Morning News Digest: December 4, 2009

Both parties praise Bagger appointment

Assemblyman Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield) said he feels "a little inadequate" next to his fellow Westfield resident, Richard Bagger, who was named today to serve as Chief of Staff to Gov.-elect Christopher Christie. "He has all the skills like your mom and dad teach you, but I didn't get them all," said Bramnick. It was Bagger's retirement from the state Senate to take a promotion at Pfizer that set up the chain of events that put Bramnick in his assembly seat. Then-Assemblyman Thomas Kean Jr. (R-Westfield) was selected to fill the rest of Bagger's unexpired term, leading to Bramnick being tapped to fill Kean's assembly seat. Bramnick, who lunched with Bagger last month and asked his advice on becoming conference leader – a position Bagger once held — argued that Bagger's experience as Assembly Appropriations chairman makes him a perfect fit to help tackle the state budget crisis. "He gets it," said Bramnick. "If you're going to change a process, you really have to understand it." Assembly Minority Leader Alex DeCroce (R-Parsippany) called Bagger "a man of high character, who possesses superior intellect and integrity." (Friedman, PolitickerNJ)

Ocean County Democratic leader admits taking bribes

Al Santoro, the Executive Director of the Ocean County Democratic Party, pleaded guilty today to federal corruption charges, admitting that he took cash payments from a cooperating witness in exchange for promising to introduce him to public officials. Federal prosecutors said that Santoro's prosecution is connected to Operation Bid Rig, which resulted in the arrest of 44 individuals last July. Santoro admitted that he accepted a $5,000 bribe at a Toms River restaurant last May. He said he could help obtain development approvals on a property in Waretown, a section of Ocean Township. The public officials were not named in the criminal complaint against him, although it says Santoro promised to arrange a meeting between the cooperating witness and a State Assemblyman from the ninth district. Daniel Van Pelt, a former Ocean Township Mayor, was among those officials arrested last summer; he subsequently resigned his Assembly seat. Santoro served as Ocean County Democratic Chairman from 1985 to 2002 and serves on the OceanCounty Board of Elections. (Editor, PolitickerNJ)

Bergen Dems consider O'Brien for '10 Freeholder race

Bergen County Freeholder Julie O'Brien, who just narrowly lost re-election, remains in office until next month. But her name has already surfaced as a possible candidate for the seat of Freeholder Tomas Padilla, who will not run again next year. "I've heard people throwing my name out there, too," said O'Brien in a phone interview. "It's something that I have to sit down and discuss with my family. I'm not even off the board yet. It's very new. It's something that I need to weigh out very carefully and talk to my family about, so I'm not even prepared to comment on it." O'Brien came in third on Election Day after Republican Rob Hermansen, who beat her by a little under 1,500 – less than 1%. Party leaders and elected officials have mixed views on the prospect of an O'Brien candidacy. Those who are more supportive note that she already has name recognition, and argue that her loss can be attributed mainly to circumstances beyond her control. Those not warm to the idea see a deep bench of potential candidates and no need to recycle. "I think she has the right of first refusal," said one high ranking source in the party who wants O'Brien to run. Bergen County Democratic Chairman Michael Kasparian, however, said that the selection process has not yet begun. (Friedman, PolitickerNJ)

Tomas Padilla says he won't seek new Bergen freeholder term

Bergen County Freeholder Tomas Padilla confirmed Wednesday that he will not seek another term in next year’s freeholder election. Padilla, a Democrat who also is a captain with the Hackensack Police Department, cited his family as the primary reason for stepping down when his term expires at the end of 2010. “It’s really a matter of what’s best for my family,” he said. “What good is it if you help people, and you’re not there for the people who need you the most? My kids need me more than Bergen.” Padilla also is a contender to become the state’s next U.S. Marshal, a factor he said had nothing to do with his decision to step down as freeholder. Rumors of Padilla’s departure have circulated for at least a week, prompting Republicans and Democrats to speculate about the effect it will have on next year’s freeholder race – the outcome of which will determine which political party controls the board. Padilla’s seat is one of three held by Democrats that will be contested. (Gartland, The Record)

Middlesex County appoints purchasing department member as coordinator of shared services

