Morning News Digest: February 4, 2010

Gov. Chris Christie plans to ask N.J. Legislature for expansion of veto powers 

Gov. Chris Christie said today he plans to ask the Legislature for expanded veto powers over additional New Jersey authorities, one day after rejecting the 2010 budget of the Delaware River and Bay Authority. Christie vetoed the DRBA’s 2010 budget, citing its 3 percent increase in spending over 2009. The authority’s budget for ’09 was $76.2 million, a 1.8 percent increase over 2008. Christie also rejected payments to 98 vendors in unspecified amounts of $25,000 and up to be used throughout the year. Christie said today he was most troubled by the lack of explanation for the DRBA’s blanket spending. “In a time when we have these kind of budgetary challenges, I am not going to sit by and approve budget increases that are above the rate of inflation,” Christie said. If the DRBA comes up with a rational explanation for the spending, Christie said he would consider the veto. “We look forward to working with the governor’s office to review the matters in question in greater detail,” DRPA spokesman Jim Salmon said. In the meantime, the agency will continue operating under the 2009 budget. The partnership between Delaware and New Jersey operates the bridge, the ferry, five airports, the Three Forts Ferry Crossing and a New Jersey business park. Both Delaware and New Jersey governors have the power to veto spending. “I understand where the hidden economy, where the hidden budget is in the state; it’s in these authorities and boards and commissions,” he said. “We are going to rein in these authorities and let them know they are answerable to the people who are elected in this state.” Last week, the Republican governor used his veto power to stop the School Development Authority from spending an additional $1.2 million on the construction of Burlington City High School, saying he was disgusted that the project was more than $18 million over budget. Today, he again criticized the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission — which he has no control over — for the salary of its executive director, whom Christie said makes $313,000 a year, and a total of 96 people at the commission who make more than $100,000 a year. “The fact that we don’t have control over the PVSC, you see what happens. This is outrageous,” Christie said, adding that he heard the PVSC had hired lobbyists to talk to administration officials about toning down criticism of the commission — a move that only served to infuriate new governor. “The idea that they would even consider hiring lobbyists to get us to try to do that with fee-payer money shows you just how infected that particular commission is,” Christie said. The PVSC issued a statement, but declined to answer direct questions. In his statement, PVSC executive Director Bryan said the agency is “anxious and ready” to give the Governor’s Office information to “properly evaluate PVSC’s operations and performance.” (AP) 

http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2010/02/gov_chris_christie_announces_p.html

With gritted teeth, Biondi bears up for DeCroce/Bramnick era, fortified by Christie veto power

Short-circuited last year in his efforts to mount an insurgency against Assembly Minority Leader Alex DeCroce, Assemblyman Pete Biondi (R-Hillsborough) has trudged into 2010 as the Republican lower-house version of Dick Codey – a cagey veteran now on the outside of his party’s inner sanctum and treading at the edges of political oblivion. “None of this is personal,” said Biondi with a laugh. But as he observed the coverage of last night’s bipartisan public Assembly hearing, he couldn’t help but feel a twinge of discomfort. Fronted as a tag team event germinated by cross-the-aisle colleagues Assembly Majority Leader Joe Cryan (D-Union Twp.) and Republican Conference Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield), the hearing was actually a longtime Bramnick project. “I’m on cloud nine,” said the GOP’s new conference leader in the Assembly, who succeeded Biondi on the job as DeCroce’s number two guy. “Before this went down yesterday, Democrats we’re saying – joking – ‘We’re taking whoever dreamed this up to the highest part of this building and making him jump,'” Bramnick added. “But what we had yesterday were 125 people each testifying – a lot of it very helpful, really good stuff. I just believe in the public. I believe most people are decent. I am so happy. If you did that on a regular basis, it would keep the legislature honest.” Biondi didn’t love the event. “Here you have a meeting to hear from the public,” he said with a shrug in his voice. “Look, I was mayor for eight years. I absorbed the public. I understood the public. You’re a legislator, a lawmaker – you were elected for your ideas and your philosophies. The question is, ‘ What happened to your common sense approach?’ You’re so disconnected, you need to be reminded the public is out there? We just had an election. The public spoke. Now they want us to do something. They want us to kill COAH (the Council on Affordable Housing), but from what I can see of this proposed legislation, it’s not going to be killed.” Biondi’s caucus loss to DeCroce in a challenge that produced a handful of backers, including Assemblywoman Alison McHose (R-Franklin) and since retired Assemblyman Richard Merkt (R-Mendham), meant the rapid ascension of Bramnick from whip to conference leader in a move that just as speedily back-benched Biondi. (Pizarro, PolitickerNJ)

http://www.politickernj.com/max/36571/gritted-teeth-biondi-bears-decrocebramnick-era-fortified-christie-veto-power

