Friday, September 29, 2006

"The Law of the Jungle" – Is It About to Become "The Law of the Jugular?"

The New York Times was happily trumpeting their front page “devoutly to be wished” story -- that the national Democrats could now be poised on the brink of retaking control of the United States Senate, apparently seeing from their lofty perch what reporter Robin Toner called "a map with unexpected opportunities." And yet, a bevy of newspapers in New Jersey reported the very same day, September 28th, that Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat candidate for the Senate, is caught up in yet another scandal, this one involving alleged influence peddling with Hudson County contracts for psychiatric work for jail inmates a few years back.

As the AP story, printed in the Courier Post, succinctly put it in their lede:

A psychiatrist who worked as an FBI informant in a criminal investigation of several northern New Jersey politicians has linked U.S. Senate Democrat Robert Menendez to a scheme to manipulate government contracts, several published reports said today.

Until this past January, a Hudson County Congressman and local political boss, Menendez was recently appointed to the remainder of the Senate term of now-Governor Jon Corzine when he took over as New Jersey’s Chief Executive last January, and had to step down from his U. S. Senate post. New Jersey law allows a Governor to make the temporary appointment until an election can be held, and Corzine appointed Menendez, who was subsequently nominated for a new 6 year term at the Democrat primary election this past spring. The seat is viewed as a “must hold” for the Democrats looking to take over the Senate. Relatively unknown outside rough-and-tumble Hudson County, Menendez must establish statewide appeal to win.

But the papers have just revealed that lifetime Menendez pal and highly politically connected attorney, Donald Scarinci, of Scarinci & Hollenbeck in Lyndhurst, NJ, was suddenly canned by the Menendez campaign as the chief fund-raiser, or presumably any other role for the former Congressman. It seems the "Jersey Donald" had been caught on tape back in February of 1999, verbally muscling a psychiatrist and former FBI informant, Dr. Oscar Sandoval, into rehiring another psychiatrist, Dr. Vincente Ruiz (who Sandoval had previously fired) to be a full partner with him in working on Hudson County contracts for psychiatric care.

On the tape, Scarinci is clearly heard requested this all as a favor to Bob Menendez. The implication of Scarcini’s "request" was that if Sandoval didn’t go along, he ran the risk of losing those Hudson County contracts. In fact, Sandoval had complained to Scarinci that he was having trouble getting some of the contracts signed. So, he rolled over at the time, but kept the tape of the conversation, and on September 28th it landed in a big media splash. Several stories about the incident hit the press in various daily papers statewide in the morning, and by evening it was all over talk radio, the internet and TV. You can just imagine Chuck Schumer radioing ahead for an emergency landing from his brief flight of NY Times fancy, as the day wore on.

The comment that will likely jog everyone’s recollection of this incident, is when Scarinci is heard urging Sandoval to bring Ruiz "into the tent" and that if he didn’t and Ruiz went after him, then "someone is going to cry," and you end up with the "law of the jungle."” It's a bit garbled, but you can hear it all at about 2:10 to 2:13 on the tape.

Donald Scarinci has had a long and very close relationship with Bob Menendez, having been a substantial campaign contributor, and he even served as his Treasurer in past Congressional campaigns. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer story by Chris Mondics, he was Menendez’s campaign treasurer in 1999 at the time of the phone call between himself and Sandoval. And add to that the fact that Menendez's campaign headquarters is currently located in a building partly owned by Scarinci, according to the Inquirer, and where his Law Firm is located, in an intertwining tangle that is and will continue to be a huge embarrassment for the Menendez campaign.

Records show Scarinci and members of his law firm have given $61,655 to Menendez's political committees since the 1992 election cycle, when Menendez first ran for the House.

Menendez maintains his campaign-finance headquarters in the building that houses Scarinci & Hollenbeck.

In the last two years, the Menendez campaign has paid $33,568 in rent and other costs to 1100 Valley Brook Associates. In an e-mail, Scarinci wrote that he is a member of the corporation that owns the building.

In a very limited statement released to a few papers, Scarcini did acknowledge his awareness of the 1999 taped conversation, which has become part of a counter-suit filed by Sandoval earlier this year, but Scarinci now insists he was not speaking for Menendez, as he clearly was heard claiming on tape at the time.

The statement is published in full at the end of the Inquirer story.

