Thursday, March 22, 2007

Angel Skates At MVC

(Update, 03/23, below)

As reported in the Star-Ledger yesterday, if you're "protected" like Union County Democrat Freeholder, Angel Estrada, don't worry, be happy. The politically appointed manager of the Elizabeth MVC office, Angel got caught last summer having violated a well-established MVC fiscal security procedure, by ordering a subordinate to renew a close friend’s registration in the MVC computer system, without having received the payment first. That is a big no-no at Motor Vehicles, or at least it used to be.

It was all part of a lame and ultimately unsuccessful effort to try and cover up for a traffic ticket fixing incident in Fairlawn, NJ, last year, one that involved the former Attorney General, Zulima Farber. She was ultimately forced to resign over the flap for her role, and three police officers at the scene each agreed to receive two week suspensions without pay, but the bleeding stopped there.

MVC honcho Sharon Harrington promised, at the time, to act if there was any evidence of wrongdoing. But she has obviously refused to do so. The Record reported at the time on August 17, 2006:
Sharon A. Harrington, the head of the Motor Vehicle Commission, said the agency would take action against employees if the investigation finds any wrongdoing.

But Angel Estrada has now apparently skated, having somehow been secretly exonerated by the State Ethics Commission, some time this past December. The press just found out about it yesterday.

You may recall that at the time, back on July 23, 2006, the Record reported that former Attorney General Zulima Farber had admitted that she had called a family friend, the manager of the Elizabeth Motor Vehicle's agency, Angel Estrada, to alert him that her boyfriend, Hamlet Goore would be calling him with "a problem" related to a vehicle with a suspended registration. Goore, as it turned out had located Estrada’s phone number, and was on hold with him at the time, getting the “problem” fixed.

The problem was the suspended registration of their "family car" which they had all loaded and were ready to head to the shore in later that afternoon (May 26th) for a long Memorial day weekend. But Goore had not taken care to have the registration fully restored following a suspension for neglecting to pay a local parking ticket in his own home town, a year earlier.

On May 26th, he drove it a mile or so into Fairlawn a little before 10 am from their home in North Bergen, and he got nabbed by the local cops in a "Click it or Ticket" roadside stop at Sparkey's Restaurant parking lot on Fairview Avenue. The police ran a check on the vehicle and came up with the suspension. Goore also had a driver license suspension problem. After issuing him two tickets (of a possible four), one for driving an unregistered vehicle, and one for operating without a license, the police were going to follow normal procedure and impound the car, but Hamlet called "girlfriend," the Attorney General, on his cell phone. She had her state trooper security/driver, Lt. George Justin, radio ahead and drive up to Fairlawn from Newark, 30 miles out of the way. As the trooper put it at the time in a conversation with the Fairlawn dispatcher, they were "racing up there real quick," to put in a personal appearance at the scene. The pair arrived with the emergency lights flashing as they entered the lot.

Somehow, amid the collection of State and local officials -- including the Mayor Vincent Bellucci of Fairview (who mysteriously showed up) a determination was reached that the cops ought to "dismiss" the tickets, which had actually never been handed to Goore. A Fairview police officer, Lt. Anthony Anari had made a determination (recorded) at some point that "we eat the tickets," right after being told over the radio by the Fairview dispatcher, Sgt.Tom Juliano, that, "there’s all sorts of attorney general’s shit in the car, they need that." Juliano had relayed that information based on what Lt. Justin had told him in a radio conversation, while Lt. Justin and the AG were whisking to the scene in the state SUV.

At that point, the arrangement rapidly changed. They decided to kill the initial "impoundment" plan and instead, call for a tow to take the vehicle to the Goore/Farber household. But eventually Goore was actually permitted to drive the unregistered vehicle home, and the facts are disputed as to exactly how the decision to "dispose" of the tickets was resolved.

From the full Report issued by Judge Williams on August 15th:

The Attorney General indicates that she was not aware, at that time, of the charge that Goore had been driving while his license was suspended. Justin, Anari, and Napolitano were all aware of the charge. Nevertheless, they not only permitted the unregistered vehicle to be operated on the roadway, they also permitted it to be operated by a driver charged with being suspended.

Because of the stamped numbering of traffic tickets, a disposition would have required having the municipal court judge sign off on what amounted to a "motion to dismiss." So, obviously getting the restoration entered into the computer system as soon as possible was crucial to the plan. If the judge had done a computer look-up himself and seen that the registration was fully restored, he would likely have missed the exact timing of the restoration, because the restoration would take effect as of the date the original parking ticket had been paid. As it turned out, the restoration was actually recorded "as of May 2nd 2005."

