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Washington Post columnist David Broder 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. But Broder got the Christie story completely backward in his Sept. 2 column. The influential pundit described Corbett, his state's attorney general and also a former U.S. attorney, this way:

His claim to fame is that his investigations of corrupt legislators have so far sent several of them to jail.  In this race, he has modeled himself on Chris Christie, the freshman governor of New Jersey, promising, as Christie did, to oppose new taxes and shrink state government.

Far from limiting government, Christie, right, wasted vast amounts of taxpayer funds to help himself and his cronies. Look no farther than his scheme as U.S. attorney to connive with Solomon Dwek, a big-time bank swindler and brothel operator, to crush political opponents with criminal charges timed to explode at the beginning of the 2009 Christie campaign.

 

The Christie-and-Dwek tale recounted below illustrates why we need more investigative reporting in politics as this year's election season heats up. Pundits seldom deign to discuss obvious dirty tricks, much less the deviltry from unwarranted criminal charges against political targets to destroy them and their families as part of an election strategy. On Sept. 12, legal commentator Roger Shuler used evidence from this report to author on his blog Legal Schnauzer, "Stench Becomes Overwhelming in U.S. Justice System."

This is a huge nationwide problem, as further indicated by the Bush White House's notorious purge of nine of the nation's 93 presidentially appointed U.S. attorneys for political reasons after the 2006 elections. The unprecedented mid-term firings were preceded by DOJ Chief of Staff Kyle Sampson's email to Karl Rove advocating "loyal Bushies" in those jobs.

Both the Bush and Obama DOJ then proceeded to keep business-as-usual by whitewashing their internal investigation of DOJ.  First, Bush's DOJ appointed Nora Dannehy, a secretly compromised prosecutor, to lead the nationwide probe, as the Justice Integrity Project reported earlier this summer. Then Bush's DOJ limited Dannehy's investigation to essentially one of the fired prosecutors.

DOJ could thus claim an internal investigation while ignoring all the other prosecutors fired or the conduct of those remaining, plus the impact on whatever innocent victims were created during the nationwide scandal. The Obama-Holder DOJ has gone along every step of the way in maintaining this cover-up. They benefit by continuing their own power to use DOJ precisely as they want, as well as benefitting from the strong internal loyalties of DOJ, reflecting in promotions and outside career opportunities for those handling such sensitive matters.

The nasty after-effects of the scandal continue to shape our nation's politics. In fact, there's no way to assess this year's elections without understanding the root causes of how we've created an anything-to-win culture of scheming and lying by prosecutor-turned-politicians, with political pundits glossing over it either by choice or by cluelessness .

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Let's start by examining how Christie himself responded to the threat posed by the 2006 White House-orchestrated purge of those deemed insufficiently political in using their powers controlling the central government's criminal and civil litigation in their regions.

During 2006, Christie was placed on a preliminary list of those slated for firing for insufficient political loyalty, according to subsequent testimony. His actions after that included:

  • Pre-election subpoenas tarnishing New Jersey's Democratic Senate candidate Robert Menendez 61 days prior to election.  The subpoenas never resulted in charges but prompted many headlines suggesting corruption by Menendez before he narrowly won reelection.  Christie, not surprisingly, survived the political purge just after the election that cost eight of his peers nationally their jobs and sent a powerful message to all remaining prosecutors.
  • No-bid contracts for tens of millions of dollars to prominent Republican former Justice Department officials to monitor settlement agreements with corporate criminal defendants. One contract valued at $28 million to $52 million went to former Republican U.S. Attorney Gen. John Ashcroft, below, Christie's former boss, to monitor a kick-back scheme by Zimmer Holdings to induce surgeons to use its medical devices.  A similar no-bid deal went to former New Jersey U.S. Attorney Herbert Stern, Christie's mentor.

Far from "limiting government" in any normal sense, these were sweetheart deals for everyone except the taxpayers.  The public incurred the necessary of costs of investigating and documenting criminal activity.  But corporate payments to make amends went to the coffers of party insiders instead of going to the government or victims.

