Thursday, April 19, 2007

Speaking of the Truth . . .
When Might the Corzine Proxies Stumble Upon It?

The terrible motor vehicle crash that happened on the Garden State Parkway (GSP) last Thursday evening, April 12, 2007 at "a little after 6 pm," the one which severely injured Governor Jon Corzine of New Jersey, has once again plunged the State into a situation where the elected Governor is at least temporarily unable to perform the duties of his office. And those who are putting out the official versions of the events leading up to and including the crash, are unfortunately coming up very short. Their credibility is now seriously in jeopardy.

Official versions of the events, mostly revealed through the actions and statements of the Superintendent of the New Jersey State Police, Joseph R. “Rick” Fuentes, have been marked by alternate stonewalling and dissembling about this matter right from the very start. The official story of what happened has changed significantly since Fuentes made his first public comments at 9 pm on the night of the crash.

To some extent, of course, changes are to be expected as they sift through the evidence. But conflicting interests and temptations to minimize certain information, apparently have quickly cast the investigation into disarray. The Governor's driver, Robert Rasinski, is a state trooper. The investigating agency is the Division of State Police. And, the Superintendent very quickly and personally grabbed the informational reins in revealing to the public the emerging findings of their probe. But much of what he said they "found," turned out not to be true.

Two very Different Stories:

That first evening, Fuentes told a hastily arranged Press Conference at 9 pm at Cooper Hospital, that at just after 6 pm at mile marker 43.5 on the Garden state Parkway, a white Dodge Ram Charger had swerved in front of the Governor's SUV, and that the Governor's vehicle tried to avoid it, but was unable to stop in time and ran into the back of the vehicle.

Take a look at this graphic the Philadelphia Inquirer quickly published, based on his comments and the initial police investigation at the scene. In response to a question that night, he stated the following:

Question: So the accident was between the Governor’s vehicle and the white pick up truck? Is that right?

Col Fuentes: Exactly, it was the white pick up truck, which swerved over into the left lane, in front of the Governor’s car.

But, if accurate, that would have tended to prove that the Governor's SUV was traveling significantly faster than the Dodge Ram Charger, was simply unable to stop in time, and that the Governor's driver perhaps tried to avoid impacting the car in front, which is why it lost control went off the roadway.

The story then changed, inconsistent as it was with the no speeding claim.

The new story that quickly emerged was that the white Dodge Ram Charger swerved into the front side bumper of the Governor's SUV as they were cruising side by side at the speed limit, essentially forcing it off the roadway. Here is the graphic for that story, published by the Star-Ledger entitled, "How It Happened".

As you can see, those are two entirely different stories. One thing is for sure, they cannot both be true.

The latest version of the status of the investigation was just released on April 17th, when they were forced to admit that the governor's SUV was going 91 mph.

No Seatbelt:

Then too, the front office also fudged for two days about whether the Governor had been wearing a seat belt, even though it was obvious from his location in the vehicle after the crash (the back seat), and especially in light of the chest injuries and head lacerations, that he had not been wearing a seatbelt.

News accounts, e.g., NY Times, now confirm that he was in the back seat when he was pulled from the vehicle.

Mr. Corzine, who was not wearing a seat belt, was thrown from the front passenger seat to the back, breaking his thigh bone in two places, a dozen ribs, his breastbone and collarbone and a lower vertebra. He remains in critical condition and on a ventilator after three operations on his leg.

Looking For a Scapegoat:

Right from the start, the front office, again through Rick Fuentes, attempted to scapegoat the “erratic driver” of the red pickup, who, once identified, turned out to be Mr. Kenneth Potts, of Little Egg Harbor.

They used all the official resources at their disposal, and manipulated the media into launching a statewide manhunt for the driver of the red pickup.

For example, an AP story entitled “Police hunt for red pickup that led to Corzine crash,” and printed in the Record on Friday, April 13th, stated the following:

They also issued an all-points bulletin for the red pickup truck, and urged anyone who might have been driving in the area at the time of the crash to call State Police.
. . .

