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?


At 6:47 PM, September 29, 2006, Blogger Enlighten-NewJersey said...

Great post, we'll try to put up a link tonight. No we haven't heard the tapes, but unless one contains the unmistakable voice of Menendez ordering a "hit" that was in fact carried out, there will be no switcheroo.

At 9:39 AM, October 02, 2006, Blogger J. Joseph Rivera said...

I just saw on Politics NJ that a poll was conducted for a potential matchup between Kean and Bill Bradley.

If that's not a sign that the Dems are desperate to throw Menendez overboard, I don't know what is!

At 10:14 AM, October 02, 2006, Blogger Trochilus said...

Last night, someone left an anonymous comment on an earlier post of ours, suggesting that the Democrats should trot Torricelli out again. You can't make this stuff up.

Meanwhile, over at Wally Edge, a post this morning begins:

"Two more polls showing the contentious race for United States Senate remains close: a WNBC-TV Zogby poll has Tom Kean, Jr. leading Bob Menendez by a 42%-37% margin, and a Mason-Dixon MSNBC-McClathy poll has Menendez leading, 41%-41%."

Huh? In the first instance, I thought it was a WNBC-Marist poll, (not Zogby) and in the second . . . well, that's about the neatest trick I've ever heard!


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