Dr. Vincente Ruiz, meanwhile, was at one time a full-time doctor on staff with the North Bergen Community action Corporation, NHCAC, the community action nonprofit which had already been the subject of, as we have noted, a still-raging ethics and possibly criminal scandal involving Menendez having personally rented a building to the NHCAC for almost a decade, while assisting the organization in obtaining federal funds as a Congressman. According to a 990 nonprofit tax filing for the group, Ruiz had earned over $125,000.00 as a staff physician at NHCAC. The Star-Ledger, a widely circulating and influential paper in the State, reported in their story today that

Ruiz did not return phone calls last night. Ruiz in 1998 earned $125,192 as a physician with the North Hudson Community Action Corp.

And, according to records posted at PoliticalMoneyLine, which can be searched here, Vincente Ruiz was also a past campaign contributor to Menendez’s congressional campaigns, including a $1,000.00 contribution in May of 1992, and a $250.00 contribution in 1994.

Portions of the actual audio taped conversation between Scarinci and Sandoval were also posted in a separate sidebar by the Philadelphia Inquirer, available for download. The Star-Ledger story has transcribed portions of the conversation.

According to Josh Gohlke at the Record -- the lead daily in Bergen County, New Jersey’s most populous county, and a key battleground in the Senate race – Dr. Sandoval also says he has additional tapes that he will release:

Sandoval said Wednesday that he had released the contents of one tape to a newspaper. He said he has other, more damaging tapes that he also plans to publicize.

The audio tape (link above) was laid out in three key audio segments by the Inquirer, which, for the sake of clarity, could be characterized as:

1) Scarinci tells Sandoval that it would be a favor to Menendez for him to hire Dr. Ruiz (this segment has the "Law of the Jungle" comment) --

2) Scarinci tells Sandoval that the only reason "I stuck my nose into this Ruiz thing" was at Menendez' request --

3) Scarinci tells Sandoval that by rehiring Riuz, that will give Sandoval "protection."

Menendez’s scandal-plagued campaign was already straining at the seams because of the obvious ethical and legal questions raised by him entering into a personal lease arrangement with an organization that he was assisting in obtaining federal funds. Thus, now he is faced with new questions about influence peddling in his home county of Hudson, and about his roll as the political boss of the county.

And, according to the Record story there are even allegations in a countersuit filed by Sandoval about the matter, alleging that Menendez was actually to get a piece of the action!

Here is the description of the allegations in the complaint from the Record story:

Among numerous other allegations, Sandoval's countersuit claims that Scarinci contacted him in 1999 to tell him that "then-Congressman Robert Menendez would very much appreciate if Dr. Sandoval would rehire" a doctor whom Sandoval had fired. Scarinci suggested that he would protect Sandoval's contract from Janiszewski if he did as he was told.

"The protection furnished by Scarinci to Dr. Sandoval was at the price of making Dr. Vicente Ruiz Dr. Sandoval's equal partner in the contract with the county and in any future product of Sandoval," the countersuit alleges. It adds that Ruiz told Sandoval that he must split the proceeds of the contract "three ways" among "himself, Ruiz and the last part for Scarinci and Menendez."

Among numerous other allegations, Sandoval's countersuit claims that Scarinci contacted him in 1999 to tell him that "then-Congressman Robert Menendez would very much appreciate if Dr. Sandoval would rehire" a doctor whom Sandoval had fired. Scarinci suggested that he would protect Sandoval's contract from Janiszewski if he did as he was told.

"The protection furnished by Scarinci to Dr. Sandoval was at the price of making Dr. Vicente Ruiz Dr. Sandoval's equal partner in the contract with the county and in any future product of Sandoval," the countersuit alleges. It adds that Ruiz told Sandoval that he must split the proceeds of the contract "three ways" among "himself, Ruiz and the last part for Scarinci and Menendez."

The Menendez campaign, as expected, is trying to chalk it all up to scandal-mongering by the Kean campaign, while Tom Kean, Jr. is once again pledging to help clean up politics.

Kean delivered a speech at Rider University today, briefly tracing a sordid tale of political corruption in the Garden State, and asking a few pertinent questions regarding the pocketbook price of political corruption,

What is the cost of corruption?

How much more does the senior citizen pay for basic services when some politician steers hundreds of thousands of dollars in contracts to former aids and lobbyists?

How much more is the college student paying in tuition when elected officials create no-show jobs or guide tax-payer funds to their own pockets?

