A hearing in New Jersey's federal court Feb. 7 follows a hard-hitting filing Jan. 26 by former Jersey City mayoral candidate Louis Manzo, who alleges that corruption charges against him in 2009 were part of a plot by holdover Bush federal prosecutors to elect Republican Chris Christie as governor of New Jersey. Manzo, a Democrat, argues that both Republican and Democratic prosecutors, including some in career posts, have closed ranks to support Christie's misguided prosecution because of institutional loyalty -- and the vast financial and career opportunities. U.S. District Judge Jose Linares said he expected to rule next week on the arguments.
Update: A federal judge dismissed all charges Feb. 17 in a 60-page opinion, vindicating Manzo. See details below.
Christie was the Bush administration's Republican U.S. attorney from 2001 to the end of 2008. Before winning election as a crime-fighter, he awarded tens of millions of dollars in no-bid federal contracts to former Republican prosecutors. Recipients included former New Jersey U.S. Attorney Herbert Stein and Attorney General John Ashcroft. Upon election as governor, Christie hired for state jobs a dozen former subordinates in the U.S. attorney's office for key posts, including top executives who implemented the dragnet capturing Manzo after Christie put the sting in motion.
Defendants have an extremely difficult time proving selective prosecution. Therefore, Manzo's extensive filing if successful in Newark's federal court would be a legal landmark nationally. Manzo has said the indictments ruined his life, and that he will never give up and plead guilty. He's said also that he could not have found the ability to continue without the coverage of his fight by the Justice Integrity Project. That's because, he says, prosecutors tend to have such influence with the mainstream media and have unlimited taxpayer funds to crush defendants who lose their jobs and friends upon indictment. This was particularly true in the early stages of his case before he started winning court battles and several local columnists reported questions about the prosecution.
Christie's spokesman called Manzo's allegations "total nonsense," and has denied irregularities in the 2009 "Bid Rig III" corruption probe whereby the New Jersey U.S. attorney's office arrested 46 defendants on corruption charges in July 2009 in a sting congruent with Christie's campaign theme that he was fighting corruption by dishonest Democrats. Earlier, Christie, at right, and his successors worked closely with government informant Solomon Dwek to entice defendants into crime. Dwek was a New Jersey developer who admitted to a $50 million bank fraud and running a cruise ship brothel. He's sought leniency and huge living expenses by helping Christie and his successors obtain indictments of others. For about half of the arrests, Dwek used taxpayer funds to offer campaign contributions to local candidates, with all but one of the political targets a Democrat. Manzo has vowed to fight the charges. He won dismissal of two indictments because prosecutors attempted to ensnare him with an expanded reading of bribery laws in order to cover candidates when the law permits prosecution only of office-holders.
Determined to convict Manzo, Obama-appointed U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, left, and his team have obtained a third indictment against Manzo. The new indictment alleges Manzo corruptly crossed state lines in 2009 from Jersey City to Staten Island for his meeting with Dwek. Manzo says he never obtained funds from Dwek, and alleges that the new indictment shows selective prosecution since Dwek requested the meeting across the Hudson River. Further, he charges that authorities misused their powers when they arranged a leniency deal with Dwek that involved payments to Dwek of between $10,000 and $12,000 each month in funds belonging to Dwek's bank fraud victims. Manzo maintains there is something wrong with a federal arrangement for Dwek to be paid top-dollar by powerless victims to inveigle others into compromising situations far less serious, even if proven, than Dwek's own crimes.
The New Jersey proceeding has national significance. Christie is widely regarded by the establishment media as a "reformer" worthy of high national office in the next administration. Also, critics of the Obama Justice Department, particularly its Public Integrity Section, allege that is has continued Bush practices of illegally suppressing evidence in corruption case and whitewashing its own misconduct as part of an overall ends-justify-the-means policy to obtain victory in court at any cost.