In a rancorous meeting, Middlesex County freeholders tonight appointed a current member of the purchasing department as coordinator of shared services. By a 6-1 vote, freeholders appointed Marc Boyler, a 20-year employee of the county purchasing department, to the new post, and eliminated the separate Shared Services Department. Freeholder H. James Polos, who had overseen that department since its inception in 2006, criticized the board for eliminating the department. "I have never seen a freeholder board take away a freeholder’s department. I would even go so far as to say to viciously undermine another freeholder," said Polos, who has spearheaded many county interlocal agreement efforts. Deputy Freeholder Director Christopher Rafano said the board was consolidating positions and putting shared services in the purchasing department. Although the purchasing department is overseen by Freeholder Director Stephen "Pete" Dalina, Rafano said Polos could continue working with the coordinator. (Haydon, Star Ledger)

Gov. Corzine nominates chief of staff, Ed McBride, for Superior Court judgeship

Gov. Jon Corzine tonight nominated his chief of staff, Ed McBride, for a Superior Court judgeship. Corzine, who will leave office in January, announced the nomination along with a handful of other candidates for the bench and for Cape May County prosecutor. Outgoing governors typically make a series of appointments in the waning weeks of their term. The nominations must be cleared by the Senate. Corzine called McBride a "remarkably dedicated public servant with tremendous credentials." "He'll make an outstanding judge," Corzine said in a brief interview tonight. Corzine declined to say whether he discussed the nomination with Gov.-elect Chris Christie, who has been critical of Corzine for another lame-duck nomination: Middlesex County Sheriff Joe Spicuzzo to a seat on the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority. Christie has called Spicuzzo "unqualified" and the appointment "partisan," and said the governor should withdraw the nomination. Spicuzzo defends his credentials and says he has no plans to back out. (Megerian/Heininger, Star Ledger)

N.J. supporters, opponents energized after Senate announces consideration of N.J. gay marriage proposal

A rally for gay marriage at the Statehouse turned into a celebration today as a senator announced the historic legislation, thought to be left for dead in committee, will be brought to a vote next week. Cheers erupted as state Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) delivered the decision from the Statehouse steps to proponents who have amped up their efforts recently in response to what they saw as ebbing support for the measure. "On Monday in the judiciary committee, we’re going to vote on marriage equality," Lesniak told dozens of gay marriage supporters. "On Thursday, the full Senate is going to vote on marriage equality. And God be willing, we’ll have 21 votes." The bill has been sitting in the Senate Judiciary Committee as the clock ticked towards the end of Gov. Jon Corzine’s term. Corzine has said he will sign the bill, but Gov.-elect Chris Christie says he will not, leaving the measure’s best chance for passage for the next four years in the current lame-duck Legislature’s hands. The head of the judiciary committee, Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), expects the bill to clear the panel by a slim margin. But lawmakers say supporters of the measure face a tough fight getting the 21 votes needed for the bill to pass the full Senate on Thursday. The bill also must clear the Assembly before reaching Corzine’s desk. It has not even moved out of committee there and no vote has been scheduled. Today’s announcement means the fierce battle between supporters and opponents will be put into overdrive. (Fuchs, Star Ledger)

NJ Governor- elect Christie names key members of administration

In his first major decision since being elected governor, Chris Christie Thursday named four core members of his administration, tapping a former state lawmaker, his campaign manager and two lawyers who served under him in the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Richard Bagger, a 49-year-old Pfizer executive who spent a decade in the Assembly and one year in the state Senate, will serve as chief of staff. Jeff Chiesa, a 44-year-old former federal prosecutor and the executive director of Christie’s transition team, will be chief counsel, the governor’s lawyer. Bill Stepien, Christie’s 31-year-old campaign manager, will be a deputy chief of staff. Kevin O’Dowd, a 37-year-old assistant U.S. Attorney, will be deputy chief counsel. Unlike cabinet members, none of the appointments require confirmation by the state Senate. "If you do your job right, your staff reflects the personality of the governor," Christie said as he introduced his appointees at the Statehouse. "I believe for better or for worse, this staff will reflect my personal style of leadership and decision-making." He said he hopes to name more members of his team — such as cabinet nominees — next week, and may select other former deputies from the federal prosecutor’s office. Christie served as U.S. Attorney from 2002 until last December. (Heininger/Margolin, Star Ledger)