How much more does the average New Jerseyan pay in property taxes, sales taxes and income taxes when party bosses steer contracts to their friends and associates?

He followed this up with a program for congressional reform that is certainly worth reading. That is a topic Menendez will likely never address. He's too busy denying he had anything to do with the shakedown of Dr. Sandoval seven years ago.

Expect this to again put Menendez solidly on the defensive, and further shake up what has been a surprisingly close race, and once again stirring speculation that he may leave the race. A poll last week had Kean up by a few points, but an Eagleton Poll released today had it even, and a Zogby poll had Menendez up a few points.

This State should be a solid Democrat bastion, but the current political climate is plainly over-ripe.

Some others, like our friends over at EnlightenNJ seem cautiously pessimistic, even taking into account their first read on today’s story -- once they review the tapes they may feel differently.

But unmistakable political tipping points do occur from time to time that awaken public reaction and revulsion to an unacceptable status quo. In addition, this story is qualitatively different. In the first place, it is not just based on allegations from a conversation years ago. There are tapes, and the tapes are being publicly linked in stories for anyone to listen to. People will download them on their computers and listen to them, perhaps alone, or in small groups at the office, where they will look at one another and shake their heads, first in disbelief and then in anger. They will be directly confronted with the raw face of corruption, not an entertaining episode of CSI, but the real thing, baseball bats and all.

The characters in this story are all eyebrow raising, including Menendez close confidant, friend and fund-raiser, Donald Scarinci, who is now suddenly at a distance from the Menendez campaign -- except every single day when he goes to his office. It will no doubt make for occasional glances of acknowledgement, and perhaps hushed conversations in those hallways and bathrooms!

When last the public heard of Scarinci a few months ago, the story was about the former Chairman of the NJ Parole Board, Mario Paparozzi, taking the fifth amendment seventy-five times during the course of a deposition in the context of a wrongful employment termination civil suit by former Board Executive Director Ken Connolly.

The suit arose out of Connolly's objection at the time to the granting of parole to Donald Scarinci's mob client, convicted racketeer Angelo Prisco, and his mysterious early release from prison by the New Jersey Parole Board at the very beginning of the McGreevey Administration. An Asbury Park Press story by Tom Baldwin from back in early March of this year briefs the latest allegations regarding Prisco, and has an interesting sidebar timeline detailing the Prisco saga and the involvement of Menendez pal, Donald Scarinci.

In late 2000, Acting Governor Donald DiFrancisco was reportedly approached about the Prisco matter by actor Steven Segal, but this and other contacts, including with officials in his office were rebuffed. However, four months after McGreevey took office, Prisco the racketeer was paroled.

And this post by the blog Tammany on the Hudson reprints in its entirety an Asbury Park Press story by Sandy McClure from a little over a year ago, detailing the role of Donald Scarinci and officials within the McGreevey Administration in securing Prisco's early release.

Today's Philadelphia Inquirer highlights the career of the Jersey Donald. As the Inquirer also notes, on the tapes Scarinci also boasts of his close relationship, and as a fundraiser for other corrupt Hudson County politicians:

He also touches briefly on his campaign fund-raising for former Hudson Executive Robert Janiszewski, who pleaded guilty to corruption charges in the same investigation as Colon.

"For me, the game was you know, you know, contributions, that was the game for me," Scarinci says on the tape. "And I did a good job, I... raised over $1.4 million a year for that guy."

Do these events, together with the almost daily stench of corruption from the Statehouse in Trenton signal a political tipping point?

Governor Corzine’s newly appointed Attorney General, Zulima Farber, a long-time close Menendez protegee, just had to resign in disgrace for improperly interjecting herself at a roadside traffic stop of her boyfriend while she was at work -- that interference initially resulted in the tickets that had been issued to him being voided! An independent investigation by a retired judge detailed the improper nature of her actions, and she was forced to resign.

The Chairman of the State Senate Appropriations Committee, Wayne Bryant, just had to step down from that post for, as a federal monitor has concluded, having pressured the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) into creating a $38,200.00 no-show job for him, so that he would then lobby for funds for them. Incidentally, it was one of two such positions for Bryant – he had another at Rutgers as an Assistant Professor, yet never taught a course.

The State Board of Public Utilities (BPU) is under investigation for taking accounts of upwards of $80 million dollars off-line and engaging in a highly questionable, and perhaps criminal spending spree. Jeanne Fox, the Chair of the BPU, is the wife of Menendez’s campaign director, Steve DeMicco.

