Morning News Digest: January 29, 2010

FBI informant Solomon Dwek’s credibility is key to N.J. corruption trials

There was nothing threatening about the defense lawyer’s behavior or appearance — well, maybe the brown and red bow tie — butSolomon Dwek, the unlikely scourge of political corruption in New Jersey, seemed to shrink physically when Brian Neary approached him in court Thursday. Within minutes, Neary, who wasn’t even cross-examining Dwek, managed to provoke the key government witness and self-admitted career criminal into saying something borderline stupid, something that could not possibly help federal prosecutors in the first of the Hudson County corruption trials. Couldn’t help the prosecution — but maybe won’t help the defense all that much either. What Dwek said was: “I was there — and I performed.” “You performed,” Neary flatly replied and there was something like a roll of his eyes in his voice. The jury couldn’t miss it. It got so bad that Judge Jose Linares ordered Neary away from the witness stand like a ref chasing a boxer to a neutral corner. Dwek regained his composure but he just wasn’t the same after that. Linares, presiding over the bribery and conspiracy trial of a former Jersey City deputy mayor, may have some private regrets about letting Neary question Dwek so early in the government witness’s testimony, especially in front of the jury. After that, he called all the lawyers into a session away from the jury to work out a legal issue. Neary, representing Leona Beldini, lost the effort to keep video and audio recordings of Dwek out of evidence, but he demonstrated the government’s most important witness in what could be dozens of future trials is shaky. Prosecutor Sandra Moser was questioning Dwek and then asked the judge to admit computer disks with the recordings into evidence. Neary asked for a “voir dire” — the right to question the witness about the material. Linares agreed but warned Neary this was “not cross examination.” Neary got into a debate with Dwek about how the witness knew that what was on the disks exactly matched what was on original recording devices used to snag a gaggle of Hudson County politicians, including Beldini. That’s when Dwek got testy and talked about how he was “there” and “performed.” “They’re real,” he said of the recordings, exposing a low threshold for tolerating defense lawyers. (Braun, Star Ledger)

Furia says election for Burlco Dem chair will be in June, not February  

Acting Burlington County Democratic Chairwoman Alice Furia has scrubbed plans for the county to hold an election for interim chairman on February 4 and instead plans to finish out her term in June. Furia, who said she based her decision on legal advice from attorney David Sufrin, made the announcement in a letter to county committee members dated Tuesday. “When something happens to the president, the vice president steps in. They don’t have a new election for president, and it’s the same way with our bylaws,” she said. Furia had originally intended to hold on to the post until June, but Assemblyman Herb Conaway (D-Delanco), who wants to run for the chairmanship, narrowly pushed through a resolution at a county committee meeting earlier this month that scheduled an election for interim chairman in February. Soon after, Lumberton Democratic Chairman Chris Fifis announced dropped his bid for the top party post, instead throwing his support behind Riverside Democratic Chairman Gary Haman. The party, which gained ground in the 2008 election by electing two freeholders, was thrown into turmoil after former chairman Rick Perr resigned in the wake of revelations about his involvement with a controversial political action committee. Conaway, who has been publicly feuding with Furia, could not immediately be reached for comment. (Friedman, PolitickerNJ)

N.J. Gov. Chris Christie meets with cabinet for first time

Conspicuously absent from today’s “Chamber Train,” Gov. Chris Christie instead formally huddled with his cabinet for the first time in his young administration. The governor gathered more than two dozen cabinet members and senior staffers in a conference room in the Statehouse with reporters looking on. They then held a closed-door meeting as Christie said, “We have some work to do.” Christie has said he skipped the annual New Jersey Chamber of Commerce trek to Washington, D.C. — usually a coming-out party for a new governor — because he is too busy and the trip is not “a productive use of my administration’s time.” He would not answer questions about his absence today, even as Democrats said it was unproductive for Christie to exact revenge on the business group that opposed the Republican during the campaign. Instead, Christie did not mention the train as he gave cabinet members a primer on his expectations for open discussion and transparent governing. He said cabinet heads should speak freely on subjects aside from their areas of expertise. “No one around the state has a monopoly on good ideas, and we have some big problems to deal with,” the governor said. “One of the things the transition reports pointed out very clearly is much of the state government has been dysfunctional and siloed — people not talking to each other, not working with each other, not understanding how your responsibilities and your actions or inaction affects other areas of government, other areas of life of people in New Jersey.” Christie told the cabinet they would be a “working group” that meets “a lot more regularly than a lot of my predecessors” gathered their department heads. “We’re going to do that because there’s a lot of good minds in this room,” he said. After naming his health commissioner on Wednesday, Christie has nominated all cabinet officials except for the commissioner of the Department of Children and Families. Christie has said he is still deciding how to handle pending appointments the Public Advocate and Motor Vehicle Commission, None of the nominees has yet been approved by the state Senate. (Heininger, Star Ledger)