Christie names more senior aides

Getting an early start on his administration, Gov.-elect Christopher J. Christie yesterday named former State Sen. Richard Bagger his chief of staff. Christie, at a Statehouse news conference, also named transition committee director Jeffrey Chiesa his chief counsel."There is no doubt that we have a great deal of work ahead of us when our state is facing an ever-increasing deficit and an unemployment rate we must defeat," Christie said in a statement. Christie, who will be sworn in Jan. 19, said he planned to delegate power to the front-office staff and was not interested in being a micromanager. He chose his campaign manager, Bill Stepien, as deputy chief of staff for legislative affairs, and Kevin O'Dowd, the chief of securities and health-care fraud at the U.S. Attorney's Office, to be deputy counsel. Christie continued his pattern of choosing aides he has a history with, saying it was important to be surrounded by people he knows well. He previously chose Kim Guadagno, a former assistant U.S. attorney, as his lieutenant governor. Chiesa works at the politically connected law firm Wolff & Samson, based in West Orange, N.J. He got his first job as a lawyer when Christie hired him to work at a firm in Cranford, N.J. When Christie went on to become the U.S. attorney, he took Chiesa with him. (Burton, Inquirer)

Beldini: I’m not guilty on any of these charges

Former Jersey City Deputy Mayor Leona Beldini pleaded not guilty to five federal corruption charges yesterday. Beldini appeared before U.S. District Judge Jose Linares on charges of attempted extortion and accepting bribes. The charges, handed up Nov. 19, replace a previous indictment that charged Beldini with accepting $20,000 in illegal campaign contributions from Solomon Dwek, a federal informant posing as a developer, and agreeing to sell – for a 5 percent commission – units in a luxury condo complex Dwek was supposedly building on Garfield Ave. Beldini already pleaded not guilty to that charge. Beldini, who was Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy's campaign treasurer, is accused of accepting bribes to influence "JC Official 1." Healy has acknowledged that he is "JC Official 1" referred to in the indictment. He has not been charged with any crimes. Beldini is charged with two counts of extortion and three counts of accepting bribes. The indictment accuses her of funneling the bribes into Healy's campaign war chest and quotes her telling Dwek at an April 1 meeting that Healy appreciated the way Dwek did business. (Hayes, Jersey Journal)

N.J. borrowing grew by 700 percent over past two decades

New Jersey taxpayers are awash in debt thanks to the spending habits of Trenton politicians — and voters themselves — who have driven up state borrowing by nearly 700 percent over the last two decades. In just the last 10 years alone, state borrowing has more than doubled, with both Democratic and Republicans governors leading the way. As of this year, New Jersey’s tax-supported debt is $33.9 billion, or roughly $3,600 of borrowing for every man, woman and child living in the state. The state’s debt problem, which will be discussed today during a legislative meeting, has grown so large that Governor Corzine proposed selling, leasing or leveraging the New Jersey Turnpike and other state highways last year to help address it. But there was a time when the state didn’t rely so heavily on borrowing. And lawmakers once largely obeyed a clause in the 1947 state constitution that tried to tie the hands of state politicians by making them get voter approval whenever they wanted to borrow money. That was before Trenton politicians learned of — and began exploiting — a loophole that allowed the borrowing of billions of dollars without voter approval by using independent agencies such as the New Jersey Turnpike Authority and New Jersey Economic Development Authority. Since the money is borrowed by the authorities it isn’t technically the type of debt covered by the constitution’s voter-approval clause. (Reitmeyer, Star Ledger)

Port Authority plans $6.3B budget for 2010

Port Authority of New York and New Jersey commissioners introduced a $6.3 billion budget for 2010, which holds the line on bridge and tunnel tolls and PATH rail fare but trims 150 jobs from the payroll. The budget, to be voted on at next Thursday's commissioners meeting, cut the payroll through attrition, by not replacing people who retired or who volunteered to take a severance package, said Steve Coleman, Port Authority spokesman. That reduced the number of authority workers to 6,977, the lowest in 40 years, from 7,127 in 2009. "This has already happened. We are down to that number," Coleman said of the reduction in force. "It (voluntary severance) was offered to everyone." Coleman said the cuts will not have an impact on the traveling public. Other cost-cutting includes a 20 percent reduction in the overtime budget and a 32 percent reduction to pay external consultants. The proposed budget assumes a continued decline in agency revenues, Coleman said. Traffic on bridges and tunnels and ridership on the PATH system has declined due to the economic slowdown. (Higgs, Gannett)