Is something is about to give? Has it begun already? The closeness of the Senate race at this point would suggest that it has, and we'll soon know from new polls whether these latest allegations are influencing the voters as they prepare to select a United States Senator in November.

How much more will they take before they conclude that enough is enough?

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Play's The Thing -- With One Player To Remain Nameless

The key defense which had been offered by U.S. Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) to the swirling ethics charges, and now, possible criminal investigation surrounding his 1994-2003 lease arrangement with the North Hudson Community Action Corporation (NHCAC), was linked to a so-called "oral permission," as the New York Times recently, and somewhat beguilingly dubbed it.

Back in 1994, at the time he was entering into the lease deal, one through which he was able to personally take in over $300,000.00 in rent from the agency he assisted in obtaining federal funds over nearly a decade, Menendez said he had received "verbal approval" for the lease arrangement from the House Ethics Committee. He has repeated that claim at every opportunity, even though his campaign spokesman, Matt Miller, readily concedes that the House Ethics Committee has no record of the request, and Menendez cannot now even remember who he had the conversation with 12 years ago. Somehow, though, he remembers the conversation.

As widely noted, Menendez had also garnered well over $30,000.00 in campaign contributions over the years from the employees of the organization that today receives nearly 2/3 of its budget from federal funding.

Thus, a few short paragraphs containing an aside by the acting Senator, ones buried deep in a Star-Ledger story on Sunday, September 10th, seem to have finally blown the lid completely off our nascent Senator's first big cover story regarding his lease with NHCAC. They confirmed a revelation, once again at the very end of a Star-Ledger story just a day earlier on Saturday, September 9th, one that perhaps first heralded the impending doom for what might be wryly termed his initial "perfectly good lie."

Somewhat cynically, the Record seemed to actually brush aside the sudden Menendez "change of story," though their report did note that, "[h]e did not offer another name." But the authors, Josh Gohlke, Herb Jackson and Peter Sampson, nevertheless hammered hard on the wild and almost completely unsubstantiated accusations of partisanship coming from the Democrats, including claims from Menendez that the U.S. Attorney was involved in a smear "straight out of the Bush-Rove playbook" because the records of the agency were subpoenaed following the public revelations regarding his "special" financial relationship with NHCAC over the years.

Obviously, Menendez must have thought, like Axel Foley, the "Beverley Hills Cop" character played by Eddie Murphy, that his cover " story . . . was working" . . . and that it was "a perfectly good lie."

The fact is, that the NJ press corps had rather astonishingly let Menendez get away with it for almost two solid weeks, before finally working up the gumption to ask him who said it. He claimed repeatedly that back in 1994, just as he was entering into the deal, he had received a "verbal approval" for the arrangement from the House Ethics Committee. But apparently no one pressed him on the issue until last week. That should have been one of the first questions he was asked.

So, finally, Thursday last, the Senator blurted out a name of his opinion "benefactor" with this upshot -- no more "perfectly good lie."

The fib was only working as long as he didn't identify who gave him that "verbal" advice. But once he trotted out the name -- Mark J. Davis, the House Ethics Committee's former top lawyer -- his story almost immediately fell apart. How convenient that claim must have seemed to the Senator! After all, Mark Davis died just last year. Thus, Mark wasn't around to confirm or deny the Menendez recollection of their supposed conversation.

But, as Jeff Whelan & Joe Donohue of the Star-Ledger reported at the very end of their story on Saturday:

Menendez also faced new questions about the rental deal that triggered the investigation. He has said the House Ethics Committee gave him verbal clearance for the arrangement in 1994, but that there is no written record of the conversation. Yesterday, for the first time, he offered the name of the lawyer he said he consulted: Mark Davis.

However, according to Roll Call, a Capitol Hill publication, Davis left the ethics committee in 1993. Davis died last year.

"It was his recollection that he talked to him about this, but it must have been someone else. It was 12 years ago," said Matt Miller, Menendez's campaign spokesman.

Whoops! Naturally, the folks over at Enlighten-NJ, duly noted the Menendez muddle, and they spotlighted it on Friday in a post entitled, Bob Menendez Digs a Deeper Hole.

As Enlighten-NJ so succinctly put it, referring to the Saturday Ledger story,

Today, the Star-Ledger reports that Mark Davis left the House Ethics Committee before Menendez entered into his deal with the agency.