Sussex freeholder director endorses Richard Vohden to succeed Wirths

Sussex County Freeholder Director Jeffrey Parrott last night endorsed Green Township farmer Richard Vohden to be his running mate, giving Vohden the inside edge to fill a spot that is expected to be left vacant by when Freeholder Hal Wirths is confirmed as labor commissioner. 

Parrott made the announcement at a Republican county committee meeting last night in Sparta.

”He’s extremely versed in politics. He has the energy, desire and certainly the integrity,” Parrott told PolitickerNJ.com in a phone interview this morning.

But while Parrott’s endorsement makes Vohden the favorite to win the party’s upcoming convention to fill Wirths’ unexpired term, he is going to face at least one challenger in the June primary. Four candidates are running for an open sheriff’s seat, leaving plenty of opportunities for candidates to form alliances and bracket together. 

Wirths will remain on the freeholder board until the state senate confirms him for the cabinet post – a process that is not expected to hit any major bumps but could easily take over a months (Wirths, who is currently acting labor commissioner, stopped taking his freeholder salary yesterday).

Once Wirths resigns his freeholder seat, the Sussex County Republican Committee will have 30 days to choose an interim replacement. County Republican Chair Alice Hambell has tentatively scheduled the convention for late March, but she said she might bump it back to mid-April, depending on how fast Wirths is confirmed. 

Vohden, 72, spent 35 years in the construction industry before retiring in 1993. Since then, he’s run his own farm full-time and has served on several open space and land use committees at a municipal and county level. He is also the Sussex County Republican Committee’s first vice chair. 

”They asked me to write up as resume. While I was working on the resume, I realized that over the years, unintentionally, I’ve been preparing myself for the job by being involved,” he said. (Friedman, PolitickerNJ)

http://www.politickernj.com/matt-friedman/36569/sussex-freeholder-director-endorses-richard-vohden-succeed-wirths

Satisfied she will follow-up on Booker administration audit, Rice affirms Grifa

After initially fretting over her background as a big firm attorney, state Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Newark) today signed off on Lori Grifa of Montclair, Gov. Chris Christie’s choice to run the state’s Department of Community Affairs (DCA). Rice said he is convinced Grifa would aggressively follow-thorough with a DCA audit of of the City of Newark. “The taxpayers, voters, legislature and the media have been very much concerned about the hiring practices in the City and the awarding of contracts for professional services as regularly depicted in the news media,” said Rice in a statement. “While the original audit was a good starting point to begin discussing improprieties in Newark, we need the State’s law enforcement organizations to take a deeper look and ensure that no laws were broken in the awarding of contracts and lucrative jobs to campaign donors.” Rice had written a letter to former Commissioners Joseph V. Doria, Jr., questioning the city’s termination of employees “under the auspices of fiscal problems, (while) friends and political supporters of the mayor from out of town and within were being hired at high salaries and given pay raises on top of salaries that were already over $100,000.” “The residents are also very much concerned about the awarding of lucrative consultant contracts at the taxpayers’ expense without any accountability for performance and the abuse of executive orders to increase salaries for politically-connected employees,” said Rice. “Having spoken to her about the concerns of local residents, I believe that Ms. Grifa understands the problems and will address them in her tenure as Community Affairs Commissioner. I look forward to working with her to make Newark a better place to live for all City residents, not just the ones who happen to be close to the mayor.” (Pizarro, PolitickerNJ) 

http://www.politickernj.com/max/36568/satisfied-she-will-follow-booker-administration-probe-rice-affirms-grifa 