Two Alabama cases, congressional hearings and lingering questions over DOJ's misconduct in its prosecution of Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens provide context for suspicions about DOJ's efforts in New Jersey. In Alabama, the DOJ relentlessly pursues former Democratic Gov. Don Siegelman on corruption charges despite compelling evidence that prosecutors framed Siegelman. As we have often reported, the DOJ should have supported recusal of Siegelman's trial judge for the appearance of bias because of multiple reasons, including his private company's acceptance of some $300 million in Bush contracts. The judge controls the closely held company as by far its largest shareholder.
Meanwhile, the DOJ is pursuing a complicated retrial of gambling corruption allegations next Monday with no indication it has seriously investigated claims of tens of millions in payments to some officials not on trial. The congressional hearings involve partisan Republican demands that Attorney Gen Eric Holder, at right, resign over failure to comply with Republican requests for more documents regarding the "Fast and Furious" gun-running plan his administration continued from the Bush era. In the Stevens case, a federal judge demanded a DOJ internal investigation of federal prosecutors after the Alaskan Republican was convicted in 2008 on corruption charges. The bad publicity from the conviction helped cost Stevens his seat in a narrow reelection vote shortly afterward. The trial judge found that prosecutors illegally suppressed evidence to win the conviction of the longtime senator, who later died in a plane crash. The DOJ vacated the conviction and reassigned prosecutors.
Those prosecutors have resurfaced to lead other botched investigations attacting national notoriety. One is the prosecution of National Security Agency whistleblower Thomas Drake. Authorities indicted him on spy charges threatening the rest of his life in prison because he informed a reporter of vast waste at NSA of taxpayer funds. But oversight by the trial judge forced prosecutors to drop nearly all charges rather than produce evidence in court. Another is the Alabama bingo prosecution, whose first trial ended last summer with no conviction of any defendant on any count. Earlier, a federal judge denounced prosecutors for illegally suppressing evidence they were required to provide to the defense. One co-defendant recently died on the eve of retrial, forcing postponement until next Monday.
In 2010, USA Today published a major series documenting more than 200 cases where federal judges had chastised prosecutors in recent case for illegal conduct. The relentless prosecution of Manzo and the Alabama defendants illustrate how such problems remain with scant apparent interest by the Obama administration in any reform, even when some of the scandals are directly traceable to political prosecutions by the Bush administration.
In New Jersey, the Feb. 7 hearing is before U.S. District Judge Jose Linares, who previously ruled that authorities overstepped congressional intent when they sought to expand the Hobbs Act to convict Manzo and other Bid Rig III defendants who were candidates, not office-holders. But Linares has warned Manzo and his counsel, John Lynch, that the path is difficult in proving selective prosecution.
A recent Jersey Journal news story provides this additional background on the case:
Manzo, who was not an elected official at the time, but was running for mayor of Jersey City, was charged with two counts of extortion of under the federal Hobbs Act and two counts of violating the Travel Act, meaning he crossed state lines to commit a crime. In May 2010 a federal judge tossed the Hobbs Act charges on the grounds that the Hobbs Act only applies to elected officials. But then the U.S. Attorney's Office filed a superseding indictment against him, leaving him facing two counts under the Travel Act and two counts of failing to report to authorities that others were collecting bribes. Lynch argued today that federal prosecutors' manufactured jurisdiction in Manzo's case by having FBI informant Solomon Dwek suggest one of their meetings take place in New York.
He said that even if the allegations were true, as a candidate for a municipal office, Manzo's conduct would be a matter for state election law and "Just because you pay a toll doesn't give the federal government jurisdiction."
Assistant US Attorney Mark McCarren argued Manzo willingly crossed a state line in the furtherance of illegal activity and that suffices to give the federal government jurisdiction under the Travel Act. Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Kanefsky said today that for Manzo to show there was selective prosecution, he would have to prove that others in his situation were not prosecuted because they were not Democrats. He also said that if there had been a conflict of interest in the U.S. Attorney's Office, there is none now since Christie and his closest allies no longer work there. U.S. District Court Judge Jose Linares said he will rule on all the arguments at a later date. Manzo's trial had been slated to begin on Feb. 7 but that seems unlikely now and a hearing will held that day to decide when the trial will start.
