October 12, 2006: In New Jersey's political whirl, one day you're in and the next
day you're out. Sometimes it works in reverse-- prison doors
swing both ways.
Over the past several years scores of the state's politicians
and public contractors have been indicted and/or convicted on
corruption charges. Others balance on the edge of legal dodges,
insufficient evidence, or are blessed with stellar connections. A
consistent theme is graft (either the crass cash-stuffed-envelope
variety, or more genteel political contributions) in exchange for
career advancement, public contracts, and development deals. The
latter often funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban
Development (HUD) and Department of Transportation (DOT). Both
Democrats and Republicans join in the jamboree. No region of the
state, be it urban or suburban, has proved crook-free.
Some spots however, are hotter than others.
In Hudson County, in northeast New Jersey, Democrats have ruled
since dinosaurs roamed the earth. Some say the county's
Democratic machine isn't what it used to be. And indeed, its
factions are frequently fractious. But when push comes to shove,
it still gets the job done. In the words of the Newark Star
Ledger, Hudson County is the state's "Ground Zero" of corruption.
And Newark, in Essex County, knows good corruption.
Hudson County is a tightly packed, heavily populated conglom of
old industrial cities. The boundaries of its 12 municipalities
bleed into one another. While large swaths of some cities are
slums, there are also many bustling ethnic hubs striving into
middle class. Tiny Hoboken, directly across from Manhattan, is
the whitest and wealthiest city in Hudson County. Billions in HUD
and DOT funds, over a period of decades, have helped make it so.
Though only a mile square, this golden Smallville is home to an
impressive number of Jersey's Super Boys. Including Governor Jon
Corzine and U.S. Senator Robert Menendez.
Come November, Senator Robert Menendez will face his first real
election for the office. The seat was previously held by Jon
Corzine, who gave it up to run for New Jersey governor in 2005.
After being elected, Corzine appointed then Congressman Menendez
to the job.
When Jon Corzine first expressed interest in being governor,
fellow Democrat Richard Codey was in office. Former state senate
president Codey became governor by fiat, when Governor Jim
McGreevey resigned in 2004. A string of corruption scandals had
kept the McGreevey administration popping. The breaking point
came with the revelation as to why Governor McGreevey had
appointed Golan Cipel, an obscure aide, as head of the state's
Homeland Security office. Cipel was an Israeli citizen with no
security clearance or qualifications. (Though he did have a past
connection to one of the state's largest political contributors,
developer Charles Kushner. Now serving time for funneling
contributions through various fronts and concocting a witness
tampering scheme involving sexual blackmail.) The outcry over
Cipel's appointment resulted in McGreevey moving him to a less
visible position on the public payroll.
Eventually, Golan Cipel either tried to extort McGreevey by
threatening to reveal the governor was gay, or was planning to
sue McGreevey for sexual harassment. The McGreevey camp claimed
the former, Cipel the latter. Whatever. The end result was that
McGreevey was forced to go public and the people of New Jersey
finally discovered what qualified Golan Cipel to protect them
from terrorism. Governor McGreevey thought he was hot. It was
the final straw. McGreevey resigned. And obfuscated his betrayal
of the public trust with a sympathy story about his lack of self
acceptance re being gay.
After McGreevey headed off to Oprah Land, Richard Codey made a
surprisingly good governor. He seemed sincerely interested in
reform and was gaining the public's respect. He was thinking of
running for governor and as time passed, his chances looked good.
But Codey wasn't the fave of a sufficient number of Jersey's
powerful Democratic bosses. Including Congressman Robert
Menendez. Menendez & crew wanted Jon Corzine. Menendez allegedly
brokered the deal that brought the state's bosses on board behind
Corzine. Codey bowed out. Corzine the Mighty was crowned candidate
and easily defeated a dull dog Republican. After being elected,
Governor Corzine appointed Congressman Robert Menendez to take
his place as U.S. Senator. To the disappointment of those who
hoped the immense wealth of Jon Corzine, a former Goldman Sachs
top executive, would give him the independence to usher in a new
day in Garden State politics.
Hope for reform springs eternal. Even in Jersey.
In the late 1970's, Robert Menendez was among a wave of young
reformers who promised to make Hudson County's machine politics
a thing of the past. Over the next 3 decades Menendez rose
through the ranks. Starting on the Board of Education in Union
City where he lived at the time. Doing stints as Union City's
mayor and simultaneously serving in the New Jersey Legislature.
(A form of double dipping legal in Jersey.) Menendez was elected
to the U.S. Congress in 1992, representing a primarily Hispanic
district. He was re-elected 6 times. Activities in Congress
included serving on the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs
committee. By 2003, back home in Jersey, Menendez was defacto
head of the Hudson County Democratic Organization. According to
a 12/14/03 New York Times article, "one of the most formidable
political machines in the nation". By 12/09/05 the Times was
describing Robert Menendez, the one time reformer, as "an
entrenched leader of the Hudson County Democratic machine".
Joining Menendez in the trench was his boyhood chum, attorney and
fundraiser Donald Scarinci. Scarinci has been called "Menendez's
right arm".* The firm of Scarinci & Hollenbeck is based in Hudson
County and is comprised of 50 lawyers specializing in, but not
confined to, development practice. The firm represents numerous
government agencies in Hudson County. Donald Scarinci has served
as treasurer to the Hudson County Democratic Organization and is
among several attorneys representing the city of Hoboken.