Gov. Chris Christie plans to ask N.J. Legislature for expansion of veto powers 

Gov. Chris Christie said today he plans to ask the Legislature for expanded veto powers over additional New Jersey authorities, one day after rejecting the 2010 budget of the Delaware River and Bay Authority. Christie vetoed the DRBA’s 2010 budget, citing its 3 percent increase in spending over 2009. The authority’s budget for ’09 was $76.2 million, a 1.8 percent increase over 2008. Christie also rejected payments to 98 vendors in unspecified amounts of $25,000 and up to be used throughout the year. Christie said today he was most troubled by the lack of explanation for the DRBA’s blanket spending. “In a time when we have these kind of budgetary challenges, I am not going to sit by and approve budget increases that are above the rate of inflation,” Christie said. If the DRBA comes up with a rational explanation for the spending, Christie said he would consider the veto. “We look forward to working with the governor’s office to review the matters in question in greater detail,” DRPA spokesman Jim Salmon said. In the meantime, the agency will continue operating under the 2009 budget. The partnership between Delaware and New Jersey operates the bridge, the ferry, five airports, the Three Forts Ferry Crossing and a New Jersey business park. Both Delaware and New Jersey governors have the power to veto spending. “I understand where the hidden economy, where the hidden budget is in the state; it’s in these authorities and boards and commissions,” he said. “We are going to rein in these authorities and let them know they are answerable to the people who are elected in this state.” Last week, the Republican governor used his veto power to stop the School Development Authority from spending an additional $1.2 million on the construction of Burlington City High School, saying he was disgusted that the project was more than $18 million over budget. Today, he again criticized the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission — which he has no control over — for the salary of its executive director, whom Christie said makes $313,000 a year, and a total of 96 people at the commission who make more than $100,000 a year. “The fact that we don’t have control over the PVSC, you see what happens. This is outrageous,” Christie said, adding that he heard the PVSC had hired lobbyists to talk to administration officials about toning down criticism of the commission — a move that only served to infuriate new governor. “The idea that they would even consider hiring lobbyists to get us to try to do that with fee-payer money shows you just how infected that particular commission is,” Christie said. The PVSC issued a statement, but declined to answer direct questions. In his statement, PVSC executive Director Bryan said the agency is “anxious and ready” to give the Governor’s Office information to “properly evaluate PVSC’s operations and performance.” (AP) 

http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2010/02/gov_chris_christie_announces_p.html

Gov. Christie creates oversight panel for struggling N.J. casino, sports industries

The state’s struggling gaming, sports and entertainment industries are about to get another fresh scrub, courtesy of a seven-member panel Gov. Chris Christie created today. The panel will follow on the work of a larger group that outlined the problems for Christie in a transition report last month. Christie asked the commission to report back to him by June 30, but said it will advise him on more pressing issues on an “ongoing, real-time” basis. He stressed that the issues are interrelated and cannot be tackled individually — nor should the stakeholders see it that way. “Everyone who has a stake in this needs to understand it’s time to get out of your entrenched positions and time to start ending the mode of pure self-interest,” Christie said. “All of these things were at one time enormous assets to the state of New Jersey that contributed to the bottom line, both from a tax perspective and an economic perspective. We need to return those to the positive side of the ledger.” Here are the big problems that need to be addressed: 1. Atlantic City is being eaten alive. The casinos and their 38,000 jobs are the economic engine for southeastern New Jersey, and Christie has not been shy in discussing the need to protect that region of the state. Atlantic City, like many gambling resorts, is being hurt on several fronts, but the big ones are New Jersey’s recent smoking ban, the worldwide economic downturn, the ongoing perception that the area is not safe, and relentless competition. No less than a dozen slot parlors and video gaming terminals have popped up recently in the Lehigh Valley, the Poconos, Yonkers, N.Y., and Delaware, building something of wall around the Jersey resort. What’s worse, a traditional casino with table games recently was approved for Long Island, and that could draw North Jersey gamblers who have stayed loyal to Atlantic City as Connecticut’s casinos continue to grow. (Star Ledger)

http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2010/02/nj_gov_chris_christie_creates.html

Gov. Chris Christie says Passaic agency hired lobbyists to ‘tone down’ spending criticism

The Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission regularly spends hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on lobbyists, and now Gov. Chris Christie says the agency is directing its paid advocates to get him to “tone down” his criticism of its spending. The governor called the money spent on lobbying another waste of the funds the commission collects from its ratepayers. “What I understand now is that the PVSC is out there trying to hire lobbyists to lobby the administration to get me to tone down a little bit,” Christie said during a Statehouse news conference today. “There isn’t a lobbyist in this town who’s going to get me to tone down on this. “The idea that they would consider hiring lobbyists to try to get us to do that with fee-payer money shows you just how infected that particular commission is,” he said. But hiring lobbyists in Trenton to get Christie to back off isn’t going to work, he said. “They can hire all of them. It’s not going to work,” he said. “All of this money, whether you call it fees or tolls or whatever you call it, is all money that comes out of the people of New Jersey’s pockets. “It is money that they should be able to keep to help support their families, to pay their mortgage, to send their kids to school, not money that should be paying for political hacks at the PVSC to make salaries that are obscene on the public payroll,” Christie said. The Newark-based PVSC, which serves 1.3 million people in northern New Jersey, including Newark and Jersey City, adopted a $164 million budget last month that included some rate increases. The commission includes some of the state’s highest-paid public employees, including 82 staff members with pensionable salaries over more than $100,000. Christie has singled out the agency’s hefty salaries, including the $313,000 for executive director Bryan Christiansen, and the governor’s transition team singled out the commission’s prolific use of outside consultants in a recent report. Christie faulted the commission again today while discussing his veto of vendor contracts and a 3 percent spending hike by the Delaware River and Bay Authority. Christie can veto an authority’s action by vetoing its meeting minutes. The only authority that can escape such veto is the PVSC. Christie said he needs the same power to veto minutes of the sewerage commission to get that agency under control as well. Two Bergen County lawmakers have introduced a bill that would give the governor more control of the commission, including the power to veto meeting minutes. Christiansen, in response to Christie’s comments, cited a 2005 hiring freeze and other efforts “to search for and implement all possible efficiencies.” “Our work has enabled us to continue to provide the lowest average residential sewer rates in the state of New Jersey,” Christiansen said in a statement forwarded to the Record on his behalf by a partner at 1868 Public Affairs, a Trenton lobbying firm. (Reitmeyer, Star Ledger) 

http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2010/02/gov_christie_says_passaic_agen.html

Defense in N.J. corruption trial rips credibility of key FBI informant Solomon Dwek

After three days of combative exchanges, a lawyer for a Jersey City deputy mayor ended the cross examination of the informant at the center of last year’s epic FBI sting today by trying to cast him as an unbridled huckster who once bilked $100 million from his own uncle. Solomon Dwek, whose undercover work led to charges against 46 people, faced hundreds of questions in federal court in Newark about the bribery case against Jersey City Deputy Mayor Leona Beldini and his own criminal past, including a massive Ponzi scheme, tax evasion and bribing his high school math teacher. The one-time rabbinical student began secretly working for the FBI after being arrested for a $50 million bank fraud in 2006. “That’s when you started finally obeying the Ten Commandments — right?” asked Beldini’s lawyer, Brian J. Neary. “That’s correct,” said Dwek, who used a tiny video camera to record hundreds of conversations in the corruption and money-laundering probe. The exchange was one of many during which Neary tried to shred Dwek’s credibility. He asked if the informant ever cheated on his wife; Dwek said no. He asked if his father had disowned him: Dwek said yes. And the lawyer pointed out that by cooperating with the FBI, Dwek has —so far — avoided prison. “With all that money and you never went to jail,” Neary said. “No,” said Dwek, who will eventually face between roughly nine and 11 years in prison for the bank fraud. It was part of a $400 million real estate Ponzi scheme, which Dwek said included bilking $100 million from his uncle. As his time on the stand wore on, the informant’s answers grew increasingly pugnacious. He regularly asserted that Beldini took bribes. He lost his temper and shouted. And once, when the Neary asked if he had any friends, Dwek grew uncharacteristically silent, removed his glasses and wiped his eyes. “You don’t have a father as a friend — right?” Neary asked. “No,” Dwek said. The informant’s testimony is a key piece in the case against Beldini, who is accused of accepting $20,000 in illegal campaign contributions on behalf of Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy, who has not been charged. But Dwek’s video tapes — shot with a tiny camera hidden on his clothing — are the most significant component. (Ryan, Star Ledger)

http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2010/02/defense_in_nj_corruption_trial.html

