Feds step up inquiry of Bergen Democrat. Christie seeks all files on lawyer and agency

Feds step up inquiry of Bergen Democrat

Christie seeks all files on lawyer and agency

July 16, 2008 Star-Ledger

Federal investigators have intensified their investigation of powerful Democratic powerbroker Joseph Ferriero, issuing subpoenas for all documents related to his work for a public authority long criticized for political patronage.

The law firm of Ferriero, who serves as Bergen County Democratic chairman, has earned millions of dollars from the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission since he became its chief counsel in 2002.

Earlier this month, investigators from U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie's office delivered two subpoenas to the commission, which operates one of the country's largest sewage treatment plants. One sought billing records and all other documents pertaining to Scarinci Hollenbeck, the prominent Bergen County law firm in which Ferriero is a partner.

The other demanded all records related to Ferriero and two other entities: a consulting firm he established in 2001 called SVC Consulting LLC, and Vision Media Marketing, a Secaucus-based public relations firm that has a contract with the commission.

Joseph Hayden, Ferriero's attorney, said he had not seen the subpoenas and would not discuss specifics.

"The government has a right to inquire into any area they want," Hayden said. "At the end of the day, I believe there will be no finding of anything illegal or improper by Mr. Ferriero."

He declined to discuss specifics about SVC Consulting, such as what business it was in, what Ferriero's role in it was, or whether it holds government contracts. A spokesman for the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission also declined to comment on the subpoenas.

In May, investigators blanketed nearly a dozen towns and a county agency with subpoenas related to another firm in which Ferriero has an interest, Government Grants Consulting LLC. Those subpoenas did not name Ferriero, but sought information about payments to his partner in that firm, Dennis J. Oury.

Former Gov. James E. McGreevey appointed Ferriero chief counsel of the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission. Ferriero had been a key political supporter who helped McGreevey get elected in 2001. His law firm's contract there has since drawn criticism from rival Democrats.

State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), in pushing for ethics reform and more public scrutiny at independent authorities last year, cited Ferriero as a prime example of political insiders who cash in on government work.

She produced billing records that showed Scarinci Hollenbeck earned $4.4 million from the commission since 2002. She also criticized $100,000 in payments to Vision Media Marketing for public relations.

That firm's president, Paul Swibinski, is a veteran Democratic political consultant and his company holds multiple government contracts in North Jersey. The firm has retained Edward Dauber, a veteran criminal defense attorney, to represent it in the investigation.

"This matter involves a client of Vision Media, and therefore there is no further comment I can make," Dauber said yesterday.

"They've been in the public relations business for over 25 years and no one there has ever been accused of wrongdoing," he said of Vision Media. He declined to answer additional questions about Vision Media's business relationships.

In 2002, Vision Media Marketing's records were subpoenaed by federal prosecutors during the investigation of Martin Barnes, then Paterson's mayor. Prosecutors didn't name the company at the time, but a source close to the investigation confirmed it was Vision Media Marketing.

A subsequent indictment said Barnes used a fraudulent scheme to get his girlfriend a job at the company that was under contract to perform media relations for the city. In order to offset the costs of her salary, the company, at the mayor's direction, submitted $20,000 in inflated bills to Barnes' 2002 campaign fund, the indictment said.

Barnes eventually pleaded guilty to corruption charges and spent more than two years in jail. Neither Swibinski nor anyone else at Vision Media Marketing was charged.

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