N.J. Sen. Lesniak blasts Gov. Christie on sports betting

A state senator who is leading an effort to make sports betting legal in Atlantic City casinos on Thursday blasted Governor Christie’s transition report on sports and gaming. Ray Lesniak, D-Union, objected to a recommendation in the transition committee report to “not waste state money to pursue intrastate Internet wagering or sports betting until federal laws change.” Lesniak urged Christie to ignore the report, which was made public last week, calling it “dangerous” and “not worth the paper it’s printed on” because of the one-sentence dismissal of sports betting. Since 1992, only four states — Nevada, Delaware, Montana, and Oregon — have been permitted under federal law to offer wagering on college or professional team sports, such as football and basketball. Lesniak, an attorney and member of the Senate since 1983, has filed a federal lawsuit to overturn the ban. He said that by not pursuing sports wagering the state is passing up more than $100 million in annual tax revenues and more than $500 million for the state’s struggling casino industry. Some of the new revenue could be used to help the state’s ailing horseracing industry, he said. Because Lesniak’s law firm is handling the lawsuit for free, Lesniak said it would be “the height of irresponsibility” for the Christie administration not to join in the action. The case has been delayed because a plaintiff, former Gov. Jon Corzine lost his reelection bid in November. Lesniak said Christie would have until mid-March to join the suit. “The only thing we’re asking for is that the state support our efforts by joining as a plaintiff,” Lesniak said. “That would give legal standing to our strongest constitutional argument, which is that the federal ban violates the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.” Lesniak questioned the fact that several casino industry leaders — including a Harrah’s vice president — participated in creating the report’s committee, which was authored by former New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority Chairman Jon Hanson. Lesniak added that it was “self-serving” for the Harrah’s official to be part of a report supporting a continuing ban on sports betting in New Jersey, because the company’s Las Vegas properties benefit from the state’s national monopoly on that activity. Hanson declined to comment. (Brennan, The Record)

N.J. Chamber train less of a schmooze-fest this year

A lot of the usual schmooze was missing from New Jersey’s fabled “schmooze cruise” Thursday. The annual New Jersey Chamber of Commerce train ride to Washington rumbled down the Northeast Corridor for the 73rd time, but many of the movers and shakers that attract the crowds — most notably the governor and his cabinet members — stayed back in Trenton. The chartered train — a tradition that survived wars, a 60 Minutes expose and criticism that it gives business lobbies unfair access to government officials — drew only 750 riders, less than half what it was in its hey-day. There were no congested aisles, no quick escapes to the space between cars for some air and – most noticeably – no lines in the bar cars. The reasons for the sparse crowds: a bad economy and a boycotting governor. Business leaders say with companies in belt-tightening mode, the trip and its $560 cost ($660 for non-chamber members) has less luster. And Gov. Chris Christie, who has been at odds with the chamber because of what he and his inner circle viewed as a calculated decision by the organization to snub him during the campaign, stayed in Trenton and ordered members of his administration to sit out the trip. Back at the Statehouse, he held his first cabinet meeting. “The governor’s comments are part of that, but the economy is a bigger factor than anything else,” said Chamber Chairman Dennis Bone, the president of Verizon New Jersey. “We are all restricting travel. This is certainly a casualty.” The annual trip – known as the “Walk to Washington” because riders are constantly moving through the chartered Amtrak – started in Newark with the usual breakfast sendoff and ended in D.C. with a greeting sign courtesy of Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.). In Trenton, Christie would not answer reporters’ questions about the train. He convened his first Cabinet meeting and talked about “transparent” government and the need to work together. On the train, Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), the new Democratic state chairman, said it was unproductive for Christie to be publicly at odds with the Chamber. “The Chamber of Commerce has always been an organization whose goal is to make sure people have jobs and to improve the economy of the state,” he said. “When you’re the governor you certainly have the ability to exact revenge, but the question that should be asked is, is that a prudent course?” Former Gov. Brendan Byrne predicted Christie would be on board before his re-election bid in 2013. “He’s got three others before he has to run again,” he said. (Margolin/Heininger, Star Ledger)

