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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Top Bergen Democratic Lawyer Admits Fraud, Pleads Guilty

In a potentially earth-shattering legal development that may rock both the legal and political worlds in much of Northern New Jersey and serve as one nail in the coffin of current Governor Jon Corzine's reelection bid, now we have another corruption-related guilty plea involving New Jersey politics.

The former counsel to the Bergen County Democratic Party, Dennis Oury, yesterday morning pled guilty to several criminal counts involving:
  • the failure to file a tax return,
  • conspiracy to commit mail fraud, and
  • the deprivation of "honest services" (a fraud upon the residents of the town of Bergenfield, NJ) for failing to disclose his ownership interest in an entity which was to receive certain consulting fees from the town, while he was acting as borough attorney -- for the same town.  
On Planet Earth, that's called a conflict of interest and the argument goes that the ownership interest was not disclosed on purpose because Oury may have feared not getting the fees/contract awarded if the conflict was disclosed.  See this blog's first rule:  Public Funds + Private Gain = Criminal Liability.    I feel the urge to stress that in these "honest services" cases, there is the involvement of public taxpayer funds.   Hence there is (or at least it is argued that there is) a duty towards the public.   There are commentators out there who criticize these prosecutions, but some of this criticism misses the point that what may be a common, ordinary business practice in the private sector -- albeit one which offends the "smell test" -- changes entirely when a duty to the public is involved.   Perhaps the presence of the public duty, and the corresponding obligation (both moral and legal) to put the public interest first and the private interest last, needs to be publicized more in some quarters so the public better understands. 

Read the latest report from the Record of Hackensack, NJ.
Read an early Star-Ledger report here.  (Their coverage is usually very good so check for updates at http://www.nj.com/.)

Oury has been reported to have acted as the borough / township attorney for a host of municipalities through Bergen County and Hudson County.   Most recently, he was the zoning counsel for a developer of a commercial development below the Palisades cliffs in North Bergen, NJ which was roundly criticized by some local residents and environmental groups for fear that the development might destabilize the cliffs and cause flooding.   The township rejected these claims as unfounded and supported the development, which was approved by the Hudson County Planning Board this past summer. See this earlier report from the Record of Hackensack, NJ in June 2009.

And now time for an educated guess.   If Oury is as "connected" as the press reports suggest, he may have quite a bit of insider knowledge regarding the "process" by which certain "business" is done in Northern New Jersey.   Said matters may be of considerable interest to the authorities.   Oury's inclination to "cooperate" may be inclined to cause significant consternation, hand-wringing and perspiration in many political, real estate, financial and legal quarters in the northern half of New Jersey.   This is more earth-shattering than one may realize from the generic press reports.    

(In other words, being a white-collar criminal defense lawyer in New Jersey just got more lucrative.  Just like running a funeral home.  No shortage of new business.)

No word yet in reports as to whether Oury will in fact be "cooperating."  (In plain English, this means:  Tell us everything you know, and maybe we'll recommend the judge be lenient on you at sentencing.) Then again, not everything is said for public consumption.   In fact, if you read the press clippings carefully you'll get the same impression.  

Incidentally, Oury has a co-defendant, former Bergen Democratic chairman Joseph Ferriero, whose attorney Joseph Hayden was quoted in the Star-Ledger story (see link above) as saying Ferriero would not plead guilty and would go to trial; the trial is scheduled to start this Thursday.    The later Record story does not mention the cooperation possibility.   (We will be watching to see what happens.   Check back for updates.)

So how does this affect the gubernatorial race?   With exactly five weeks to go before election day and the polls not moving very much, Chris Christie (who was the sitting U.S. attorney when the investigations into Oury and Ferriero were begun) is ahead in every publicly-released poll.   The incumbent Governor Corzine seems to have no traction, despite some alarming (or puzzling) gaffes by Christie which seem to indicate that in fact he may not have been planning to run for office while he was still U.S. attorney.

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