That Saturday story was confirmed by Robert Cohen in a follow-up in the Sunday Star-Ledger, after a sit-down with the Senator. Once again, the revelation was found in the concluding grafs of the story.

Menendez said during the interview that the House ethics committee gave him verbal clearance for the arrangement in 1994, but that there was no written opinion. He initially suggested last week that ethics committee lawyer Mark Davis gave him the advice, but Roll Call, a Capitol Hill publication, said Davis left the ethics committee in 1993. Davis died last October.

Menendez said Davis "is the guy we used to talk to," and he was "working on a recollection from 12 years ago." He said it is common to get verbal advice from the committee staff.

"Obviously when I got that advice, I didn't give a lot more thought to it," he said.

So, naturally, in a comment on that Enlighten-NJ post, we focused in on the obvious implications of his remark, and raised a sample question for the Senator, to wit:

"Well, Senator, if you now admit, as reported in the Star-Ledger, that your recall as to who gave you the advice was faulty "working on a recollection from 12 years ago" why should anyone accept your insistence that you actually asked anyone at all for the advice?"

"Isn't it at least as credible, Senator, that you just thought about asking for the advice, and then perhaps thought better of it when you started actually browsing through the House Ethics Rules?"

"You follow me, Senator? . . . Senator?"

After all, it's only fair . . . his words; his bad, right?

So, the whole inconsistency was buried at the tail end of what was covered as a "reportedly" bravura performance by the Senator before the State Democrat Party at a convention in Atlantic City, which involving accusing the U.S. Attorney Chris Christie of directly participating in a political smear campaign. Menendez was on the offense, publicly questioning the timing of the investigation, and newspapers throughout the State dutifully reported accordingly.

The Jersey Journal even printed a Newhouse News Service story, lustily proclaiming "Dems cheer Menendez as he rips GOP 'smear'" in the header.

Thought caught in an obvious fib, the acting Senator had crossed the line -- it was man the torpedoes -- and all the Democrat partisans, from Governor Corzine on down were now openly accusing Chris Christie, the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, of conducting a political smear, by initiating an investigation.

One wonders -- would it have made any difference at all if Menendez had actually asked for and received a "verbal approval" for the arrangement, all those many years ago? The answer is "no."

As the Philadelphia Inquirer correctly noted in their story by Chris Mondics and Cynthia Burton on Saturday,

verbal opinions afford members little protection, and cannot be used to head off an ethics investigation if their conduct is called into question.

Menendez has never tried to explain why he did not ask for a written opinion, which the Inky also noted, can indeed offer protection from an ethics probe.

Written opinions, on the other hand, do afford members some level of defense. If the ethics committee issues an opinion approving a transaction, the member can cite the letter as grounds for preventing an ethics investigation.

In fact, the House of Representatives Ethics Manuel specifically provides, in part, Chapter 1 under Advisory Opinions:

Anyone who acts in good faith in accordance with a written advisory opinion from the Committee may not then be investigated by the Committee based on the conduct addressed in the opinion, and courts will consider reliance on such an opinion a defense to prosecution by the Justice Department. (Emphasis supplied)

So, why did Menendez not ask for a written opinion? We cannot get into his head, but he is a lawyer, after all. Had he actually read the House of Representatives Ethics Manuel, he would have found several provisions that might have given him pause. For example, the following are among the standards and prohibitions governing the behavior of Members of the Congress of the United States, and are clearly located right there in that Ethics Manual.

Of course, it is only a portion of what then-Congessman Menendez would have read, had he reviewed the standards when he was considering entering into a lease arrangement to financially benefit himself from an agency in his Congressional District, one dependent upon federal financial assistance.

In leafing through the Ethics Manuel, for example, Congressman Menendez would have come across several specific references to federal criminal law, under a portion of:

Chapter 3:




Under the Federal Criminal Code, a Member of Congress may not enter into a contract or agreement with the United States Government. Any such contract is deemed void, and both the Member and the officer or employee who makes the contract on behalf of the Government may be fined (18 U.S.C. secs. 431-32). To ensure that these prohibitions are carried out, public contracting law requires every Government contract to contain a clause expressly stating that no Member of Congress shall share in any benefits arising from the contract (41 U.S.C. sec. 22).

