Wednesday, March 14, 2007

New Jersey and the U.S. Attorney Firings [Con't]

In a recent post, I expressed my concern that one inevitable ramification of the U.S. Attorney scandal would be the unjustified imputation of bad faith against current federal prosecutors whose targets/defendants, especially in corruption cases, happen to be Democrats. This concern has particular resonance in New Jersey, where the U.S. Attorney’s Office has recently issued subpoenas on Governor John Corzine (D) and several key legislators, Republicans and Democrats alike, in an apparently wide-ranging investigation into irregular budget practices.

Tom Moran, an astute and generally objective political columnist for the Newark Star Ledger has also grasped the implications of the scandal as it pertains to New Jersey. In a column published today, he writes:

This time, the White House fired eight U.S. attorneys, apparently for political reasons, trashing a long tradition that restrained presidents from such meddling.

The purpose was anything but honorable. A prosecutor in Arkansas was simply in the wrong seat -- Karl Rove had another guy in mind, so the incumbent was fired to make room. A New Mexico prosecutor was fired after he rebuffed pressure from Sen. Pete Domenici to indict Democrats in time for last year's election. In this crowd, too much integrity can doom a career.

Here's the problem in this for New Jersey: It is bound to give undeserved credence to conspiracy theorists who consider U.S. Attorney Chris Christie a partisan hack.

If the Department of Justice uses prosecutors to score political points in New Mexico, the argument goes, then why not in New Jersey?

One senior Democrat who asked not to be named said a group of "high-end" Democrats met to discuss this recently, and all felt the firings strengthened their case that Christie is using his office to sabotage Democrats.

"A number of people don't want to go on record with this, because they consider Christie to be a bully," he said. "This guy has all the power in the world."

That view is gaining some ground. The lefty blog suggested Christie has kept his job because he is doing the White House's bidding by going after Democrats on corruption charges. And New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote that the firings make the bias charges against Christie "quite plausible."

"This spreads all over," says U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg. "It causes people to look under the hood."

So what do we find when we snap the hitch on Christie's hood?

We find a guy who seems to enjoy busting corrupt Republicans as much as corrupt Democrats.

His first big kill was former Essex County Executive James Treffinger, a Republican who was leading the field to be the party's candidate for U.S. Senate.

Christie later set up camp in Monmouth County, dragging in enough corrupt Republicans to field a football team.

Democrats began their beefing last year when Christie dropped a subpoena on a nonprofit group that rented a home from Sen. Robert Menendez.

Sorry, but Menendez asked for that one. He chose to rent his home to a group that received his help in Washington. Should a federal prosecutor look the other way when faced with such a clear conflict?

More recently, Democrats have been grumbling about the subpoenas in Trenton aimed at finding criminal abuses in the state's budget process. But, please -- anyone who has watched the way Democrats grab money for pet causes in the final days would agree that it's an excellent place to sniff around for corruption.

We'll never know Christie's motives with full certainty. We can't peer into his soul. Maybe he is an evil genius, and has thrown Republicans in jail only for cover.

But in that case, we would surely have heard from one or two of the career prosecutors in his office by now, at least anonymously. Why would a guy like Ralph Marra, Christie's first assistant and a Democrat, go along with a partisan scam?

Yesterday, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales appeared before Congress to discuss the firings.

He was about as convincing as he was the day he explained that waterboarding, the practice of nearly drowning bound suspects, is not really a form of torture. This is a man who is not fit to be attorney general.

Let's keep this scandal where it belongs -- in Washington.

Amen to that.

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