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The Good Right Arm of Robert Menendez
- Categorized in: Bribes, Payoffs, and Politics
The Good Right Arm of Robert Menendez
October 12, 2006 Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff
In New Jersey's political whirl, one day you're in and the next day you're out. Sometimes it works in reverse-- prison doors swing both ways.
Over the past several years scores of the state's politicians and public contractors have been indicted and/or convicted on corruption charges. Others balance on the edge of legal dodges, insufficient evidence, or are blessed with stellar connections. A consistent theme is graft (either the crass cash-stuffed-envelope variety, or more genteel political contributions) in exchange for career advancement, public contracts, and development deals. The latter often funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Department of Transportation (DOT). Both Democrats and Republicans join in the jamboree. No region of the state, be it urban or suburban, has proved crook-free.
Some spots however, are hotter than others.
In Hudson County, in northeast New Jersey, Democrats have ruled since dinosaurs roamed the earth. Some say the county's Democratic machine isn't what it used to be. And indeed, its factions are frequently fractious. But when push comes to shove, it still gets the job done. In the words of the Newark Star Ledger, Hudson County is the state's "Ground Zero" of corruption. And Newark, in Essex County, knows good corruption.
Hudson County is a tightly packed, heavily populated conglom of old industrial cities. The boundaries of its 12 municipalities bleed into one another. While large swaths of some cities are slums, there are also many bustling ethnic hubs striving into middle class. Tiny Hoboken, directly across from Manhattan, is the whitest and wealthiest city in Hudson County. Billions in HUD and DOT funds, over a period of decades, have helped make it so. Though only a mile square, this golden Smallville is home to an impressive number of Jersey's Super Boys. Including Governor Jon Corzine and U.S. Senator Robert Menendez.
Come November, Senator Robert Menendez will face his first real election for the office. The seat was previously held by Jon Corzine, who gave it up to run for New Jersey governor in 2005. After being elected, Corzine appointed then Congressman Menendez to the job.
When Jon Corzine first expressed interest in being governor, fellow Democrat Richard Codey was in office. Former state senate president Codey became governor by fiat, when Governor Jim McGreevey resigned in 2004. A string of corruption scandals had kept the McGreevey administration popping. The breaking point came with the revelation as to why Governor McGreevey had appointed Golan Cipel, an obscure aide, as head of the state's Homeland Security office. Cipel was an Israeli citizen with no security clearance or qualifications. (Though he did have a past connection to one of the state's largest political contributors, developer Charles Kushner. Now serving time for funneling contributions through various fronts and concocting a witness tampering scheme involving sexual blackmail.) The outcry over Cipel's appointment resulted in McGreevey moving him to a less visible position on the public payroll.
Eventually, Golan Cipel either tried to extort McGreevey by threatening to reveal the governor was gay, or was planning to sue McGreevey for sexual harassment. The McGreevey camp claimed the former, Cipel the latter. Whatever. The end result was that McGreevey was forced to go public and the people of New Jersey finally discovered what qualified Golan Cipel to protect them from terrorism. Governor McGreevey thought he was hot. It was the final straw. McGreevey resigned. And obfuscated his betrayal of the public trust with a sympathy story about his lack of self acceptance re being gay.
After McGreevey headed off to Oprah Land, Richard Codey made a surprisingly good governor. He seemed sincerely interested in reform and was gaining the public's respect. He was thinking of running for governor and as time passed, his chances looked good. But Codey wasn't the fave of a sufficient number of Jersey's powerful Democratic bosses. Including Congressman Robert Menendez. Menendez & crew wanted Jon Corzine. Menendez allegedly brokered the deal that brought the state's bosses on board behind Corzine. Codey bowed out. Corzine the Mighty was crowned candidate and easily defeated a dull dog Republican. After being elected, Governor Corzine appointed Congressman Robert Menendez to take his place as U.S. Senator. To the disappointment of those who hoped the immense wealth of Jon Corzine, a former Goldman Sachs top executive, would give him the independence to usher in a new day in Garden State politics.
Hope for reform springs eternal. Even in Jersey.
In the late 1970's, Robert Menendez was among a wave of young reformers who promised to make Hudson County's machine politics a thing of the past. Over the next 3 decades Menendez rose through the ranks. Starting on the Board of Education in Union City where he lived at the time. Doing stints as Union City's mayor and simultaneously serving in the New Jersey Legislature. (A form of double dipping legal in Jersey.) Menendez was elected to the U.S. Congress in 1992, representing a primarily Hispanic district. He was re-elected 6 times. Activities in Congress included serving on the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs committee. By 2003, back home in Jersey, Menendez was defacto head of the Hudson County Democratic Organization. According to a 12/14/03 New York Times article, "one of the most formidable political machines in the nation". By 12/09/05 the Times was describing Robert Menendez, the one time reformer, as "an entrenched leader of the Hudson County Democratic machine".
Joining Menendez in the trench was his boyhood chum, attorney and fundraiser Donald Scarinci. Scarinci has been called "Menendez's right arm".* The firm of Scarinci & Hollenbeck is based in Hudson County and is comprised of 50 lawyers specializing in, but not confined to, development practice. The firm represents numerous government agencies in Hudson County. Donald Scarinci has served as treasurer to the Hudson County Democratic Organization and is among several attorneys representing the city of Hoboken. Which though small, has enormous legal expenses. Much to the consternation of homeowners who pick up the bill.