The driver of the vehicle could face charges including careless driving and leaving the scene of an accident.

Investigators even publicly stated that they were going to use EZPass records in an attempt to track him down.

The result, however, was the discovery that it was the actions taken with respect to the Governor’s SUV – the questionable use of the flashers and later, driving at an unacceptably high rate of speed – that really precipitated the entire episode.

Mr. Potts was obeying the law (See, N.J.S.A. 39:4-91a) when he pulled out of the way for what he clearly must have thought was an oncoming emergency vehicle, and he obviously could not be charged. Had he been charged, he would have likely "lawyered up" and the discovery process would have begun.

That prospect must surely have dampened the enthusiasm of Administration insiders!

Yesterday, when the Administration finally had to own up to the fact that the Governor’s vehicle was barreling along at 91 mph, 26 mph OVER the speed limit, Anthony Cooley, speaking for the Administration, suddenly whipped up a dollop of verbal salve to try to quell the negative reaction to the Administration’s flip-flop on speed.

Said he, in part:

“The Corzine Administration believes this should not be about assigning blame or pointing fingers, but simply about getting a more thorough understanding of the circumstances surrounding this accident.”

Sure, Anthony! Tell that to Kenneth Potts of Little Egg Harbor! How about an official apology to him for starters?

Today, Tom Hester's AP article, which was printed in several papers today, including the Daily Record, details exactly how seriously the initial official story is unraveling, especially given the failed effort to scapegoat Kenneth Potts.

Speed of the SUV:

From the start, Colonel Fuentes insisted repeatedly that speed was not a factor in the accident. At one point he even flatly stated that the vehicle the Governor was riding in was not speeding. And, just a few days ago, a mystery witness appeared, claiming that the vehicles were all going 65 mph. More on that later!

Fuentes, as we noted, said speed was not a factor the very first night, during the 9 pm Press availability, and he repeated that for several days.

From that Press availability:

“Traffic was flowing and the speed is not considered to be a contributing circumstance.”

But yesterday, he suddenly declared that speed is always a contributing factor in crashes!

As David Kocieniewski of the New York Times pointedly noted in his April 18, 2007 story, Corzine’s Speed Put at 91 M.P.H. Near Crash Site:

The results of the accident investigation contradict the original account the state police gave in the first 24 hours. Colonel Fuentes himself said Thursday night that “speed was not a factor” in the accident. When asked Tuesday whether he now believed that speed played a role in the accident, Colonel Fuentes replied: “What do you think?”

“Speed is always a contributing factor in any accident,” he added later. “It goes to the heart of what damage you may have on the vehicle.”

What, did Fuentes do . . . attend a refresher seminar in highway traffic safety on Monday?

We also noted in a comment on an article carried by Politicsnj that the EZPass records, the very ones that were being used to track down Mr. Potts, could also be used to determine the average speed of the Governor’s SUV from the moment it entered the Garden State Parkway. A simple calculation could be based on the time and exact location of entry, and the time of and exact location of the accident. That would yield a very precise determination of their average speed.

What this is really all pointing to is the fact that significant speed differential between vehicles, including those traveling in the same direction, is very frequently a prime cause of serious injury and fatal car crashes.

Today, Mitch Maddux of the Record laid some of that out today in his story, "Corzine's speed gave others little time to react." It could have also been entitled "Corzine driver had little time to react."

In what Bill O'Reilly of The Factor might call the "unresolved problems" segment, we have a few very prominent controversies that are still very much in play.

For example,

Speed and the “Secret Witness.”

It looks like Colonel Fuentes may have either recklessly made public the false testimony of a witness, or he went to the extent of manufacturing evidence and released it publicly, in order to try to cover up the fact that the Governor’s vehicle was obviously speeding. At least, those are the two greatest possibilities.

Remember this little gem from the Sunday Star-Ledger story “Pickup driver not charged,” by Susan K. Livio & Paola Loriggio?

Last night, a man State Police identified as a witness to the accident, said he was driving alongside the governor's SUV moments before the crash. The man, who asked not to be named because State Police told him not to speak to the media, said both his vehicle and the SUV were going 65 mph, the posted speed limit on that part of the Parkway.