Jersey GOP looks to the future

New Jersey's Republican Party is getting attention from celebrity candidates after Gov.-elect Christopher J. Christie's Nov. 3 victory over Democratic Gov. Corzine. But as the Grand Old Party dreams of future conquests, the question arises: Will it sharpen its criteria for candidates? "They have not been enormously effective in how they handled candidate recruitment in the past, but this is certainly a new era," Montclair State University political scientist Brigid Harrison said. "The fact is, they will have more candidates than in the past." Two celebrities have cast flirtatious glances at the party in recent weeks. Former CNN anchor Lou Dobbs has implied through a spokesman that he could be a Republican U.S. Senate candidate in 2012. Former Eagles offensive tackle and current San Diego Charger Jon Runyan is interested in a U.S. House seat. While Dobbs has long been a reporter and commentator, Runyan has not been involved in politics. Both are speaking through paid representatives at this point, leaving gaping questions about how serious they are and why they would run for office in New Jersey. (Burton, Inquirer)

Top Dems argue over New Jersey spending

With New Jersey facing a $1 billion hole in the current budget and Gov.-elect Chris Christie demanding lawmakers "stop spending" during the current lame-duck session, top Democrats who control both houses of the Legislature are waging a behind-the-scenes standoff over exactly what the state can afford. Some Democrats agree with Christie that there should be no new spending, while others argue for a case-by-case approach on what they say are worthy initiatives Ð some of which will be aired during committee hearings at the Statehouse today. Among the ideas on the table are proposals to provide money for food banks, the victims of Bernie Madoff. drug testing for caretakers of military veterans and the mentally ill, and rehab to keep prison inmates from repeating their crimes. "There's balance in life," said Senate President Richard Codey, D-Essex, who favors some extra spending. "There's people who say, We can't afford the money. There's other people who are saying, No, aren't we a compassionate society?" Codey recently sparred with Senate Budget and Appropriations chair Barbara Buono, D-Middlesex, after she said her panel would not consider any bills today requiring additional cash including measures Codey backs to refund some taxes paid by victims of Madoff's Ponzi scheme and to increase training and drug screening for staff at state psychiatric hospitals and other facilities. (Heininger, Star Ledger)

Court hearings held on elections recounts in Old Bridge, Monroe

Township Council election recounts in both Old Bridge and Monroe were addressed Thursday in separate court hearings. In the Old Bridge race, a recount application submitted on behalf of Eleanor "Debbie" Walker, who was running for the Ward One seat in the Old Bridge Township Council race, was withdrawn. In that Ward One race, 3,371 votes were casts, as Democrat incumbent Robert Volkert won with 1,614 votes over Republican Eleanor Debbie Walker, who received 1,571 votes. "The recount was withdrawn," said Walker, who referred questions to her attorney, Kevin H. Main, with the law firm of Spadaccini Main in Lawrenceville. Calls placed to Main's office were not immediately returned. In Main's letter dated Dec. 2 to Superior Court Judge Judge Heidi Willis Currier, in which he withdrew Walker's petition for a recount or recheck, the attorney gave no reason for withdrawal of the petition, but he did reserve Walker's right to file an election contest petition should circumstances warrant. An election contest is an even more thorough and time-consuming review of the vote. Old Bridge Republican Chair Anita Greenberg referred all inquiries to Main, but did note that the legal discovery process "detected a lot of questionable votes" and that because of time constraints, "they're taking a new direction." In the Monroe recount hearing, a recount was requested in a Township Council race where final tallies showed Democrat Stephen Dalina trailing Republican Michael Lebowitz by only 31 votes — 2,069 to 2,038. (Racz, Gannett) Morning News Digest: December 4, 2009