That referenced statute specifically provides, in part, as follows:

41 United States Code, sec, 22. Interest of Member of Congress:

No Member of Congress shall be admitted to any share or part of any contract or agreement made, entered into, or accepted by or on behalf of the United States, or to any benefit to arise thereupon.
. . . .

(The statute then spells out certain very limited, mostly agricultural, exceptions to this prohibition, a quick review of which suggests that none would apply to an agency receiving a federally-funded Community Services Block Grant, or any of the other forms of the federal financial assistance that underscore the funding of the NHCAC.)

Under Chapter 4 of the Ethics Manuel, he would have found a section entitled, USE OF OFFICE FOR PERSONAL GAIN, containing, among others, the following specific ethical prohibitions:

* Members may not enter into or enjoy benefits under contracts or agreements with the United States.

* Members and employees should not engage in any business with the Government, either directly or indirectly, that is inconsistent with the conscientious performance of governmental duties.

* Members and employees may not receive any compensation nor allow any compensation to accrue to their beneficial interests from any source, the receipt of which would occur by virtue of influence improperly exerted from a position in Congress.

* Members and employees of the House should never discriminate unfairly by the dispensing of special favors or privileges to anyone nor may they accept benefits under circumstances that might be construed by reasonable persons as influencing the performance of governmental duties.

* Members and employees should never use any information received confidentially in the performance of governmental duties as a means for making private profit.

So, I suppose there are at least one or two fair questions that can be asked of readers at this point:

Suppose you were then-Congressman Robert Menendez, back in 1994, and you were considering entering into a lucrative lease arrangement whereby you were going to rent space to a federally-funded organization in your district. But, you came across the above provisions, among many others, of the Congressional Ethics Rules, including the specific references to the federal criminal law.

Would you have first asked for a written opinion as to whether such an arrangement was legal, or would you have just moved full steam ahead and signed that lease?

And, another fair question, I suppose, would be this:

Once the U.S. Attorney recently became aware of the lease arrangements then-Congressman Menendez had had for nearly a decade with a federally-assisted agency, should he have just ignored them and failed to initiate an inquiry into those dealings?

Should he have just refused to subpoena the records of the NHCAC and said, like one columnist for the Star-Ledger wrote the other day . . . but, hey, this is N.J.!

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Records of Menendez Rental to Nonprofit He Federally Aided, Are Subpoenaed by U.S.Attorney in NJ -- Ghost of Torricelli?

WNBC in New York broke the story early Thursday evening (09-07), that federal officials from the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Jersey have subpoenaed records related to the questionable rental arrangement between then-Congressman Robert Menendez (D-NJ), and a nonprofit organization located in Hudson County, NJ, the North Hudson Community Action Corporation (NHCAC). Menendez is the Hudson County-based Democrat candidate for the United States Senate this year, having been appointed to the seat for the remainder of the year by former Senator Jon Corzine, who was elected Governor of New Jersey last fall.

A federal investigation has been launched into the financial dealings of New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez and a nonprofit agency he has helped over the years, sources said.

The U.S. attorney's office has subpoenaed the agency's records pertaining to a house once owned by then-congressman Menendez, sources told NewsChannel 4's Brian Thompson.
U.S. Senate seat in NJ in the balance:

Menendez is running for the Senate seat as the Democrat candidate this fall, against Republican State Senator, Tom Kean, Jr., a son of the former New Jersey governor, who more recently served as the Chairman of the 9/11 Commission.

The younger Kean has repeatedly raised ethics as a key issue in the campaign, branding Menendez as a political boss of the old Hudson County school. Recent polls have showed Kean edging ahead of Menendez in this otherwise heavily Democrat-leaning State. The recent poll trend was clearly pointed out by EnlightenNJ, a hard-hitting political blog in the Garden State here.

NHCAC is headquartered in Menendez's hometown of Union City, in a building that Senator Menendez himself owned until he sold it in May of 2003. NHCAC rented space in the three story brick building for years, for which they paid over $3,000.00 a month to Menendez and his former wife. Menendez claims the rent was low. Five years ago, the organization declared then-Congressman Menendez their "Man of the Year."

The Star-Ledger, one of the state’s leading daily papers, also reported the stunning news of the subpoena last evening, noting that they were served earlier in the week. When the Star-Ledger initially broke the story of the seamy relationship itself two weeks ago on August 25th, they pointed out that the organization had paid the then-Congressman over $300,000.00 in rent over nearly a decade, starting back in 1994, and lasting until he sold the property three years ago. All the while, he was assisting them in obtaining millions of dollars in federal funding for their various programs.