Presumably, that statement was taken under oath, wouldn’t you think? Whoever that witness was, it is pretty clear he was a liar.

So, when is Rick Fuentes going to publicly identify the witness who lied?

And, when is he going to announce that the witness has been arrested for obstructing an official investigation, and possibly for lying under oath?

Or, did the Superintendent just make that story up?

Either way, Fuentes has botched the whole thing by apparently trying to cover up for the Administration from the beginning, and is improperly politicizing State Police actions.

Why should he not thereby be seen as having seriously harmed the reputation of a proud and highly professional organization?

The people of New Jersey need to rely on the State Police for integrity and professionalism in protecting the public safety, and have a right not to expect political dissembling by their leader.

One can imagine that there are many troopers out there who are very, very upset by the ham-handed way the Superintendent has dealt with this matter.

What time Was the Meeting?

Incidentally, it turns out that the time of the crash was 6:15 pm, not "a little after 6 pm" as was said by Fuentes that night, a claim he has repeated several times since. That fact is very important in a future determination of exactly how far they had to drive to get to Drumthwacket, and what time the meeting with Don Imus and the Rutger’s University Women’s Basketball team was supposed to get underway.

In fact, the Governor’s aides will not say, according to the New York Times.

Aides to the governor said they did not know what time the meeting at the mansion was scheduled, but the Rutgers team arrived at 7:45, and Mr. Imus before that.

But one thing the New York Times did report incorrectly, is the driving distance from mile marker 43.5 to Drumthwacket. They said it was 75 miles. That may be the distance essentially the way the crow flies, but not the way that the vehicle was headed home that night. It's more like 90 or 95 miles. MapQuest shows that the shortest distance is 79 miles.

That, however, would have entailed driving "the hypotenuse" at such extremely high speeds for long distances on crown-top, two lane back roads, with traffic and deer at dusk along Routes 539, and 526, including driving along High Street and right down Main Street in Allentown. There is just no way they would have chosen that route for a high speed run!

We noted early on that they were driving up the GSP, where they would have picked up I-195, to I-295, and then headed up Princeton Pike to Drumthwacket -- that's approximately 90 miles or so.

And that, it may well turn out, was the real motivating factor in the Governor’s vehicle speeding up the Parkway. Getting to a photo-op on time!

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At 2:51 AM, April 20, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The part about going down Rt 539 would be a better way. There is an easy short cut to I-195, so that part of the story is missleading. There is a short cut though Jackson, that saves you a lot of time. I not sticking up for the driver, just the route.

At 12:30 PM, April 20, 2007, Blogger Trochilus said...

Anonymous 2:51 am

Please feel free to write back and tell us the route you refer to.

Our point, as I am sure you can tell, was that the officer would not have likely taken a two-lane road route, knowing he would be driving at such high speeds. And he would have avoided such a route for a series of safety-related reasons. If he therefore would have stayed on the high speed highways, the distance was 90 - 95 miles.

We're neither sticking up for or challenging the judgment of the trooper under the circumstances.

The officers in that executive protection unit are between a rock and a hard place when it comes to speed/no speed situations. They know that their continuation in that job depends on delivering the Governor (or other high official) in as quick a manner as possible.

If the officer had merely overheard the Governor, or Samantha his scheduling aide in the back seat tell someone back in Princeton during a cell phone conversation, "Look, we're getting there as fast as we possibly can," the officer would have known to step on it.

Or, suppose the Governor had just smiled and said to him as they were leaving the prior event, "Do your magic!"

So, the Colonel was really being disingenuous when he said that the Governor did not tell the officer to speed. That may be literally true, but it does not tell the whole story. Fuentes was throwing Trooper Rasinski "under the bus" when he said that.

We don't know all the facts, but we do know some things that are not true. One of them is that some mystery witness (if there indeed was one) was not telling the truth when he said that the Governor's vehicle was going the speed limit a few seconds before the crash!


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