Christie might mean GOP rise in Bergen

At the center piece of inaugural events that traversed the Garden State, Christopher J. Christie raised his right hand on Jan. 19 and was sworn in as New Jersey’s 55th governor. Christie’s ascendancy to the chief executive spot in Trenton has raised expectations on the right side of the aisle in New Jersey politics. A day marked with hope and promise for a new administration that will contend with very serious fiscal problems and other contentious policy issues from the start, Christie’s inauguration may augur something else: the rising fortunes of the Republican Party statewide, particularly in the bellwether county of Bergen. The official confirmation of Christie’s assumption of power began with prayer, something that seemed somehow appropriate given New Jersey’s major problems, including an $8 billion structural budget deficit. Christie, 47, and his family listened from the front pew of the Roman Catholic Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark as Archbishop John J. Myers gave his spiritual blessing to the new governor. The archbishop referred to a passage in the Book of Kings in which God granted King Solomon wisdom. Myers noted that he prayed that the same wisdom would be granted to Christie and others in elected office. “You will need it,” Myers said, as wry laughter wafted up from the audience like incense in the cathedral. After being sworn in by New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner and receiving a standing ovation from a crowd of 1,900 at the Trenton War Memorial, Governor Christie stated that he understood that many see his administration as “what may be our last, best hope for a stronger New Jersey.” “Our economy is struggling. Our budget is in deep deficit and our state is losing ground. Our people are dispirited and wondering if our best days are truly still ahead of us.” Noting that “fear and uncertainty are not necessary and do not have to be permanent,” Christie flashed the boldness that helped lead him to New Jersey’s bully pulpit. “This is not the time for just another season of cynicism,” he said. “With a state in crisis, we must cast aside blame and embrace action. One person can make a difference. I will make a difference.” “Keep going. Have faith. For today, change has arrived,” Christie added. (Bonamo, Hackensack Chronicle)

Chamber train heads to D.C. without N.J. Gov. Christie

Snubbed by the governor, the “Chamber train” has pulled out of Penn Station here on an annual trek to Washington that brings together politicians and members of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce. The group plans to host the state’s congressional delegation for a dinner, the centerpiece event of the 73-year-old event, though the train ride itself is usually where the socializing and dealmaking happens. State legislators and former Gov. Brendan Byrne are here, but one dignitary is conspicuously missing – Governor Christie, who called the train unproductive. “I don’t have time … to be on a train with a whole bunch of folks schmoozing, having drinks, going and having a party down in Washington D.C.,” he said “I don’t think it’s a productive use of my administration’s time. … I also don’t think that a lot of these things are nearly as productive as people make them out to be.” Assemblywoman Nellie Pou (D-Passaic) said it was hard enough to schedule a regular business meeting, so getting so many people together in one place was valuable. “It gives me the opportunity to learn more about New Jersey businesses,” Pou said. “This gives the administration and the governor an opportunity to have a very casual discussion, if you will, and introduction of the various business issues,” she said. Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), the chairman of the state Democratic party, said it was unproductive for Christie to be publicly at odds with the Chamber. “The Chamber of Commerce has always been an organization whose goal is to make sure people have jobs and to improve the economy of the state,” Wisniewski said. “I don’t know that it helps the state business climate for the governor to have an adversarial relationship. We all have our disagreements at times and you move on. When you’re the governor you certainly have the ability to exact revenge, but the question that should be asked is is that a prudent course?” The Chamber is hosting about 750 people in 10 cars on the Amtrak line, down from a high of 18 cars six years ago. Dennis Bone, president of Verizon New Jersey and chairman of the state Chamber, said Christie’s criticism of the train ride is definitely a factor in the low attendance, but he stressed that the recession is the bigger issue. Tickets cost $560 for members and $660 for non-members, not including hotel. “Everybody is tightening their belts,” Bone said. “We are all restricting travel from the biggest and the best all the way to the smallest. This is certainly a casualty. The governor’s comments are part of that, but the economy is a bigger factor than anything else. It’s easy to tar and feather the train trip but there’s certainly tremendous business value.” (Fleisher/Margolin, The Record)