Once Hamlet drove away in the still unregistered vehicle, he and Farber both called family friend Angel Estrada, with access to the MVC computer, to restore and renew the registration, and the license. Angel, after hearing from Goore himself, hopped right on it and obtained the registration restoration for the vehicle on the MVC computer system in a conversation with Trenton, and then he ordered his subordinate to enter a registration renewal without having first received any payment from Goore. Goore, after all, had to drive to Elizabeth from North Bergen, even though there was a MVC office in North Bergen, a few blocks from the Goore/Farber homestead.

Goore arrived at the Elizabeth Agency an hour or more later, and was personally handed his brandy new registration by Estrada, who had clearly stepped over the line by filling out the “reg” renewal for Goore, and had already walked the paperwork through the system. So he improperly ordered his subordinate to renew Goore's registration on the MVC computer, without having received the required payment, and without Goore having signed the renewal -- he still hadn't signed it when the investigation was conducted.

Though Farber went on a personal public relations blitz at the time to save her job in late July (before the issuance of the Report), the incident ultimately cost her the position of AG. Judge Williams ultimately determined she had violated two provisions of the Ethics Code. Even in a Democrat-dominated State like New Jersey, it just won't do to have the Attorney General participating in the fixing of tickets for their boyfriends. So she left, albeit unwillingly.

But Angel has now walked away from it free, though his role involved violation of well established procedure.

Because of the firestorm of criticism at the time it hit the papers in late June, former Superior Court Judge, Richard Williams, had been asked by the Governor, as recommended by his then-chief counsel, Stuart Rabner, to fully investigate the matter due to the highly unusual personal appearance and personal involvement at the scene by Farber. On August 15, 2006, Judge Williams issued his full Report on the incident.

Judge Williams also factually analyzed what happened at the Elizabeth MVC in the course of his investigation, and he stated that Estrada's actions raised serious questions as well.

In that Record story at the time, was the following:

The Williams probe showed that after being allowed to drive away from the checkpoint on May 26, Farber and Goore both telephoned an old friend who manages the MVC office in Elizabeth. The manager, Angel Estrada, who is also a Union County freeholder, personally took charge of the matter and renewed Goore's expired car registration before he even arrived at the MVC office to sign official forms and pay a $137 registration fee.

"Mr. Estrada's handling of this matter before Hamlet Goore arrived at the MVC agency raises questions about the propriety of his practices and whether they were in compliance with MVC procedures," Williams wrote in his report.

He added that it was not within his jurisdiction to rule on the matter as related to the MVC. "It is not within my mandate to review the efficacy of MVC practices and procedures." That matter was left to the MVC, and the State Ethics Commission. And they have now punted.

Of course, Angel himself refused to publicly address the issue at the time. He just waited quietly, and the State Ethics Commission has apparently found a way to conclude that there should be no punishment for him.

At the time, you may also recall that State Senator John Adler (D-Cherry Hill) promised to hold hearings as well, but according to the official records of the Judiciary Committee, they never did hold any hearing or meeting related to the matter.

As reported by the Record back on July 22, 2006:

Also on Friday, state Sen. John Adler, a Camden County Democrat, said the Senate Judiciary Committee "should and will" hold hearings on the incident once Williams completes his investigation.
When the Williams Report was issued, State GOP Chair, Tom Wilson, publicly requested that the Williams report be sent to the State Ethics Commission. As reported in the Record, the Governor "brushed off" that idea, and one other suggestion -- the consideration of monetary penalties.

Do we apparently now know why? It sure looks now like an effort was going to be put in to at least save Angel, as the Governor apparently didn't want the State Ethics Commission to know too much. How would we conclude otherwise?

And where is Governor "Mr. Ethics" Corzine now? He's caught up in his own flap about how much he should reveal about huge personal gifts he has given to his girlfriend, Karla Katz, the head of the largest State Employee union, who was recently part and parcel of negotiating probably the most outrageously generous , give-away contract in the history of the State.

Of course, to hear the union grousers talk about their can’t-lose proposition, they just got gypped!

Update: 03/23 - The County Watchers (from Union County, NJ) have more, here.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

A Sound You've Likely Never Heard

The weather last Friday night was a bit odd here along the Delaware River. It was sleeting and snowing throughout the northeast, including here in mid-Jersey, north of Trenton. And for March 16th, the weather was quite unanticipated. Having rained in a cold drizzle earlier in the day, my expectation was that there likely would be little accumulation, even once it turned to sleet, and then snow.