There's an additional way Christie's contracts for cronies scheme looted taxpayers, albeit in gray areas presumptively legal:  The former U.S. attorney Stern, other principals in his firm and their relatives benefitting from Christie's no-bid contract for them kicked back contributed $24,000 to the Christie gubernatorial campaign, according to an in-depth report by Factcheck.org, a project of the non-partisan Annenberg Public Policy Center.  Taxpayers funds were then drawn down to triple the  donation to $72,000 because of the state's requirement to match private donations, investigators reported.

Christie's biggest step in scoring points in his inner-party circles as a loyal apparatchik was a plan to empower bank swindler Dwek with federal funds to set up defendants in "Bid Rig III" (a code term devised by law enforcement) in a sting operation.

Earlier, Dwek bilked banks out of $50 million and ran a cruise ship brothel in the Caribbean, according to court testimony this year and last. Christie' DOJ filed criminal charges and worked out a deal for him to help create new cases.  As part of this, the feds provided Dwek with funds to donate to local campaigns.  He and his associates then gathered evidence that recipients were responding in a fashion that could prompt bribery and honest-services types of criminal charges.

In a potential violation of the Hatch Act, Christie twice sought political advice from Rove about a gubernatorial run, according to Rove's 2009 congressional testimony.

Christie resigned from the U.S. attorney's office in December 2008 following the GOP presidential defeat.  But first he made two key promotions to establish the office's leadership.  He promoted his First Assistant Ralph Marra, left, to become acting U.S. attorney, putting in place the office leader who would finish Bid Rig III.

Christie also promoted his attorney-assistant Michele Brown, to whom he'd secretly loaned $46,000, to take Marra's place as the number two executive in the office.

Christie was soon boasting at a 2009 campaign event in West Windsor, NJ that he was still in contact with staff from his old office and would be bringing some to Trenton:

You know, we're going to ferret out waste and fraud and abuse in government.  I think you know I'll do that better than anybody.  I've got a group of U.S. Attorneys sitting down in Newark still doing their jobs.  But let me tell you, they are watching the newspapers.

And after we win this election, I'm going to take a whole group of them to Trenton and put them in every one of the departments because they saw a lot of waste and abuse being investigated while we were in the U.S. Attorney's office that didn't rise to the level of a crime.  So I told them, the good news is, when we get to Trenton, we don't have to worry about beyond a reasonable doubt anymore.

As he boasted, Christie has filled the U.S. attorney's office with "Loyal Christies."  A New York Times investigation later reported that Brown, right, seemed instrumental in DOJ efforts resisting news media requests for Christie's travel records. 

Then records were released. "They showed," the Times said, "the U.S. attorney often stayed at expensive hotels on the taxpayers' dime, routinely exceeding per diem rates set for Justice Department officials."  Further, the newspaper reported that Brown accompanied her boss on 16 trips, the bulk of them in 2007 and 2008.  The trips included one to London and another to a Las Vegas convention, sometimes accompanied by family or other staff.

The Loyal Christies in an Obama-led Justice Department orchestrated their July 2009 press conference to showcase one of the largest indictments in New Jersey history just as the 2009 election season was heating up.

Roughly half of the 44 suspects were local political figures, with the other suspects in such non-political crimes as money-laundering. All but one of the political suspects were Democrats, according to defense sources.  His successor Marra worked with Dwek to grab headlines with one of the largest corruption cases in the state history.

Harper's columnist Scott Horton saw the case immediately as part of an ongoing nationwide scandal of Bush DOJ political prosecutions that he'd been tracking elsewhere. His column, Manure for the Garden State 13 months ago, argued that the prosecution was highly suspect.

Horton's findings are congruent also with the research of the Justice Integrity Project into the nether world of elections.  Our research is primarily about unwarranted prosecutions, often involving political motives.  This also involves persistent reports from otherwise credible sources of blackmail of candidates via "opposition research," conspiracies to change election totals by manipulating voting machine software, systematic campaign finance violations, manipulating voter registration lists, and similar tactics that are either too boring or too incendiary for normal news coverage.

Under the New Jersey plan put in motion by Christie and carried forward by his successors, federal authorities are requiring victims of Dwek's frauds to pay Dwek between $10,000 and $12,000 a month in living expenses out of the estate of his bankrupt companies.  Authorities have extraordinary - and controversial - discretion to determine legitimate expenses after Ponzi and bankruptcy proceedings, as illustrated dramatically by our recent reporting on the $3.65 billion Petters fraud in Minnesota.

