The Senate Judiciary Committee today unanimously approved Paula Dow’s nomination for attorney general after an at-times contentious five-hour hearing, during which senators grilled Dow on issues ranging from staff salaries to drug rehabilitation programs for offenders to her 2008 recommendation on whether to kick a former Newark councilwoman out of office.
The full senate will next vote on the confirmation of Dow, who has been acting attorney general since Governor Christopher Christie was sworn in on January 19.
Dow, a registered Democrat, laid out her vision for the future of the office, saying that she understood success depended on nuts-and-bolts success and not prosecuting just “marquee cases.”
“We will work harder and smarter to protect consumers, to preserve civil rights, to effectively regulate the alcoholic beverage industry, to ensure that the integrity of New Jersey’s casino gaming industry continues, to keep drives, passengers and pedestrians safe on our streets, to assist victims of crimes, and to remember always the importance of juvenile justice on issues affecting the state,” she said.
Although she said she did not want to rank her priorities when she’s only held the office for such a short period of time, Dow said that among her top issues will be her office’s relationship with the State Police, Camden’s crime rate, waste, fraud and abuse in public programs like Medicaid, and juvenile justice.
The 54-year-old Dow served as Essex County Prosecutor from 2003 until her nomination as the top state law enforcement official. Prior to that, she was an assistant U.S. attorney and counsel to Christie when he led that office.
Although her confirmation is considered next to certain, her hearing today had several hiccups and Democratic senators did not go easy on her.
Dow said she was “embarrassed” to admit that she did not remember the last name of her office’s acting director of consumer affairs (it’s Sharon Joyce).
But the toughest questioning came from state Sen. Nia Gill (D-Montclair), who for almost two hours painstakingly reviewed the timeline between when Dow recommended that former Newark Councilwoman Dana Rone forfeit her office after her conviction for obstruction of justice and when Dow reversed course and recommended against forfeiture.
Rone had interceded on behalf of her nephew at a 2006 traffic stop at Rutgers Newark, showing up in a city-issued vehicle and invoking her position as a councilwoman. The prosecutor’s office had at first recommended that, because the conduct touched on her office, she was required to forfeit her seat. Later, Dow wrote a letter to Superior Court Judge Patricia K. Costello to recommend against forfeiture, even though the law did permit it. Costello ultimately ruled that Rone did indeed have to forfeit her office. (Corzine, in one of his lasts acts in office, lifted the lifetime ban on Rone holding public office).
Gill questioned Dow’s motivation for changing her recommendation, wondering whether she was influenced by Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s lobbying on Rone’s behalf.
Dow, responding, frustrated. Her voice rising, she explained why she broke with a decision she attributed to a lower-level staffer, and even admitted that she “did not like” Rone very much.
“What I was really disturbed about was because of the procedural quagmire that I found this case in, a disservice was done on a case involving these facts, on a person frankly I didn’t even like that much,” she said. “But, put that aside, I felt under these circumstances she was not deserving of both forfeiture and a lifetime ban.”
Ultimately, Gill – who did vote yes on Dow’s nomination — said she accepted her explanation and noted that “I think we can understand that questioning does not mean that you take an antagonistic or opposition viewpoint.”
In a later exchange with state Sen. Christopher “Kip” Bateman, Dow recalled being pulled over herself by a police officer who, upon recognizing her as the county prosecutor, wanted to let her drive off.
“I nearly had to tackle him to get that ticket from him,” she said.
State Sen. Raymond Lesniak noted that he testified in favor of admitting the two men who robbed him at home last year into drug court, but that one of them, Antoine Neal, was ineligible because of prior offenses. Lesniak, who said he plans to introduce legislation expanding who is eligible for drug court, asked Dow how she felt about it.
“I fully support 100% admission into drug court, and recognize that in the past – believe the last two years – much was done to address and open up the availability of drug courts throughout the stat of New Jersey who previously weren’t getting an opportunity because of something in their background,” she said.
State Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Wood-ridge), the Budget Committee chairman, asked Dow whether she supports increasing pay for deputy attorney generals – a crusade of former Attorney General Anne Milgrma. He noted the budget deficit, and suggested that the funds necessary to do that would be unavailable this year.
“We are looking at a massive budget deficit of billions of dollars. There is no money to be given for those additional raises to attract those talented people,” he said.
Dow said that she faced a similar problem at the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, but helped by getting the county executive and freeholder board to accept a salary schedule.
“I would encourage an open dialogue between my office the governor’s office, the legislature here in recognizing that we can no longer tolerate a second-class Attorney General’s Office with these horrific salary disparities,” she said.
Dow – who took a $24,000 pay cut to become Attorney General — held out hope that the state would eventually find money to increase salaries at the office.
“I recognize that these are very difficult times,” she said. “But I dare say, Senator, they’re not going to be difficult forever.”