Linden’s council president Bunk announces his run for mayor

After nearly 14 years as city council president, Robert Bunk is looking to move up — to the mayor’s seat. Bunk, a Democrat, formally announced his mayoral candidacy Thursday during a fundraiser at the Linden Knights of Columbus Hall. “I’ve always thought about it. I just think it’s time for me to do this. It’s time for me to step up,” said Bunk, who was elected to the City Council in 1993 and become council president in 1996. Bunk is the first Democratic candidate to formally announce his candidacy. Democratic Party Chairman Chris Hudak said at this point he doesn’t know who else may announce. Under the party’s bylaws, the chairman decides who gets the Democratic line, he said. Mayor Richard Gerbounka, an independent, has said he plans to run for re-election. Both men are retired police officers. Bunk was a detective beforeretiring in 1992 and Gerbounka was a police captain before he retired from the force and became a councilman and then mayor. Bunk said Councilwoman Michele Yamakaitis, who represents the 8th Ward, is running with him as the Democratic council president candidate. Bunk said he admires Yamakaitis’ ability to follow through on projects and think things through before she acts. “She’ll make a great council president,” he said. In addition to mayor and council president, also up this year are the seats held by Councilmen Richard Koziol, 2nd Ward; Joseph Harvanik, Ward 3; Gene Davis, Ward 5 and John Sheehy, Ward 7. The mayor and council president are four-year terms, while the council members are three-year terms. Bunk said he wants to bring back a sense of optimism. He wants to revitalize the central business district, attract safe ratable, end the blame game and bring a new attitude to Linden. “I”m totally committed to the future,” Bunk said. “I will not blame anybody for what happened in the past. (Russell, Gannett)

Albright: GOP Gov. Christie extends hand to Democrats

Gov. Christopher J. Christie repeatedly proclaimed “Today change has arrived.” Rejuvenated Republicans enthusiastically agreed, recalling his campaign theme. Sworn-in Jan. 19 as New Jersey’s 55th governor – the first Republican governor since Christine Todd Whitman, l993-97 – Christie promised “a new era of lower taxes and higher growth will begin.” He added, “Partisanship and acrimony has not served the public well.” In a gesture never seen before, Christie greeted Assembly Speaker Sheila Y. Oliver and Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney, both Democrats, “in a handshake of resolve and friendship . I offer you my hand and commitment.” Applause-happy Republicans roared. Christie condemned a national government imposing “thoughtless mandates.” States should be “laboratories of democracy, not guinea pigs for failed federal experiments.” In a jab at the New Jersey Education Association, Christie promised to give “the people the choice to pursue alternatives to schools that fail” – charter schools. He also declared, “We will have to curb spending in local governments where there has been too little control . we will have to restrain state government.” Newark-born Christie recalled the remarks of President-elect Abraham Lincoln in February 1861, in Newark: “Without the people I cannot hope to succeed, with them I cannot fail.” (Albright, Jersey Journal)

Mulshine: Who’s telling the truth? You decide

After I had filed my Thursday column on the City of New Brunswick’s inexplicable decision to tow a handicapped Rutgers student’s car, I got a call back from Bill Bray, the city spokesman. I expected Bray to say something like “Gee, we’re sorry! We didn’t intend to tow the car of a person who’s really disabled. We just assumed that since Sarah Brown’s car was in New Brunswick she was faking it, like all those homeowners who get private parking spaces on public streets even though they have big driveways.” That’s not what Bray said. Instead he told me that the girl’s father, Bob Brown, was lying to me. Brown had told me the car had a state-issued Handicapped placard. But Bray said that was not true. Bray said the car had only a Rutgers student handicapped ID. He went on to explain in some detail how such an ID would not be valid on the city streets.and that therefore it made perfect sense for the city to tow the girl’s car, leaving her stranded on the cold sidewalk at 2 a.m. For a second there I thought Bob Brown had put one over on me. Perhaps he was lying about his daughter having a condition that caused her to collapse three times over recent months and to need crutches. So I called Brown. He put his daughter on the line and she insisted not only that she had a state placard but that it was on the car when they picked it up on Monday. (Bray still hasn’t explained why the city uses a towing service that tows cars on Saturday evenings and then stays closed on Sundays, depriving drivers of their cars. But that’s another story.) Brown, who was a cop before he got shot in the line of duty and became a lawyer, has been investigating this case more thoroughly than many homicides are investigated. So he had the Franklin Township police .show up and take a report at the towing service. One thing on the report was that the towing service damaged his Nissan, by the way. For that reason, he made a point of photographing the car from all angles while it was still in the tow yard. Above is one photo. You decide: Can you trust a college kid and an ex-cop? Or can you trust the flack for a corrupt urban Democratic machine full of party hacks who get fat on suburban tax dollars and then abuse disabled Rutgers kids? (Mulshine, Star Ledger) Morning News Digest: January 29, 2010