In court, several of the political defendants have pleaded guilty or been convicted at trial on corruption charges, and have been sentenced to prison.  Each guilty plea creates new headlines that further cement public perceptions about Christie effective work as a corruption fighter.  It's one of his enduring images as indicated by the nationally syndicated Broder column, although his election victory drew also on such related factors as widespread unhappiness with the Democratic incumbent Jon Corzine.

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Disrupting the orderly progression of defendants to prison is former state assemblyman Louis M. Manzo, left, who has mounted a nearly one-man campaign to expose the prosecution as political and otherwise abusive.

A defendant himself, Manzo and his brother Ronald were both charged with accepting $27,500 in cash payments from government informant Dwek during early 2009 in exchange for Manzo's official assistance on development matters if he became mayor. Manzo wrote us:

I maintain my innocence. I never took a bribe from anyone, or agreed to any corrupt action. The prosecutors in this case know that as well. The indictment is the manipulation of a corrupted prosecution, handled by some prosecutors who had personal and professional stakes in the investigation and prosecution of the Bid Rig III police action. Those stakes, as documented from the public record, were jobs for themselves or family members tied to former United States Attorney Chris Christie's election for Governor of New Jersey in November 2009.

The presiding judge dismissed the main charges against Manzo as unfounded.  But the government has refused to give up, and its appeal that could keep him in jeopardy or at least limbo for two years or more.

Authorities deny wrongdoing. Marra, the acting U.S. attorney who handled the pre-election indictments, went on to join the Christie administration as senior vice president of the New Jersey State Gaming Commission, and win absolution from an ethics complaint to DOJ's Office of Professional Responsibility.  DOJ declines to provide the text of its ruling. That's typical of the protection that office affords to its employees and former employees against meaningful public scrutiny.

Christie put Brown, by then at a private law firm friendly to his administration, on his transition team with an assignment to bring on more of his staff.  He later named her as his appointments counsel, one of at least 10 former federal prosecutors from his office he brought with him, including Marra.

The Justice Integrity Project researched the matter and identified it as a "Leading Case" of suspected Justice Department misconduct nationally, with details here.

Manzo, meanwhile is tireless in creating charts showing what he calls "undisputed facts" showing how the prosecution has been undermined by vast self-dealing and outrageous conflicts of interest by its leading figures, unfair devastation of defendant victims and apathy by ostensible watchdogs at DOJ and Congress.  He says that Dwek has made vastly more donations to local Republican politicians than Democrats, under at least some circumstances constituting bribery, but that authorities declined to pursue those cases.

Manzo speaks passionately of the Christie charade of good and "limited government," and its nationwide implications:

This is the most egregious corrupt prosecution of all the cases you at the Justice Integrity Project are bringing to light.  The tragedy of Bid Rig III is that if the government will stoop this low ─ to target for prosecution grandfathers and single moms running in local elections ─ who then is safe?

Manzo is seeking not simply to preserve his freedom but to document why the prosecution system is out-of-control ─ both in New Jersey and extending to top level of his own Democratic party's political appointees in Washington, DC.

We'll summarize specifics shortly in a second part of this article.  For now, Manzo seems a credible and indeed heroic figure from what we can tell so far.  His opponents in government?  Not so much.

*****

As for the top journalists whom we rely upon to inform us about such political battles?

In the spirit of continuing education, I visited the Washington Post's auditorium this summer to hear a lecture by Broder for fellow alums of the University of Chicago.  It was hard not to be impressed at his spry style, especially after reading that he received his bachelor's degree at age 18 and celebrates his 81st birthday this week on Sept. 11.  But the substance was pure tweed-jacket, faculty-club conventional wisdom, with no hint of the disasters for unwary voters.

I raised my hand to ask a question about the role of dirty tricks in elections, but was vastly outnumbered by wonks and apprentice-wonks seeking insights about more conventional fare suitable for polite discussion.  I didn't push too hard on it because Broder answered my question, in effect, by saying in a different context that he's not about to change what he's done for so many years.

In other words, he's comfortable with his world and its winners, like limited government advocate Chris Christie.  But how's that really working out for the public?

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Coming next in Part II: Feds Prevail As Victims Despair