No Nets deal without my OK, N.J. Gov. Christie says

Any deal between the Nets and Devils under which the basketball team would move to Newark is meaningless without state approval, Governor Christie and a key Meadowlands Sports Complex official said Wednesday. Christie, speaking at a press conference in Trenton, scoffed at recent media reports that a deal is likely to land on his desk this week, and that he will approve it. “Nothing comes to my desk unless I want it to come to my desk,” Christie said. “Whoever’s going to try to walk in the door has to have permission to walk in the door, first of all.” Carl Goldberg, the current sports authority chairman, said after Wednesday’s board meeting at the Meadowlands Sports Complex that a Nets-Devils deal “means nothing” unless it is part of a “global solution” such as the one proposed last fall by Jerry Zaro, former Gov. Jon Corzine’s top economic adviser. Goldberg also confirmed a report in The Record on Tuesday that Miami Dolphins owner and real estate executive Steven Ross is in serious talks to take over the troubled Meadowlands Xanadu project. Goldberg said he was “cautiously optimistic” that talks between Ross’s Related Companies real estate firm and Xanadu developer Colony Capital would soon bear fruit. “Negotiations could be characterized as very active,” Goldberg said. “They did indicate to us that it was likely that they would rename the project.” The much-maligned multicolored exterior style of Xanadu also may disappear along with the name. “I was very pleased to hear from Mr. Ross personally that they are considering a revision of the architectural exterior and making some modifications as part of that commitment — yes, changing the color scheme,” Goldberg said. He added that Related does not seek to significantly change the retail and entertainment tenant mix first approved by the board more than five years ago. The sports authority chairman said a deal to move the Nets to Newark probably would have to include such elements as the Devils paying millions in withheld rent payments to the City of Newark and an agreement to make Izod Center the state’s main arena for concerts and family shows. “Any transaction that would suggest that the Nets could move to Newark, absent that kind of global approach, I don’t think will share the support of this board of commissioners,” said Goldberg. Goldberg also dismissed reports that the Nets could unilaterally move to Newark as long as they pay a $7.5 million penalty listed under a 2006 agreement between the Nets and the sports authority. That penalty only would be in play if Nets wanted to move more than 35 miles away. “They cannot just write us a check for $7.5 million [to move to Newark] and construe that to be a satisfaction of their lease obligation,” Goldberg said. (Brennan, The Record)

http://www.northjersey.com/news/state/politics/020310_No_Nets_deal_without_my_OK_NJ_Gov_Christie_says.html

Mulshine: Gov. Chris Christie’s cabinet- Where are the conservatives?

What a difference a year makes. Exactly one year ago today, Chris Christie kicked off his campaign for governor. He positioned himself as the true conservative in the three-man primary, making the case that he was even further to the right than ex-Bogota mayor Steve Lonegan. That’s a tough challenge. The only politicians I ever met who were further to the right than Lonegan lived in Latin America and considered 9mm pistols to be mere junk jewelry. But the voters bought it. And now Christie’s governor. So how’s he scoring on the right-left scale? Let’s look down his list of cabinet picks and see how many conservatives there are. Okay, there’s Bret Schundler running Education. Bret’s a solid conservative. And let me see . . . Who else? Certainly not that Dr. Ruth doppelganger he chose the other day to run the Department of Children and Family Services. Janet Rosenzweig certainly seemed like a pleasant enough sort when the governor introduced her at a Monday news conference. But when I got home and did a bit of research, I found out that her most recent job was as executive director of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality. I read some of the society’s brochures. Its primary activity seems to be holding conferences in places I wish I was right now, like Puerto Rico. I think I’d skip the seminar on “Turning Problems into Theory: A Model of Wanting and Not Wanting Sex,” though. Instead I’d head directly to the poolside party, or perhaps take the tour of the Bacardi Rum factory. Not that there’s anything wrong with studying sex for a living. It just sounds more like what you’d expect from an appointee named by a liberal Democrat. You could say the same for other key Christie appointments. He chose a Democrat from Essex County, Paula Dow, as attorney general. I can’t see how that’s going to work out if he gets into a brawl with the people who really run New Jersey at the moment, the judges on the state Supreme Court. (Mulshine, Star Ledger)

http://blog.nj.com/njv_paul_mulshine/2010/02/gov_chris_christies_cabinet_wh.html

Morning News Digest: February 4, 2010