Thursday, September 28, 2006

New Jersey and Corruption: Perfect Together

This has been a busy week for those following New Jersey corruption scandals. And it looks like Senator Bob Menendez is not immune.

In fact, it looks like Menendez might be the biggest fish caught in corruption and influence peddling investigations.
U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez's closest political adviser was secretly recorded seven years ago boasting of political power and urging a Hudson County contractor to hire someone as a favor to Menendez, according to a transcript obtained by The Star-Ledger.

Menendez's campaign said last night he had severed his ties with the adviser, Donald Scarinci, after learning of the taped conversation. The two men were childhood friends and Scarinci, a prominent attorney with extensive contracts in state and local governments, has been a key fundraiser for the senator throughout his long political career.

Scarinci was recorded in 1999 by Oscar Sandoval, a Union City psychiatrist who had contracts with the county jail and hospital in Hudson County, according to two people familiar with the tapes who requested anonymity because the recordings are evidence in a pending lawsuit.

A transcript of the recorded telephone conversation was obtained by The Star-Ledger and verified by the two sources. In it, Scarinci urged Sandoval to hire another physician, Vincente Ruiz, telling him: "Menendez will consider that a favor."

Matt Miller, spokesman for Menendez's campaign, said last night, "If this transcript is accurate, then Scarinci was using Menendez's name without his authorization or his knowledge. That was a lapse in judgment on his part and because of it, he will no longer have any role in our campaign."
Severing ties with Scarinci will hardly be enough, considering the implications that Menendez might have been cognizant of Scarinci's actions.

The Bergen Record calls these tape trouble. Now there's a bit of understatement. Democrat insiders said that the tapes are potentially embarrassing. But others think that this is much ado about nothing but business as usual in New Jersey:
As news of the tapes spread Wednesday, some Democrats grew concerned about whether their contents could damage Menendez's candidacy. One insider said the tapes would cause Menendez real political trouble, but added that the senator's campaign plans to respond aggressively.

Another Democratic insider said the tapes might offer little more than a textbook example of classic Hudson County political swagger with no evidence that Menendez played a role. "This may just be another Norcross scenario," this person said, referring to South Jersey Democratic power broker George E. Norcross III.

In tapes that surfaced during last year's gubernatorial campaign, Norcross boasted of a close relationship with Jon Corzine, then a Democratic U.S. senator seeking the governor's office. Corzine won the election and appointed Menendez to serve the last year of his Senate term.

Corzine, however, had an up-and-down relationship with Norcross over the course of a relatively short political career. Scarinci's long-standing and close relationship with Menendez is well established.
Will Democrats realize this severity of the situation. Beats me, but expect Menendez to respond loudly and vigorously, because his political aspirations are at stake.

Menendez was the hand picked successor to Jon Corzine's Senate seat. If these allegations pan out and take hold among voters, expect New Jersey Democrats to begin the semiregular dance to find a replacement before election day.

Lots of folks seem to think that Menendez will be tossed in favor of Codey. PoliticsNJ and National Journal's Hotline seems to think this is possible. Others blogging: Blue Crab Boulevard and GOPProgress. The Political Wire is also looking at the possibility of a switcheroo. More fallout may be forthcoming.

Oh goody!

New Jersey Republicans are preparing for a fight against any potential switcheroo. James Joyner has the details and notes it's not a smear to breach this as an issue considering that Democrats played fast and loose with the state election law in 2002 when replacing Bob Toricelli with Frank Lautenberg. Funny sidebar, but Mendenez's name came up in the replacement search for the Torch. The more things change...

Enlighten NJ thinks the whole talk about swapping Menendez for another candidate is just so much talk. He doesn't think it's going to happen. He cites the fact that only a small percentage of New Jersey residents can even identify who their senator is as among the reasons.

Another reason is that a new poll seems to put Kean Jr. and Menendez in a dead heat. Not sure if I buy that, but that surely puts the pressure on Kean Jr. campaign but limits Democrat actions to pull a candidate swap. Indeed, if the margin between the candidates is in the low single digits, Menendez will have to stick around and Republicans will be able to bash the Democrats ad infinitum on the ethics issue.

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