Free-fire in media about NHCAC & Menendez:

Menendez quickly tried to claim that he broke about even on the deal, but EnlightenNJ quickly debunked that absurd claim. In addition to the substantial rent he garnered over the years, Menendez sold the property for $450,000.00 in 2003, having originally purchased it in 1983 for $92,000.00.

Menendez, a lawyer, also alleged he had received "verbal" approval for the rental arrangement from the House Ethics Committee, a real flag-raiser which we previously noted on EnlightenNJ.

Recently, an influential columnist for the Record, Mike Kelly, wrote a hard-hitting column for the large circulation Bergen County paper, one which raised serious questions about the arrangement, and must have sent shivers through the Menendez campaign. Suburban Bergen County, which rings cross-river neighbor New York City, has the largest population of any county in the State, and is a must win in the U.S. Senate race.

And a columnist for the Star-Ledger, Paul Mulshine, meanwhile did a little digging, has made a pretty persuasive case, based on actual old comparable rental ads in the papers, that Menendez had been charging NHCAC rent at a premium.

New Jersey Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll (R-Morris), who maintains an active blog, posted a few commentaries as well regarding the Menendez rental deal, one here , and an earlier one, here.

Hudson politicians complete "take over" of NHCAC:

Salaries at the nonprofit also run unusually high, with the President of the organization pulling down an eye-popping $185,000.00 a year. And strong indications are that good old fashioned Hudson County politics played a very big part in the replacement of the recently deceased President of NHCAC, Michael Leggiero, as pegged by this Jersey City Reporter article in which the reporter, Jessica Rosero, noted that the local pols would get together to pick Leggiero’s successor for the plum job. The interim appointee had been Leggiero's hand-picked successor, Michael Shababb, the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of NHCAC, and a resident of Bergen. But rather than ratify that initial choice, Shababb was given a fat raise of $12 K, and sent back to continue in his old job. The new CEO (scroll down) turned out to be a Ward Councilman from Menendez’s Hudson home town, Union City, one Christopher F. Irizarry, who is -- or was -- also the Secretary to the Union City Board of Education, and a Menendez confidant. That organization has recently been mired in controversial questions about patronage that have surfaced in testimony at legislative hearings about property tax issues.

NHCAC receives much of their funding in the form of a community "action," or, community services block grant, which is federal funding that is passed through and overseen by a recipient State, in the case of New Jersey, by the Department of Community Affairs, under the Division of Community Resources ( DCR). Menendez helped them obtain and maintain that block grant, and other federal funding, and he apparently assisted them in a number of ways over the years while a member of the House of Representatives. NHCAC is also one of 23 "designated" community action agencies in the State of New Jersey.

From the start, Menendez has maintained that he had sought and received approval from the House Ethics Committee for the rental arrangement, but, as noted above, continues to claim he did not get the approval in writing. Two Republican state legislators filed an ethics complaint against Menendez with the U.S. Senate last week over the arrangement.

As stated in tonight’s Star-Ledger article, Menendez is, not surprisingly, also questioning the timing of the probe.

Menendez’s spokesman said tonight that the senator has nothing to fear from the investigation, and questioned the timing of the action by the U.S. Attorney’s office, considering the election is two months away.

"This transaction was already approved by the House Ethics Committee, and the U.S. attorney will find that Bob Menendez did nothing but support a well-respected agency in the exact same manner that he has supported other non-profits in the state," Miller said.

Perhaps more trouble for Bob to come:

WNBC also reported last evening that another New Jersey legislator, Senator Diane Allen (R-Burlington) will charge Menendez with another ethics violation next week for attempting to block a merger involving a company in which he owns stock. As their story stated:

State Sen. Diane Allen, R-Burlington, said she planned to file a complaint with the Senate Ethics Committee early next week.
. . .

Allen alleges that in 2003, Menendez sponsored legislation to ban media mergers he said would create monopolies in Spanish language broadcasting. Allen alleges Menendez wanted the merger to fail because his stock would have gone down. The merger ultimately went through.

"Ethics rules say you cannot lobby on behalf of organizations when you stand to make some money by it," Allen said. "I fear that Sen. Menendez has trouble discerning that line between what is ethical and what is not."

Folks are beginning to ask, is this the Ghost of Torricelli Past?