle between the two camps. "The politician that has been governing us in the East Ward has failed the East Ward," Pantoliano said to a packed dining hall at the Sport Club Portuguese this week. "My goal is to put public service ahead of self service." Pantoliano, 50, was born in Hoboken and raised in North Bergen. He attended St. Peter’s University where he received a master’s degree in business administration. He amassed several million dollars by opening a series of optical retail outlets throughout northern New Jersey. Tonight, he said he would be willing to use that fortune in his bid for city council. "I don’t like to show my hand," Pantoliano said, but added he could lend his campaign, "several million" if required. Pantoliano’s fund raising as of October had garnered $9,093 in donations compared to Amador’s $326,000. (Giambusso, Star Ledger)

Stile: Blanco should not try acting like Rivera

Dr. Alex Blanco, the Passaic mayor, is getting weary of bumping into Sammy Rivera's ghost. It's gotten to the point where Blanco can't even bask in the glow of a "dinner-dance" held in his honor without being haunted by his bribe-pocketing predecessor. In the lavish palazzo ballroom of The Venetian in Garfield, Blanco complained how his critics are casting his every move these days as a continuation of the Rivera regime. "If I go the bathroom, then [Rivera] went to the same bathroom," Blanco said Tuesday night in the marble-floored rotunda, struggling to find an extreme example to illustrate his point. Blanco's irritation is understandable — he is not Rivera's handpicked protégé. He's a podiatrist without much political experience beyond a stint on the school board. Watching him grope for a sound bite, surrounded by his advisers, Blanco strikes me as an amiable, ambitious neophyte — not a politician on the take. But if Blanco, in his 13th month as mayor, doesn't like the Rivera comparisons, then he would do well to avoid acting like him — at least when it comes to planning political soirées. Tuesday's "First Annual Dinner Dance" at the "suggested" $125 per ticket is a less-menacing descendant of a dark New Jersey political tradition — the workplace shakedown. (Stile, The Record)

Essex County officials express support for freeholder accused in voter-fraud investigation

Essex County Freeholder Samuel Gonzalez, the highest ranking official ensnared in a voter-fraud investigation, was absent today as his colleagues’ holiday party went into full swing at the ornate Hall of Records. But there was no shortage of his admirers. Joseph DiVincenzo Jr., the Essex County executive, said he spoke to Gonzalez shortly after his Tuesday indictment on charges of conspiracy and ballot fraud and wouldn’t think of asking him to resign. "I told him I support him. I trust him," DiVincenzo said. "There’s a process here. Let the process start. Everybody has their day in court, and we’ll see what happens. If it was official misconduct, it would be different. This is not." Blonnie Watson, the freeholder president, sounded a similar note. "I just know him as a fine young man," she said after dancing with Sheriff Armando Fontoura to "Run, Run Rudolph." "Whatever is going to happen. justice will take its course, and I believe in the justice system." (Read, Star Ledger)

Federal judge in Newark denies GOP request to end 28-year-old order to prevent voter intimidation

A federal judge in Newark has denied a request by the Republican National Committee to dissolve a 28-year-old court order designed to prevent intimidation of minority voters. In a 79-page ruling issued Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Dickinson Debevoise said preventing voter suppression outweighs the potential danger posed by the types of voter fraud that Republicans say the measure prevents them from blocking. “Voter intimidation presents an ongoing threat to the participation of minority individuals in the political process,” Debevoise wrote. But the judge did modify the order, or consent decree, to loosen restrictions on Republicans and set a 2017 deadline for the measure to expire. The decree stems from the 1981 New Jersey gubernatorial election when Republicans mounted a “ballot security” program that included stationing armed off-duty police and sheriffs officers near polling places in minority neighborhoods. Democrats filed a lawsuit claiming the tactics violated the Voting Rights Act. (Ryan, Star Ledger)

Assembly candidate election spending drops to $15.8 M

Assembly candidates spent $15.8 million in the run-up to last month’s election, a 30 percent drop from four years ago, elections officials said today. "As has been noted all along, the impact of the pay-to-play reforms and the economy is being felt at every level, including the legislative level," said Jeffrey Brindle, executive director of the Election Law Enforcement Commission. Democrats spent more than twice as much as Republicans — $11.2 million compared with $4.6 million. Each party has about $1 million left over from their campaigns. The Democrats also lost only one Assembly seat this year and will start the next legislative session with a 47-to-33 majority. The Democratic Party pumped the most money into a handful of battleground areas. It spent almost $1.7 million in District 1, a heavily Republican region, to re-elect Assemblymen Nelson Albano and Matt Milam (both D-Cumberland). Another $754,270 was spent in District 14, where 3 Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex) and Wayne DeAngelo (D-Mercer) held onto their seats, and $739,905 in District 36, where Frederick Scalera (D-Essex) and Gary Schaer (D-Passaic) retained their seats. (Megerian, Star Ledger)

