Court Slaps Feds Again For Christie-Era NJ Prosecutions

By Andrew Kreig / Project Director's Blog

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. The decision helps illustrate why 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.

On Feb. 17, the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Christie’s successors wrongly applied a 1946 federal bribery law when they convicted Jersey City mayoral candidate Louis Manzo and his campaign manager (and brother) Ronald in an elaborate sting that Christie, at right, set in motion before he resigned in 2008 near the end of the Bush administration. The three-judge appeals court upheld the pre-trial ruling of the defendants’ trial judge that prosecutors wrongly charged the Manzos under the Hobbs Act. The appellate judges said authorities have never previously used the law to win convictions against a candidate unelected to office. Judge D. Michael Fisher, a 2003 Bush appointee, wrote the unanimous decision. Democrats Thomas L. Ambro and Marjorie O. Rendell, wife of just-retired Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, concurred. The judges traced the history of language in the Hobbs Act through what they called “centuries” of common law in the Anglo-American system. That review convinced them to decline prosecutors’ request that the court expand the law enough to cover candidates such as the Manzo brothers. The ruling thus upheld a decision last spring by U.S. District Judge José L. Linares, a 2002 Bush appointee. Louis Manzo is at left,below.

The ruling delivered yet another courtroom loss to federal prosecutors who are trying to vindicate the partisan methods that the Republican Christie used as New Jersey’s U.S. Attorney from 2001 through 2008 on his way to his state’s governor’s mansion campaigning as a crime-fighter and reformer. But the loss by New Jersey's federal prosecutors of their last two jury trials in the case is unprecedented during the past decade, according to an Associated Press report in the state's newspapers. Among the reasons, their chief witness Solomon Dwek committed a $50 million bank fraud and ran a brothel before the government supplied him with vast amounts of taxpayer money to try bribe local politicians and persuade rabbis to launder funds. Moreover, Dwek has had to admit on the witness stand that prosecutors cooperated in paying him between $10,000 and $12,000 a month from court-supervised assets of the victims of his frauds. In contrast to the frugal public image Christie has fostered, the money was to pay for Dwek's services and expertise. The charges, with all but one of the political defendants a Democrat, were announced during the Christie campaign. Some news reports claim the charges were timed by his former staff for maximum impact to improve his standing with voters and news reporters. Louis Manzo told us this weekend, “I thank a just God for answering a lot of people's prayers by granting this victory and the wisdom of the Appellate Court for pronouncing it.” Rebekah Carmichael, spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, right, commented to us, "We are reviewing the Court's decision to determine our next steps." So far, the Obama appointee Fishman has largely remained out of the headlines by having his team follow-through on the Bid Rig III prosecutions. On our Project website, we have documented the case’s scandalous origins and the prosecutors working on it with Christie and his successor who contributed to his political campaign and then flocked to posts in his administration after his 2009 campaign victory. In December, we documented our findings in,“Christie's Corruption Case Christie's Corruption Case Shows Horrid Legacy of 'Loyal Bushies,' Cover-up.’”  In November, it was “Feds Drop Scandal-Prone Star Witness in Politicized NJ Witch-Hunt.”

Yet the mainstream media (with few and sporadic exceptions) treats Christie as a reformer. This is largely because he says he is -- and because he won his election, thereby providing him with the bully pulpit. We examined these perceptions and the DOJ's role last September in "Politicians, Press Cheat Taxpayers By Whitewashing DOJ’s Wasteful Election-Season Witch-hunt." That Daily Censored column began:

Washington Post columnist David Broder last week cited New Jersey’s freshman Gov. Chris Christie as a role model for Pennsylvania’s Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Corbett, who similarly boasts of a platform to limit government and fight crime. This exclusive report by the Justice Integrity Project that I lead shows the following: Far from limiting government, Christie wasted vast amounts of taxpayer funds to help himself and his cronies.

The pattern continues, with the Washington-insider tabloid Politico reporting on Feb. 20, "Christie adviser mulls PAC," as follows: "One of Chris Christie's top political advisers revealed that he is considering formation of a federal political action committee because of the extraordinary interest in the New Jersey governor." Understandably enough, a politician and his supporters want to put the best spin on coverage by political reporters. What's harder to discern is why Christie's major Democratic opponents and the press would allow him such a free ride without criticism when the abuses are so readily documented, as we have done regarding his multi-million no-bid giveaways as U.S. attorney to cronies and his near-firing during the notorious Bush political purge of U.S. attorneys in 2006. That scandal was because DOJ and White House advisor Karl Rove, a mentor to Christie, wanted to foster more of a "loyal Bushie" mentality nationally among prosecutors who would target Democrats especially shortly before elections, even if the charges might seem dubious. 

Meanwhile, Christie's successors at the Justice Department have some tough decisions to make on whether they will cut their losses or continue as they've been doing on polishing the legacy of Christie and his interim successor, Acting U.S. Attorney Ralph Marra. Marra supervised the Manzo sting and Bid Rig III indictments before decamping for a plum post in the Christie administration supervising gambling. More specifically, will Fishman and his Washington colleagues seek Supreme Court review of the Manzo decision? Whatever the case on that, they face another difficult choice in coming weeks over how to handle several defendants who previously pleaded guilty to Hobbs Act violations even though they, like the Manzo brothers, were not elected officials. Most of those defendants will undoubtedly seek to void their guilty pleas based on the appeals court ruling.