A Jersey Journal poll on Jan. 27 showed that nearly 70% of readers responding from the heavily Democratic region believe that the indictment was politically motivated by Christie, who has achieved a nationwide reputation among Republicans and many others as a reformer. Jersey City is an exception, in significant part because several news columnists have covered Manzo's perspective, particularly after he won a series of court rulings vacating previous charges.
The job pressures confronting most reporters require them to obtain their information primarily from prosecutors. In general, the Obama Justice Department has sought to vindicate even the most controversial of the prosecutions by the Bush DOJ in New Jersey and elsewhere. News coverage aside from the alternative media tends to glamorize prosecutors who provide reporters with inside information. Two reporters wrote a heavily promoted book about the Bid Rig III case, The Jersey Sting. Its authors are portrayed at left. They argue that their book is fair to all sides.
Among those Christie has appointed to major state jobs are Ralph Marra, above right, Christie's successor as interim U.S. attorney organizing the July 2009 arrests of Manzo and co-defendants. The DOJ has said its reviews find nothing improper in Marra's actions. The DOJ refuses to release specifics of its investigation.
Selected News Reports Referenced Above
New Jersey Cases
Jersey Journal, Political Insider: Manzo talked back to feds from beginning -- and is off the hook, Agustin C. Torres, Feb. 18, 2012. "The Ghost Who Walks" is also known in comics as "The Phantom." It could also apply to former Assemblyman Lou Manzo of Jersey City. Today, Manzo is no longer under indictment on corruption charges. When Manzo was indicted in 2009 as part of the massive FBI investigation, he said his life was over, no matter the outcome. His date of death was July 23, when he was picked up among many politicians in a nationally publicized sting that saw 44 people cuffed and marched before TV cameras and news photographers. I'll skip the heavy details of the indictments. Let's just say that in May 2010 a federal judge tossed the heart of the case out, extortion charges under the Hobbs Act, which only applies to elected officials. Manzo was running for mayor and was not an official. As far as I was concerned, the prosecution was essentially over. The U.S. Attorney's Office then tacked on two superseding indictments, two counts under the Travel Act (going to another state to plan bad things) and one count of failing to report that others were doing bad things (taking bribes). Yesterday, federal Judge Jose Linares released a 60-page opinion that dismissed the remaining charges. While the longtime Jersey City politician won, it cost him his home, insurance business and savings to defend himself -- this after he spent a ton of money running for office. During his legal battles, Manzo was unable to find even a part-time job because the issue of his indictment would pop up.
Jersey Journal, Federal judge dismisses all charges against former Jersey City Assemblyman, Michaelangelo Conte, Feb. 17, 2012. A federal judge today dismissed all charges against former Jersey City Assemblyman Lou Manzo. In a stunning blow to federal prosecutors, a federal judge in Newark has dismissed all charges against former Jersey City assemblyman Lou Manzo, one of 44 people arrested in the massive corruption sweep of July 2009. In a 60-page ruling released today, Judge Jose Linares granted Manzo’s motion to dismiss all counts in his indictment. Manzo is accused of accepting more than $20,000 from a government informant, Solomon Dwek, who was posing as a developer seeking favors. Manzo, who was not an elected official at the time, but was running for mayor of Jersey City, was charged with two counts of extortion of under the Hobbs Act and two counts of violating the Travel Act, meaning he crossed state lines to commit a crime.
Jersey Journal, Former Jersey City pol says corruption charges against him part of effort to elect Christie governor, Michaelangelo Conte, Jan. 26, 2012. The attorney representing former Jersey City assemblyman and mayoral candidate Lou Manzo, left, argued in court today that corruption charges against Manzo are bogus and was part of a conspiracy to get Republican Gov. Chris Christie elected. John Lynch, Manzo's attorney, argued today that all charges against his client should be immediately dropped and that the probe was aimed at helping Christie get elected by embarrassing Democrats. He also noted that several assistant US attorneys who worked on the cases got state jobs after Christie was elected. Christie was US Attorney at the inception of the massive probe that resulted in charges against Manzo and numerous other Hudson County Democrats. The governor's press secretary, Michael Drewniak, today called Manzo's claims "total nonsense," and accused Manzo in a phone interview of trying to divert attention from the crimes he has been charged with. One of 46 people arrested as part of the Operation Bid Rig III sting in 2009, Manzo was accused of accepting more than $20,000 from a government informant who was posing as developer who was seeking favors. Assistant US Attorney Eric Kanefsky said today that for Manzo to show there was selective prosecution, he would have to prove that others in his situation were not prosecuted because they were not Democrats. He also said that if there had been a conflict of interest in the US Attorney's Office, there is none now since Christie and his closest allies no longer work there.