NJ sports authority nominee not upset by Christie’s criticism

A nominee for the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority board on Wednesday shrugged off a blistering attack on his qualifications by Governor-elect Chris Christie. Middlesex County Sheriff Joseph Spicuzzo credited what he said was his “thick skin” for not being upset after Christie on Tuesday called him “probably the singular most unqualified candidate for the sports authority that you could find.” “He’s a Republican governor reacting to a Democratic appointee, and naturally he has his thoughts,” Spicuzzo said. Both Christie and state Sen. Gerald Cardinale, R-Demarest, have criticized Spicuzzo for telling a Senate committee last week that Xanadu — located in southern Bergen County — “would bring jobs to Middlesex County taxpayers.” “I had a stroke, and I made a mistake by not saying that Xanadu would help workers all over the state,” Spicuzzo said. “That’s what I meant to say.” Spicuzzo also said it was not significant that he could not explain to the committee what a “PSL” was. A PSL is a controversial “personal seat license” fee that the Giants and Jets are charging to season ticket holders for the right to buy seats at the new $1.6 billion Meadowlands stadium. (Brennan, The Record)

Chiappone, wife arraigned

Assemblyman Anthony Chiappone of Bayonne and his wife Diane pleaded not guilty at their arraignment yesterday on charges they pocketed paychecks issued to legislative aides. "Today was just a day to affirm my innocence and enter a plea of not guilty," Chiappone, 51, said last night. "It was a step toward my vindication and a resolution of this matter. I'm at work in the Assembly. I'm eager to put this behind me and move on." In August, a grand jury indicted the Chiappones on two counts of official misconduct, theft by deception, tampering with public records or information, falsifying or tampering of records, and concealment of contributions or expenditures. Official misconduct is the most serious charge and each count carries a possible sentence of up to 10 years in prison upon conviction. The couple appeared yesterday before Superior Court Judge Edward M. Neafsey in the Mercer County Courthouse. The Democratic assemblyman and his wife are scheduled to appear in court on Feb. 9 for a pretrial hearing. Chiappone said he expects his attorney to file a motion for dismissal at the February hearing. (Conte, Jersey Journal)

Albright: $3 here, $3 there will aid the homeless

It's called the Homeless Trust Fund Act – it could be called the Hope and Help Act. That's what's offered in a bill signed Sept. 8 by Gov. Jon S. Corzine, of Hoboken, permitting the 21 county freeholder boards to create the fund based on a $3 surcharge on each county recording fee. The Hudson County Clerk's Office plans to move forward by March. Union and Passaic counties have also authorized setting up the fund. At least a few hundred thousand dollars could be raised annually in the Hudson Clerk's Office. The Office of Legislative Services estimated millions could be raised from the annual combined county revenues. The Corporation of Supportive Housing, a nonprofit group, counted 12,031 homeless statewide last Jan. 28 – including 730 men, women and children in Hudson. The funds would pay for acquisition or rehabilitation of housing, rental assistance vouchers, support services for homeless families and individuals, and prevention services. The bill was co-sponsored by state Sen. Sandra B. Cunningham; D-Jersey City, state Sen. Brian Stack, D-Union City; and state Assemblywoman Caridad Rodriguez, D-West New York. Who says you have to be cynical all the time? (Albright, Jersey Journal)

Christie getting educated on school issues

The state's next governor visited North Brunswick Township High School Wednesday for a lesson on the challenges faced by the state's educators. Gov.-elect Chris Christie and Lt. Gov.-elect Kim Guadagno met with 11 superintendents from across the state to discuss problems with and solutions for the state's education system. The meeting was closed to the media, but Christie spoke with reporters afterward and said the fiscal challenges faced by school districts have wide-ranging effects. "The challenges we face both fiscally and from an educational perspective in New Jersey are tied together,'' Christie said. "And that was my concept and Kim's concept walking into the meeting, and what we heard from the group of superintendents just further reinforces that, that everyone in the education community understands that real change needs to happen in the state.'' Christie said he wants to work with educators to fix the problems, but he said he would have little patience with school administrators who don't want to be part of the solution. "The truth is we are in awful shape and everyone's going to have to step up to the plate to help solve the problem, and superintendents are going to have to be part of that solution,'' he said. Christie did not go into detail about the problems or suggestions voiced by the superintendents, saying he wanted them to be free to offer confidential advice. (Kaltwasser, Gannett) Morning News Digest: December 3, 2009