Corzine can't have it both ways

Corzine can't have it both ways

01/21/07  APP

TRENTON — Gov. Corzine came to Trenton promising ethics reform. Sounded good, but then he hired a lobbyist to write two major speeches. Behold the crumbling Corzine credibility.

Lobbyist Eric Shuffler worked for former U.S. Sen. Bob Torricelli and Gov. Jim McGreevey, both of whom left office under dark clouds in disgrace. Shuffler also lobbies for Geico insurance, which wanted its lizard mascot on billboards at the George Washington Bridge.

Earth to Corzine: You can't reform ethics until you recognize a conflict of interest.

Corzine has a speech writer and a communications staff. Still, he had his pals at the Democratic Party pay Shuffler $10,000 for a major speech last summer. It's not clear how much Shuffler will get for the State of the State, but it won't be tax money. And whatever it is, it will be way too much. The speech was a snooze.

Basically, it was a list of Corzine's and the Legislature's failures to bring about property tax reform, a rehash of old stuff — long on duration, short on substance.

While Shuffler, who doesn't live in New Jersey, was writing Corzine's speeches, another Shuffler employer, Geico, was working on a sweetheart pact to put its billboards on George Washington Bridge tollbooths.

Senate President Dick Codey called for a probe of the Geico deal, saying it was the worst since Native Americans sold Manhattan for beads.

The bridge is controlled by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which backed off the Geico plan after Codey's remarks. McGreevey appointed his chief of staff, Jamie Fox, deputy port authority director in 2004. Like Shuffler, Fox also worked for Torricelli. When McGreevey appointed Fox to run the state Department of Transportation, he brought Shuffler along. They both then went to McGreevey's office.

Torricelli was named — by a judge he helped get on the bench — a special master over a federal cleanup involving Honeywell. Honeywell is also working with the state on pollution issues. Honeywell is another lobbying client of — guess who? — Corzine speechwriter Shuffler.

Everyone involved in this wants you to know there is absolutely, positively no connection.

— Corzine's staff on a lobbyist writing Corzine speeches: "It's all above board."

— Shuffler on the billboard deal: "I learned about it when I read it in the paper."

— The Port Authority on ... well, we're not sure what it's talking about: "Anyone has a right to their own opinion, but any objective journalistic story does not have a right to its own facts."

That last bit of twaddle is from an authority public relations guy named Stephen Sigmund. Corzine should get the Democrats to pay Shuffler $10,000 to figure out what Sigmund is trying to tell us and then work it into Corzine's next major address.

Even if Corzine's speeches had something new and interesting, there is no acceptable excuse for paying a lobbyist to write them. It is a conflict of interest and a tad hypocritical if it occurs simultaneously with lip service to ethics reform.

Long overdue: Sen. Loretta Weinberg has called for comprehensive reforms at the Port Authority. She has introduced a bill to accomplish that and has a counterpart in the New York Assembly working with her. The authority is a patronage pit for both states.

Authority spokesman Sigmund, of course, said no changes are necessary. That's a shock.

Can you hear me now?: Corzine planned a trip to Israel and Switzerland when our Jon Tamari asked if this were not a bad time what with all the critical legislation coming up on property taxes. Corzine responded, "The last time I checked, the telephones work." A few days later the trip was canceled.

Somebody must have explained how bad it looked for him to travel while telling the Legislature it had important work to do.

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