Business: Jersey-style

Business: Jersey-style
October 1, 2006  The RECORD

THEY WERE TWO Jersey guys, talking on the phone. Oscar and Donald. Psychiatrist and lawyer. An odd couple if ever there was one.

Oscar begins by asking Donald about a recent vacation trip.

"It was good. It was real nice," Donald says.

He goes on to note that he is "very happy" and "very, very content" -- and then, with a laugh, Donald adds one more thing:

"But I'm back to reality."

The odd reality of psychiatrist Oscar Sandoval and attorney Donald Scarinci, captured on tape in February 1999, may actually determine who New Jersey's next U.S. senator will be.

And you thought politics was weird in the rest of the world? Welcome to New Jersey.

The 20-minute phone conversation, recorded secretly by Sandoval, has emerged as yet another ethical pothole in the election path of Democrat Robert Menendez, appointed to the U.S. Senate last January and now battling Republican Tom Kean Jr. for a full, six-year term.

The reason a seven-year-old conversation matters to a current election campaign has everything to do with Scarinci. A boyhood friend of Menendez, Scarinci went on to become a lawyer-confidant, fund-raiser, and deal-maker to the former congressman who was tapped to fill Jon Corzine's Senate seat when Corzine was elected governor.

No mere bystander

Scarinci was Menendez's campaign treasurer when he telephoned Sandoval in February 1999. After the taped conversation was made public last week, the Menendez campaign said it wanted nothing to do with Scarinci, though a spokesman said the campaign would continue to rent office space in a building partially owned by Scarinci.

Sandoval, meanwhile, is hardly an uninvolved bystander.

As an FBI informant form 1999 through 2001, Sandoval helped nab several Hudson County pols in a federal bribery sting. But one of those caught was a female Hudson County freeholder whom Sandoval was romantically involved with while treating her as her doctor.

If you have trouble following this, you're not alone. When a federal judge attempted to put all oddball characters into perspective, he ended up comparing Sandoval to "Svengali," the fictitious manipulative hypnotist.

In the 1999 phone call, Scarinci, whose Lyndhurst law firm now includes Bergen County Democratic Chairman Joe Ferriero, asked a favor of Sandoval. Would Sandoval hire another doctor as part of his government psychiatric contract with the Hudson County jail and hospital?

That other physician, Dr. Vincente Ruiz, had already been fired by Sandoval. But Ruiz was friendly with Menendez, then a congressman, representing Hudson County.

Government contracts

If Sandoval re-hired Ruiz, Menendez would be very pleased, Scarinci said. What's more, Scarinci implied that hiring Ruiz might help Sandoval retain some $1 million in government contracts.

"It makes sense for you because it gives you protection," Scarinci said, explaining earlier in the conversation that "the only reason why I stuck my nose into this Ruiz thing is cause Menendez asked me."

Scarinci seems to sense Sandoval's concern that Ruiz will try to undermine him. Again, Scarinci invokes Menendez.

"The way we talked about it was there's got to be a condition to" rehiring Ruiz, Scarinci said. "And the condition is [if] this guy went after you, you know, he's gotta, he's gotta pledge he is not going to go after you."

Memo to readers: We're not talking about "protection" from murder here. We're talking about a doctor and a lawyer discussing government contracts to supposedly improve people's health. The language is hardly as poetic as a Sopranos script. There are no offers of money, certainly no overt threats – no reference to a "storm raining down on your family," as Sopranos bad guy "Johnny Sack" once noted.

If nothing else, this tape is an example of how two supposedly educated Jersey guys can't even recite a simple, declarative sentence. The taped conversation is filled with bad grammar, jumbled phrasing and mumbled thoughts, often punctuated by frat-boy laughter. It's more like "America's Most Embarrassing Home Videos" – without the pictures, of course.

Because this is an election year, much of the focus of the tape will rightly center on Menendez's role in getting a friend hired. Menendez denied last week that he asked Scarinci to call Sandoval. But not even loyal Democrats believe Menendez. And it hardly matters, anyway.

Menendez, already handcuffed by several ethical questions that have blunted his attempt to focus voter attention on President Bush and the Iraq war, will take his lumps. He may even lose this election because of the ethical prison he finds himself in.

But there is another lesson here, a story largely obscured by the high-octane political focus on Menendez. This conversation between Sandoval and Scarinci actually illuminates a far more sinister tale about how people with connections actually do business in our state.

We have heard much in recent years about the corrupt political system called "pay-to-play" – making contributions to politicians as a way of getting government contracts.

"For me the game was, you know, you know, contributions. That was the game for me. And I did a good job," Scarinci says at one point in the conversation. Moments later, he added: "I paid a lot of attention to the people that contributed money."

There it is – the basic equation at the heart of the pay-to-play scam. If you fork over the cash, people pay attention to you.

Scarinci explains that he finds all this tiring. So does Sandoval. But as these two birds finish up their conversation, Scarinci casually mentions that the Democrats are gaining control in Bergen County.

"I am doing a lot of stuff in Bergen County," Scarinci brags.

Sandoval seems elated and proposes a medical project at the county jail. He even offers to bring Ruiz into the plan.

"Absolutely," Scarinci says.

"We can save that county money and we can make some," Sandoval says.

"Definitely," Scarinci says. "Let's talk about it."

"OK," says Sandoval.

But Scarinci has one last idea.

"We'll do it together," he says.

"OK," says Sandoval.

"Super," says Scarinci.

Just two Jersey guys, dealing – with the taxpayers' money.

Isn't democracy wonderful?

---------   end of article ------------------------ Comments:

Why did psychiatrist Oscar Sandoval tape the conversation and why is it being released at this time?

Goto Sandoval speaks for himself by the Asbury Park Press.

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