Donald Scarinci moves in far wider circles than Hudson County. Scarinci & Hollenbeck represents the New Jersey Casino Reinvestment Development Authority. Scarinci serves as counsel to the state's assembly Democrats and was instrumental in getting Jersey's boisterous Democratic bosses to rally behind Jim McGreevey as gubernatorial candidate. After McGreevey was elected, Donald Scarinci was general counsel to his transition team. Over the past few years, various members of that team have figured in federal investigations stretching from Newark in the north, to Asbury Park on the Jersey shore, to Camden at the state's southern tip, and across the Delaware River into the sullied administration of Philadelphia Mayor John Street.
Along with his public servant clients, Donald Scarinci served as counsel to reputed mobster Angelo Prisco. In 1994, Prisco was identified by state indictment as a high ranking member of the Genovese crime family overseeing operations in New Jersey. In 1998, Prisco pled guilty to arson and conspiracy in state Superior Court in Ocean County. In 1999, he pled likewise to related extortion charges in federal court. His co-defendant was John Gotti Jr. Prisco received 12 years of concurrent time. In May, 2002, Prisco was paroled. Even though the state parole board had denied him parole 4 months earlier and he wasn't eligible to reapply for another year. At the time, Scarinci denied allegations he contacted officials close to Governor McGreevey to get the state parole board to change its mind.
In 2005, documents obtained through a freedom of information request filed by Gannett News proved otherwise. Scarinci has also claimed lawyer client privilege when queried whether actor Steven Seagal paid him to represent Prisco. During a 2003 New York City mob trial, Seagal testified he visited Angelo Prisco in prison. Seagal was being threatened by the Gambino crime family. He'd been told by Prisco's cousin, a NYC cop turned movie producer (!) that Angelo Prisco could help by acting as peace maker. Seagal testified that in return, he paid Prisco's attorney to get Prisco out of prison pronto.
But enough of movie stars and mobsters. Back to Senator Robert Menendez-- the body to which right arm Donald Scarinci was attached. Past tense. Very tense. In late September, Menendez chopped off his right arm. Saying, through his campaign staff, that "Donald Scarinci does not speak for Bob Menendez" and announcing Scarinci would no longer be involved with his campaign. The surgical procedure took place after a tape made in 1999 by psychiatrist Dr. Oscar Sandoval surfaced. In '99, Sandoval held public contracts with several county institutions, including a jail and psychiatric hospital. He was also an FBI informant. On Sandoval's tape, Donald Scarinci was heard pressuring the shrink into hiring an ally of then Congressman Robert Menendez. Saying doing so would afford Sandoval "protection" and Menendez would consider it "a favor".
Scarinci also bragged about being tight with North Jersey developer Carl Goldberg, a member of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority. And touted the cash he (Scarinci) had raised for X Hudson County Executive Robert Janiszewski. A former state assemblyman, Port Authority commissioner, and chairman of the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority. Janiszewski is now in prison for taking graft from fellow convictee, Joseph Barry of Applied Development Companies. Based in Hoboken and one of Jersey's most active developers. Even without its former president, Applied marches on. Making generous campaign contributions to Robert Menendez. As does Goldman Sachs-- where Governor Jon Corzine was once top dog. Both companies are among Menendez's largest contributors. Though the full amount of those contributions doesn't come directly from the companies per se. That would be illegal. Instead, the money is donated by people who work for, or are in some way connected to Applied and Goldman Sachs. All of whom share the political vision of Robert Menendez.
Untangling the convoluted connections that make Hudson County what it is, can be a hefty chore. Though it is fun to note how often such connections turn toxic. And comic. For instance, Hudson County is in the process of suing sullied whistleblower Oscar Sandoval, seeking to recover what they claim his corrupt deals cost other public contractors. Attorney Donald Scarinci is party to the lawsuit. Sandoval wore a wire for several years and apparently still has a few tapes in his closet; he's using them to counter the lawsuit. Another funny: as an informant, Sandoval was instrumental in bringing down former Hudson County Executive Robert Janiszewski. Aka "Janu". It was Democrat Janu who from his prison cell, advised Republican dirt diggers to Ask Doctor Sandoval about Robert Menendez and his good right arm, Donald Scarinci.
Ain't that a kick in the head. As well as the baggy pants...
Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff
Sources include but are not limited to:
Robert Menendez (D-NJ) Top Contributors, 2001-2006 Profile, The Center for Responsive Politics, opensecrets.org
"Tape adds to Menendez ethics debate," Chris Mondics, Washington Bureau, Philadelphia Inquirer, 09/28/06
"Doctor says Menendez advisor pressed him for political favor," Gregory J. Volpe, Courier-Post, 09/28/06
"Lawyer eased Prisco parole," Sandy McClure, Asbury Park Press, 08/25/06
"New Jersey's New Senator," editorial, New York Times, 12/09/05
"The Past May Haunt Future For Menendez," Tom Moran, The Newark Star Ledger, 11/23/05
*"Scarinci: A power lawyer who likes to play the game," Chris Mondics, Washington Bureau, Philadelphia Inquirer, 09/29/06
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