The Obama administration has proceed all-out to sustain convictions in this and most of the other notorious Bush-era political prosecutions across the nation. As an additional factor, the Dwek meetings with Bid Rig III defendants and their indictment occurred during 2009 when Democrats nominally controlled the office. This was through Christie-appointed Acting U.S. Attorney Ralph Marra and First Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle Brown, both at left. Marra and Brown each made controversial decisions that helped Christie’s campaign as they pushed through the Bid Rig III indictments. After Christie’s election the two joined the migration of more than a dozen U.S. Attorney office personnel to jobs in the Christie administration.

Louis Manzo commented: "I am grateful for John Lynch's logical and brilliant argument before the Appellate Court,” he said of his attorney. “As John Lynch noted, before beginning his oral argument -- we strongly contest the government's statement of facts for the case. It is Fantasyland! We look forward in continuing to follow the truth in this case, while the government continues to run from it!"

Below are excerpts from selected recent columns about legal reform and related issues in security, the news media and politics. The full text is available via the button News Reports at the top of this site's Home Page.

Politico, Christie adviser mulls PAC, Maggie Haberman, Feb. 20, 2011. One of Chris Christie's top political advisers revealed that he is considering formation of a federal political action committee because of the extraordinary interest in the New Jersey governor. Bill Palatucci, often described as Christie's "political godfather," said that not forming such a fundraising committee would be "leaving money on the table."

Associated Press/Bergen Record, Court upholds dismissal of N.J. corruption charges, Feb. 17, 2011. See also, Feb. 17, 2011.  A federal appeals court ruled Thursday that a pair of brothers arrested in New Jersey's massive 2009 corruption sting won't have to face the most serious charges against them, a decision that could lead to the dismissal of similar charges against several other defendants. The ruling by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals represents another defeat to the government in its prosecution of the cases stemming from the bust. Though about half of the 46 people arrested have pleaded guilty, in recent months two trials ended in acquittals and charges were dropped against another defendant.

Asbury Park Press, Solomon Dwek: a liability in trials? Jean Mikle, Feb. 14, 2011. When Solomon Dwek ran his national real estate Ponzi scheme, he used the power of persuasion to con relatives, investors and even a major bank out of tens of millions of dollars. When Dwek later worked undercover for the FBI, 46 politicians, political operatives and rabbis were arrested on money laundering and bribery charges, mostly because Dwek had convinced them he could be trusted. Now, though, Dwek's silver tongue may have lost its luster.

Judicial Oversight

Salon / Unclaimed Territory, U.S. Justice v. the World, Glenn Greenwald, Feb.18, 2011. Yesterday, in South Carolina, an Obama-appointed federal judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by Jose Padilla against former Bush officials Donald Rumsfeld, John Ashcroft, Paul Wolfowitz and others. That suit alleges that those officials knowingly violated Padilla's Constitutional rights by ordering his due-process-free detention and torture.  All of this -- including the torture -- was carried out pursuant to orders from President Bush, Secretary Rumsfeld and other high-ranking officials. Just as the Supreme Court was about to hear Padilla's plea to be charged or released -- and thus finally decide if the President has the power to imprison American citizens on U.S. soil with no charges of any kind -- the Government indicted him in a federal court on charges far less serious than Ashcroft had touted years earlier, causing the Supreme Court to dismiss Padilla's arguments as "moot"; Padilla was then convicted and sentenced to 17 years in prison.

Think Progress, Rep. Chris Murphy Announces Bill To End Supreme Court Immunity To Judicial Ethics Law, Ian Millheiser, Feb. 18, 2011. The Code of Conduct for United States Judges provides that in almost all circumstances, “a judge should not personally participate in fund-raising activities.” Yet, because the Justices of the Supreme Court have exempted themselves from this Code, conservative Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito have all participated in high-dollar fundraisers for right-wing political causes. In response to this unethical — but technically legal — conduct by these three justices, Rep. Chris Murphy (D-CT) is pushing a bill that would end the Supreme Court’s immunity to federal ethics law.

News Media

Washington Post, Rhee faces renewed scrutiny over depiction of students' progress when she taught, Nick Anderson, Feb. 11, 2011. Former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, known for her crusade to use standardized test scores to help evaluate teachers, is facing renewed scrutiny over her depiction of progress that her students made years ago when she was a schoolteacher. A former D.C. math teacher, Guy Brandenburg, posted on his blog a study that includes test scores from the Baltimore school where Rhee taught from 1992 to 1995. The post, dated Jan. 31, generated intense discussion in education circles this week. In it, Brandenburg contended that the data show Rhee "lied repeatedly" in an effort to make gains in her class look more impressive than they were.

Daily Howler, Special report: Michelle Rhee’s sacred story! From Tall Tale to Educational Reform, Bob Somerby, Feb. 15-21, 2011. In 1994 and 1995, did Michelle Rhee (and a second teacher) create an educational miracle? That’s what Rhee has always said—and her inspiring, self-glorying tale has shaped an entire generation’s idea of “education reform.”

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