Which though small, has enormous legal expenses. Much to the
consternation of homeowners who pick up the bill.
Donald Scarinci moves in far wider circles than Hudson County.
Scarinci & Hollenbeck represents the New Jersey Casino
Reinvestment Development Authority. Scarinci serves as counsel
to the state's assembly Democrats and was instrumental in getting
Jersey's boisterous Democratic bosses to rally behind Jim
McGreevey as gubernatorial candidate. After McGreevey was
elected, Donald Scarinci was general counsel to his transition
team. Over the past few years, various members of that team have
figured in federal investigations stretching from Newark in the
north, to Asbury Park on the Jersey shore, to Camden at the
state's southern tip, and across the Delaware River into the
sullied administration of Philadelphia Mayor John Street.
Along with his public servant clients, Donald Scarinci served as
counsel to reputed mobster Angelo Prisco. In 1994, Prisco was
identified by state indictment as a high ranking member of the
Genovese crime family overseeing operations in New Jersey. In
1998, Prisco pled guilty to arson and conspiracy in state
Superior Court in Ocean County. In 1999, he pled likewise to
related extortion charges in federal court. His co-defendant
was John Gotti Jr. Prisco received 12 years of concurrent time.
In May, 2002, Prisco was paroled. Even though the state parole
board had denied him parole 4 months earlier and he wasn't
eligible to reapply for another year. At the time, Scarinci
denied allegations he contacted officials close to Governor
McGreevey to get the state parole board to change its mind.
In 2005, documents obtained through a freedom of information
request filed by Gannett News proved otherwise. Scarinci has
also claimed lawyer client privilege when queried whether actor
Steven Seagal paid him to represent Prisco. During a 2003 New
York City mob trial, Seagal testified he visited Angelo Prisco
in prison. Seagal was being threatened by the Gambino crime
family. He'd been told by Prisco's cousin, a NYC cop turned movie
producer (!) that Angelo Prisco could help by acting as peace
maker. Seagal testified that in return, he paid Prisco's attorney
to get Prisco out of prison pronto.
But enough of movie stars and mobsters. Back to Senator Robert
Menendez-- the body to which right arm Donald Scarinci was
attached. Past tense. Very tense. In late September, Menendez
chopped off his right arm. Saying, through his campaign staff,
that "Donald Scarinci does not speak for Bob Menendez" and
announcing Scarinci would no longer be involved with his
campaign. The surgical procedure took place after a tape made in
1999 by psychiatrist Dr. Oscar Sandoval surfaced. In '99,
Sandoval held public contracts with several county institutions,
including a jail and psychiatric hospital. He was also an FBI
informant. On Sandoval's tape, Donald Scarinci was heard
pressuring the shrink into hiring an ally of then Congressman
Robert Menendez. Saying doing so would afford Sandoval
"protection" and Menendez would consider it "a favor".
Scarinci also bragged about being tight with North Jersey
developer Carl Goldberg, a member of the New Jersey Sports and
Exposition Authority. And touted the cash he (Scarinci) had
raised for X Hudson County Executive Robert Janiszewski. A former
state assemblyman, Port Authority commissioner, and chairman of
the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority. Janiszewski
is now in prison for taking graft from fellow convictee, Joseph
Barry of Applied Development Companies. Based in Hoboken and one
of Jersey's most active developers. Even without its former
president, Applied marches on. Making generous campaign
contributions to Robert Menendez. As does Goldman Sachs-- where
Governor Jon Corzine was once top dog. Both companies are among
Menendez's largest contributors. Though the full amount of those
contributions doesn't come directly from the companies per se.
That would be illegal. Instead, the money is donated by people
who work for, or are in some way connected to Applied and Goldman
Sachs. All of whom share the political vision of Robert Menendez.
Untangling the convoluted connections that make Hudson County
what it is, can be a hefty chore. Though it is fun to note how
often such connections turn toxic. And comic. For instance,
Hudson County is in the process of suing sullied whistleblower
Oscar Sandoval, seeking to recover what they claim his corrupt
deals cost other public contractors. Attorney Donald Scarinci is
party to the lawsuit. Sandoval wore a wire for several years and
apparently still has a few tapes in his closet; he's using them
to counter the lawsuit. Another funny: as an informant, Sandoval
was instrumental in bringing down former Hudson County Executive
Robert Janiszewski. Aka "Janu". It was Democrat Janu who from
his prison cell, advised Republican dirt diggers to Ask Doctor
Sandoval about Robert Menendez and his good right arm,
Ain't that a kick in the head. As well as the baggy pants...
Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff
Sources include but are not limited to:
Robert Menendez (D-NJ) Top Contributors, 2001-2006 Profile, The
Center for Responsive Politics, opensecrets.org
"Tape adds to Menendez ethics debate," Chris Mondics, Washington
Bureau, Philadelphia Inquirer, 09/28/06
"Doctor says Menendez advisor pressed him for political favor,"
Gregory J. Volpe, Courier-Post, 09/28/06
"Lawyer eased Prisco parole," Sandy McClure, Asbury Park Press,
"New Jersey's New Senator," editorial, New York Times, 12/09/05
"The Past May Haunt Future For Menendez," Tom Moran, The Newark Star Ledger, 11/23/05
*"Scarinci: A power lawyer who likes to play the game," Chris
Mondics, Washington Bureau, Philadelphia Inquirer, 09/29/06
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