By mid-evening, before the dark settled fully in, the temperature had dropped, and a mounting accumulation of sleet and snow was climbing up over most shoe tops.

Boots came out of the closet for a walk along the river. I took my camera.

Trudging along in the sleet, I trooped down along tow path next to the river. Like everyone else, I call it the tow path, but it's not. Though it runs between the canal feeder and the Delaware River, it is really the old railroad bed of the Delaware & Belvidere line, whose defunct tracks and ties were torn up nearly thirty years ago by the Delaware & Raritan Canal Commission to make a park pathway. You can follow it the 17 miles or so south to Trenton.

The actual waterway they called the canal runs from Trenton to New Brunswick, but the feeder was built all the way up along the Delaware River to near Ringos, NJ rising in altitude through locks at a few points. It was all commissioned by the New Jersey Legislature on the same day the railroad was, way back in 1832, in what they call a Legislative compromise. They couldn't get either project approved alone. So, they opted for both.

As we slogged through the accumulating sleet-snow Friday evening, we were nearly alone as well. That is an unusual occurrence, especially along that popular stretch of the path. There were no tracks in the snow headed south when we arrived.

Suddenly, I sensed and then stopped to carefully listen to a distinct rushing sound, one I was certain I had never heard before. It was a strong sound, almost like chimes -- but clearly not metallic. I looked one way and then the other. And I even glanced over the edge of the bank leading down toward the river's edge, to see if some unexplained gush or rivulet had worked its way up from the river. Nothing.

And then for some reason I looked up, and got my answer.

I was standing beneath a small pin oak, one of many planted in a row along the pathway by the D & R Canal Commission. They are not old trees, perhaps twenty-five years old or so, with maybe an eight or nine inch base just above ground level. But for some reason, this particular tree has held onto most of its dead leaves all winter. They'll do that sometimes, those pin oaks. If you squint at the photo you'll see.

The strange sound was quite clearly the driving sleet falling on and through those dead leaves.

Funny. The thought quickly occurred to me that it was a sound that few had ever heard. I hadn't until then

As I said, we were nearly alone. Two fisherman braved the river bank just up from where we were, but they too left before long. I asked them as they were leaving if they had caught anything as they were scrambling into their maroon pick-up truck.

"No," the one fellow told me, adding "but there were some good sized fish out there 'porpoising,' in the river."

He said he couldn't tell what kind of fish they were. Maybe shad, who come here to spawn in the spring. Or bass, perhaps. They don't release the hatchery trout from Pequest up in Warren County, NJ though, for another few weeks.

The fishermen had been angling down on a lawn-like area graced by an enormous a white ash, or Fraxinus americana, rooted just thirty five feet or so from the old stone wall at the water's edge.

It's a real specimen tree, that one, with a trunk a little over 5 feet in diameter -- almost exactly 5 feet, 3 inches, to be precise. The circumference of the tree trunk actually measures 16 feet, six inches at two to three feet off the ground.

Thinking about those porpoising fish, perhaps they too were fooled by the sleet, maybe thinking the unexpected little ice pieces might be some tasty, clear insects breaking the surface of the soon to be spring waters. It'll remain a mystery, I guess.

"This weather is so strange," said an old timer who wandered into a local restaurant about half an hour later. I too had stopped for a beer on the way home and we talked about the sleet and snow. He couldn't get over the fact that it was snowing so close to spring -- I think he's probably a big fan of Al Gore's catastrophic climate change predictions, and this winter storm on the cusp of spring just didn't fit the big warming picture.

"So strange," he repeated.

I showed him the image of the large ash tree on my digital camera -- the one taken during the storm -- and soon he brought up and we were soon discussing the "World Ash," from Wagner's Ring Cycle. Never having been a fan of Wagner, I knew little or nothing about it, but was immediately very interested in the symbolism of something known as the World Ash. He started to explain how Wotan protected Brunhilda inside the ring of fire, but that Seigfried defiantly dared to enter the ring. I think he broke Wotan's spear with his sword.

I was frankly lost within seconds, so, later I looked it up later. Wotan, it seems, in his bid for power, had torn a branch from the world ash which he used to fashion his extraordinary and "terrible" spear, on which he recorded the runes of all time.

According to one site, one with an intriguing graphic, it seems that the origin of the World Ash, or "Yggdrasil" derives from Nordic mythology, and represents the tree of life that holds together all of the nine worlds. Trees of life are, of course, religious symbols in cultures throughout the world.

I've always had a special affinity for ash trees in particular for a number of reasons. Fascinating.

As for the sound of the sleet falling through the oak leaves, a recording would not have done it justice. Wait until the next sleet storm and check it out.