Manzo's 'Ruthless Ambition' Hits Mark on Christie’s Record

A new biography critical of Gov. Chris Christie is being unfairly attacked even though it provides rare, solidly researched insight on the governor’s career.

Louis Manzo Ruthless Ambition CoverThe Jersey Journal’s reports on Ruthless Ambition: The Rise and Fall of Chris Christie by former Jersey City Assemblyman Louis Manzo have been balanced and insightful, just like coverage of underlying legal developments.

In a deadline-pressured business, it helps when experienced reviewers know the topics under discussion.

But let’s examine the words of two other prominent critics of Manzo and his book.

One attack comes from the governor’s office via Christie’s longtime spokesman Michael Dwerniak. A second comes from a review in the Star-Ledger, the state’s highest circulation newspaper. On close inspection, those attacks fall flat.

We start with Dwerniak, a confidante of the governor when Christie was a Bush-appointed Republican who served as U.S. Attorney for New Jersey from 2002 to the end of 2008.

Christie supervised the recruitment of Solomon Dwek, who became a government informant to help authorities implicate corruption targets.  

Dwek was seeking leniency for his participation in a $50 million bank fraud while he was also running a brothel. Authorities arranged for him to get more than $10,000 a month for living expenses while he tempted prosecution targets with bribes and money laundering schemes.

With Dwek’s help, Ralph Marra, Christie’s interim successor, supervised capture of 45 white collar crime suspects in the biggest such mass arrest in New Jersey history. The arrests were timed for July 2009 as Christie was running for governor on a crime-fighting platform.

Suspects included Manzo, who had been an unsuccessful Jersey City Democratic mayoral candidate earlier in 2009. Authorities said Manzo’s brother and campaign manager, Ron Manzo, agreed to accept $30,000 in donations from Dwek, who was pretending to be a real estate developer who wanted expedited support for a project if Lou Manzo became mayor.

Manzo lost, and later denied taking or agreeing to take any money. Ron Manzo pleaded guilty in a related case in return for testimony against another defendant, but he did not implicate his brother.

In a rare victory in a federal case, Louis Manzo won dismissal of all three successive indictments against him. U.S. District Judge José Linares of Newark and a federal appeals court in Philadelphia ruled, for example, that the Hobbs Act bans bribe to officials, not candidates like Manzo.

Louis ManzoTeam Christie’s response to this set of facts and to Manzo’s book?

Drewniak said Manzo is “not credible” and suggested that prosecutors knew the law better than the judges.

“He [Manzo] was the beneficiary of a change in federal law, and he was never declared or found ‘innocent,’” Drewniak said in statement. “That’s a big difference, a huge distinction, just as Judge Linares noted in his decision.”

The Drewniak/Christie statement reveals arrogance. Even a casual observer of TV knows that defendants are presumed innocent unless prosecutors prove guilt.

Also, the Hobbs Act is a famous law that did not “change” to help Manzo. Its precedents clearly focused on officials. By tradition, federal prosecutors are supposed to be an elite group that knows the law before an indictment. Furthermore, their famous code is to accept decisions gracefully as justice without berating defendants and judges.  

With that background, retired Star-Ledger Op-Ed Editor Josh McMahon wrote the paper’s book review April 13, entitled, Anger at Chris Christie clouds author's quest for vindication.

“Unfortunately,” the reviewer stated, “rather than telling this story straight, Manzo allows bitterness and hatred to stampede into his version of what happened and along the way tramples the reputations of just about everybody.” McMahon continued, “If the tactics used by those involved in the investigations and prosecutions were as illegal as he says they were, why weren’t they found out?”

But the flaws in the prosecutions were in fact discovered and reported right from the beginning except by cheerleaders for the prosecution.  

In Manure for the Garden State, Harper’s columnist Scott Horton, a professor at Columbia Law School, exposed serious flaws in the Bid Rig case less than a month after indictments.
I began later that year to augment those themes with many columns and radio commentaries that continue to the present.  

The Manzo prosecution was bad enough, but similar problems arose in other New Jersey and national cases, as I reported in, Complaints about Justice Department Go Nowhere

For conventional wisdom, I hosted on my weekly radio show “Washington Update” Josh Margolin, one of the two Star-Ledger reporters who wrote the pro-Christie book Jersey Sting published in 2011. Margolin, by then a reporter for the New York Post, argued that his book’s approach had been fair.  

Christie boosters have had ample opportunities like that to state their case through the years, including on the Bid Rig case. McMahon apparently supports this Pollyanna view.

But injustice occurs, and at times is quite blatant. Boston litigator and Harvard law professor Harvey Silverglate documented that theme in his 2009 book, Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent.

Almost anyone can be indicted if prosecutors want a conviction badly enough.

For example, Dr. Cyril Wecht, an eminent forensic consultant and medical school professor based in Pittsburgh, had to spend $8.6 million to defend himself from more than 80 federal corruption felony charges before the case collapsed in front of a judge willing to scrutinize prosecution arguments.  

Most charges against Wecht were 43 counts of mail fraud because he sent 43 personal faxes during his 20 years as a part-time county coroner. The total cost to the county from Wecht’s 43 faxes was just $3.86 in electricity and long distance charges, as I reported in a 2010 Huffington Post column, Famed Physician Dr. Cyril Wecht: Fight Justice Department Misconduct.

In theory, the same law used by prosecutors against Wecht could be invoked also against nearly any government employee who has sent personal messages using a government-owned computer, fax machine or phone. That won’t happen to many suspects, of course. Yet such freedom-threatening prosecution is obviously a threat to those like Wecht even within the law enforcement community who displease someone powerful for some unknown reason.     

In sum, Manzo correctly warns against the possibility of prosecutorial injustice. He is not crazy. But our system can sometimes seem so – unless we pay better attention.

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