FBI INFORMANT: Lobs 1999 ethics accusation at Sen. Menendez RACE GETS ROUGHER

FBI INFORMANT: Lobs 1999 ethics accusation at Sen. Menendez
Asbury Park Press on 09/29/06

TRENTON — The campaign of U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., was once again dogged by ethics accusations Thursday after an FBI informant released audiotapes of Menendez adviser Donald Scarinci pressuring the informant — in Menendez's name — to rehire a former employee or risk losing $1 million in Hudson County contracts.

Union City psychiatrist Oscar Sandoval, 55, says he was pressured in 1999 by Scarinci to hire a doctor, Vicente Ruiz. In a recorded conversation, Scarinci told Sandoval that Menendez, then a congressman representing Hudson County, would consider it "a favor." Failure to do so would result in "the law of the jungle" prevailing, Scarinci said.

Court filings show Sandoval believed that he would have to share his earnings from a county contract with Ruiz, Scarinci and Menendez.

"Absolutely false," said Menendez spokesman Matt Miller.

Sandoval said a lawsuit filed by Hudson County against him and other vendors seeking restitution for alleged bribes paid to former County Executive Robert Janiszewski was retaliation for his being an informant for federal investigators. Janiszewski is serving a 41-month federal sentence after pleading guilty to taking more than $100,000 in bribes.

"They know that I was the person working voluntarily for the FBI and the prosecutor's office on my own," Sandoval said. "This was more of a retaliation for having done that and to show the rest of the people of the machinery what happens when you go against the family."

The Menendez campaign severed ties with Scarinci, a fundraiser for the effort and longtime friend of Menendez, after word of the taped conversation emerged Wednesday.

"Certainly what you see is Donald Scarinci speaking without Bob Menendez's knowledge or approval," Miller said. "Because of that, he no longer has any role on the campaign."

Scarinci did not return calls but issued a statement saying Menendez was not involved.

"None of my dealings with Dr. Sandoval were either directed or requested by Bob Menendez," Scarinci said.

Scarinci did not elaborate on the recordings, saying they were part of a pending lawsuit.

GOP speculation

While Democrats stood by Menendez, immediately painting Sandoval as someone seeking to protect the $7 million he's earned from Hudson County medical contracts, Republicans cranked up talk that Menendez might be replaced on the ballot.

Lawyers for state and national Republicans announced they were preparing their case if the Democrats tried to switch candidates after the deadline. That's what they did in October 2002, replacing then-U.S. Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, who was sinking in the polls and plagued by scandal, with former U.S. Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg.

Lautenberg won that race. Republicans haven't won a Senate race in New Jersey since 1972, but opinion polls suggest GOP nominee Thomas H. Kean Jr. may win this year, which would deal a blow to Democrats' chances of retaking a Senate majority.

"As the ethical allegations against Sen. Menendez in this campaign begin to mount, we are doing our due diligence in preparing for the possibility that the Democrats may try to switch . . . for another candidate," said William McGinley, counsel for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "The Democrats in New Jersey have a track record of pulling last-minute stunts if they believe their chosen candidate cannot succeed in the general election."

While Republicans failed to block the switch in 2002, the lawyers said they have a better case this year because Menendez was vetted twice by Democrats: when Gov. Corzine appointed him to fill his vacant Senate seat in January and by voters in the June primary. Torricelli did not have even token opposition in the 2002 primary.

"Gov. Corzine knows Sen. Menendez to be a man of character and integrity," said Corzine spokesman Anthony Coley. "His convictions and passion and his legislative achievements, and willingness to stand up for what he knows to be right, (are) why the governor appointed him."

Democrats said the only ones talking about replacing Menendez are Republicans.

"We're not changing any candidates because we're going to win," said Assemblyman Joseph Cryan, D-Union, state party chairman.

Cryan would not answer questions about Scarinci's taped conversation, and instead joined several who criticized Sandoval.

"Tom Kean Jr. pulled him (Sandoval) out of the sewer of New Jersey politics," Miller said.

"Absolutely not. These are desperate attacks from Democrats who know their candidate is in serious trouble," Kean spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker said.

Sandoval said he is a Democrat, though he crosses party lines and has a picture of President Bush in his office. He said he was not working with the Kean campaign.

Harsh assessment

Democrats said Sandoval bribed several county officials and dated a patient, and Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise issued a similar scathing statement.

"Oscar Sandoval wormed his way into the pockets of our taxpayers through bribery and disgraceful professional practices," DeGise said. "He has manipulated a patient, the political process and now the media in an effort to hang on to taxpayer money he wasn't entitled to in the first place."

Sandoval and his lawyer said the doctor performed his contractual obligations and said Hudson County politicians were now smearing his name.

"They're going to say anything they can because this is how they proceed," Sandoval said.

Republicans kept their focus on the link between Menendez and Scarinci and the latter's role in state politics.

"It was very, very troubling," Kean, a state senator, said at a campaign stop in Lawrence. "Again, it is yet one more story of Bob Menendez's allies having poor judgment, and this hurts the people of the state."

Scarinci worked for three years as a legal counsel to Assembly Speaker Albio Sires, D-Hudson, earning $20,000 a year until his contract expired when Sires' term as speaker ended in January. In 2002, Sires paid Scarinci $1,500 — the minimum needed to earn a year of pension credit — as an employee of his legislative district office.

In 2002, Scarinci communicated with then-Gov. James E. McGreevey's chief of staff, Gary B. Taffet, to have the State Parole Board reconsider its decision to deny parole to mobster Angelo Prisco, who was granted parole two weeks later under unusual circumstances.

First Amendment lawyer Tom Cafferty, who works in Scarinci's firm, represents Gannett New Jersey newspapers.

Jnnifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the Cook Political Report, called the latest ethics attack on Menendez "interesting."

"I don't know how many more he can sustain," Duffy said. "I don't know how many more of these that are out there, but it certainly doesn't help his cause."

Duffy said she doubts Democrats will try another last-minute switch of candidates four years after swapping out Torricelli because of potential voter backlash and the fact they may not have another willing candidate able to topple Kean.

• Sandoval Speaks For Himself


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