Justice Integrity Project, Court Slaps Feds Again For Christie-Era NJ Prosecutions, Andrew Kreig, Feb. 21, 2011. In a major setback for the U.S. Justice Department and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a federal appeals court last week dismissed federal bribery and conspiracy charges against two New Jersey Democrats targeted in a trap set by Christie. Our non-partisan Justice Integrity Project has repeatedly pointed to the 46-defendant “Bid Rig III” case as one of the nation’s most scandalous political prosecutions of recent years.
Legal Schnauzer, Why Did Karl Rove and His GOP Thugs Target Don Siegelman in Alabama? Roger Shuler, Feb. 6, 2012. (1) Why did Karl Rove and his pro-business GOP thugs target Alabama Democratic Governor Don Siegelman? (2) Why did the Bush administration proceed with what has become the most notorious political prosecution in American history? Those questions are particularly powerful now because Siegelman last week filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court for review of his 2006 convictions on bribery and obstruction of justice charges. This appears to be Siegelman's last crack at appellate review, and if it is denied, he probably is headed back to federal prison. I've probably written more words about the Siegelman affair than just about anyone on the planet, so I might as well take a crack at answering those questions.Rickey Stokes News (Dothan, Alabama), The 2012 Bingo Trial -- The Actions of the Public Integrity Unit is in serious question, Rickey Stokes, Feb. 5, 2012. After reading what the juror has said in today’s Montgomery Advertiser, the following has to be said. So far, all media has been afraid to address this issue because everyone is afraid of the federal government and those in power. dddd
Justice Integrity Project, Alabama Democrat’s Slam at Party, Bush Advocacy Prompt Pushback, Guest Column by Jill Simpson, left, Jan. 31, 2012. The truth about Artur Davis is that he sold out the Democrats in the State of Alabama, including Don Siegelman, when he stopped requesting as a House Judiciary Committee member that Karl Rove be brought before Congress in a public hearing with full examination to answer for his crimes devising political prosecutions.
Justice Integrity Project, Judge Denies Siegelman Co-Defendant Scrushy New Trial, Andrew Kreig, Jan. 24, 2012. An Alabama federal judge imposed a reduced 70-month prison term for former HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy Jan. 24 on a 2006 corruption conviction after denying Scrushy’s request for a retrial based on new evidence. Middle District Chief U.S. District Judge Mark E. Fuller resentenced Scrushy for bribery, conspiracy and fraud charges involving the one-time billionaire’s donation of $500,000 beginning in 1999 to the non-profit Alabama Education Foundation at the request of then-Gov. Don Siegelman. Scrushy is shown at right with one of his sons during a prison visit. Siegelman is free on appeal bond while awaiting results of a petition to the Supreme Court or resentencing by Fuller.
Justice Integrity Project, Alabama Gambling Leader Claims DOJ Misconduct; Top Prosecutor Quits, Andrew Kreig, Jan. 20, 2012. Facing retrial Jan. 30 on federal corruption charges, Alabama’s top promoter of legalized gambling alleges that the elite Justice Department unit prosecuting him illegally suppressed evidence during his first trial last summer. Meanwhile, that unit’s deputy chief suddenly resigned this month under mysterious circumstances. Victoryland bingo parlor owner Milton McGregor’s willingness to hit back hard at federal prosecutors in this week’s filing could presage even more explosive allegations. Also, the sudden resignation of DOJ’s Public Integrity Section Deputy Chief Justin Shur shortly before his scheduled leadership of the McGregor retrial heightens confusion, at best, within DOJ’s anti-corruption unit. Known by the acronym “PIN,” it is led by Chief John "Jack" Smith under the overall leadership of DOJ Criminal Division Assistant Attorney Gen. Lanny Breuer, above right, and Attorney Gen. Eric Holder.
KTVB.COM (Idaho), Labrador, tells AG to resign during heated exchange on Capitol Hill, Sue Turner, Feb. 2, 2012. There was a heated exchange on Capitol Hill Thursday between U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Idaho Congressman Raul Labrador, a freshman Republican from Idaho shown at left. Labrador is on a House committee that's asking questions about Operation Fast and Furious -- a program that allowed people to buy illegal weapons and take them across the Mexican border. Operation Fast and Furious caused U.S. law enforcement to lose track of 3,400 weapons. Some of those weapons were found at the murder scene of U.S. border agent Brian Terry. Members of Congress don't think the attorney general has done enough to make sure something like this doesn't happen again. "I have asked for your resignation and I believe that because you have been grossly incompetent in the way that you have prepared before coming to Congress, I think you should resign," said Labrador. "That was among the worst things I think I've ever seen in Congress. And maybe this is the way you do things in Idaho or wherever you're from," replied Holder. Holder says before arrests can be made they have to make sure their investigation is complete and they go into court with everything they need.
USA Today, DOJ paying legal fees for prosecutors who botched case, Brad Heath, Feb. 2, 2013. The U.S. government has spent nearly $1.8 million defending prosecutors from allegations that they broke the law in the botched corruption case against former Alaska senator Ted Stevens, Justice Department records show. The case against Stevens fell apart three years ago when the Justice Department admitted its attorneys had improperly concealed evidence that could have helped his defense. A court-ordered investigation concluded in November that prosecutors had engaged in "significant, widespread, and at times intentional misconduct," but that they should not face criminal contempt of court charges. Records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show the department paid about $1.6 million since 2009 to private lawyers representing the six prosecutors targeted by that court investigation. It paid an additional $208,000 to defend three prosecutors from a separate finding that they had committed civil contempt of court. "Unfortunately, it's the taxpayers who are losing twice," said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, above right, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee. "First, the Justice Department committed serious legal errors and ethical missteps in its taxpayer-funded investigation and trial against Sen. Stevens. And second, this is an unseemly high amount of money being spent by the taxpayers to defend what appears to be egregious misconduct."
Hunterdon County Democrat, Former assistant prosecutor files lawsuit against Hunterdon County Prosecutor's Office, N.J., various officials, Lillian Shupe, Feb. 2, 2012. Another former assistant prosecutor has filed a lawsuit against the Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office. Ben Barlyn, who was hired as an assistant prosecutor in 2007, is taking the action. He claims he was fired Aug. 24, 2010 after he complained about the dismissal of criminal charges against Sheriff’s Office personnel. Arnold Lakind, of the law firm, Szaferman, Lakind, Blumstein & Blader, on Wednesday, Feb. 1 filed suit in Superior Court of Mercer County in Trenton on Barlyn’s behalf. Besides the Prosecutor’s Office, listed as defendants are Paula Dow, who was state attorney general at the time; then acting Hunterdon prosecutor Dermot O’Grady; Hunterdon County; the state; the state Division of Criminal Justice; the Attorney General’s Office and up to 25 other people whose identities are not known at this time.
Other Commentaries on Prosecutions
Boston Pheonix, Kevin White, the Feds, and the press, Harvey Silverglate, Feb. 7, 2012. Some thoughts are dashing around in my mind about a topic that thus far has gotten little play in the aftermath of Kevin White's death. Since the Phoenix did so much of the best reporting on the White political era, I figured I'd post my thoughts on the website. Little has been said about the role the press played in keeping Kevin White from running for a fourth term as mayor, and in keeping him from moving into national politics....I love many things about the Globe and the Times; I am a loyal reader of the newsprint editions of both papers; but they still do a terrible job of reporting what federal prosecutors really do and how they "make" their criminal cases -- some involving true crime, but too many involving innocent victims of unsavory prosecutorial tactics that distort rather than uncover truth.