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Sunday, October 25, 2009

Funny Hiring Business at New Jersey U.S. Attorney's Office?

There is a disturbing Star-Ledger report on Sunday, October 25th accusing former U.S. Attorney (and current Republican gubernatorial candidate) Chris Christie of hiring the very politically-connected, and very inexperienced, son (Samuel Stern) of a former U.S. Attorney / federal corporate monitor (Herbert Stern) appointed by the New Jersey U.S. Attorney's Office ("USAO") when it was headed by Christie, as an Assistant U.S. Attorney just weeks before Christie's resignation, and over the repeated objections of several line prosecutors who interviewed the young lawyer.  

The Star-Ledger really should not get the credit for this report.   The hiring of the younger Stern and the connection between Christie and Herbert Stern was originally reported by back in March 2009.  

(By the way:  Hasn't the New Jersey United States Attorney's Office been under a hiring freeze for some time?  Read this earlier Star-Ledger report.)

An allegation that the hiring of personnel for such a serious and sensitive position whose responsibilities include ferreting out corporate fraud, government corruption and all other sorts of serious crime was based on any factors other than merit has to raise questions as to the true priorities, and the actual performance, of the office in question.

This is not the first questionable report involving Christie's USAO tenure.   It is merely the latest in a string of reports involving other federal monitors (such as but not limited to former Attorney General John Ashcroft) and the no-bid multi-million dollar contracts awarded to them, the choice of David Kelley's firm (Kelley being the former Southern District of New York United States Attorney whose office prosecuted numerous colleagues of Christie's brother but excluded said brother from the criminal prosecution, the use and choice of deferred prosecution agreements, a loan from Christie himself to his top USAO deputy Michele Brown, Brown's subsequent resignation on the same day she was confronted with allegations of her running interference on responding to multiple Freedom of Information Act requests from Christie's opponent regarding Christie's USAO itinerary, Christie's automobile accident several years ago in which a motorcycle driver was injured and hospitalized while Christie escaped sans ticket, and even some strongly politically-tinged comments from the USAO this summer regarding the legendary Bid Rig corruption arrests.

I will draw a comparison between this New Jersey story (funny how New Jersey seems to be a punch line for just everything these days) and New York.   The last former U.S. Attorney with a significant post-prosecutorial political career in this part of the country was Rudolph Giuliani.   I don't remember hearing of any such string of funny business when Giuliani was the U.S. Attorney.

Perhaps Chris Christie is just no Rudy Giuliani.

Three additional comments (at least for today):    (1)  This story was first broken by seven months ago.   This illustrates the need in New Jersey for a real New York City-style tabloid.   The two principal New Jersey papers, the Star-Ledger of Newark and the Record of Hackensack, share content and generally still do a fine job of reporting on political, legal and crime matters despite several waves of staff reductions.   The Asbury Park Press also tries hard.   However, the rest of New Jersey papers are just understaffed, underfinanced and struggling.   Many of the stories dominating the New Jersey press -- and the people behind them -- would have been blown to bits by the New York City tabloid press corps.  

(2)  I can't help but think that Samuel Stern is a victim in this story.   Here is a young man who, on one hand, seems to have benefitted inordinately from family connections, yet on the other hand, has now had the story of his hiring and the attendant criticisms become public fodder.   His reputation stands to suffer, and really for no reason except for his father's connection to Christie.   Some may argue that the younger Stern has a public role as federal prosecutor and hence needs to get used to the heat or flee the kitchen. 

(3)   The second point brings me back to the underlying theme of this article:  Does Samuel Stern's preferential hiring portend a wave of preferential hiring -- and for more than just "political hires" -- in a prospective Christie gubernatorial administration?   Should New Jersey expect a political administration under Christie along the lines of what Bush 44 and Karl Rove did to the nation post 9/11?

Although this blog does not intend to endorse any political candidate -- heck, we seek to be equal opportunity skeptics -- this blog does issue a flashing caution yellow in this case.  The revelations of the last two months, combined with earlier stories about the use of federal monitors, raise enough credible questions about Christie's tenure as U.S. Attorney to raise serious doubts as to what type of governor New Jersey could expect with Christie.   The issues of character, judgment and fairness are always relevant...but take on particular importance when a candidate implies that his prior prosecutorial experience is evidence that he possesses the requisite character, judgment and temperament.   Two recent gubernatorial candidates made this exact claim recently: former New Jersey governor James McGreevey and former New York governor Eliot Spitzer.   When both were shown to be hypocrites, each chose to resign before being pushed or suffering even greater humiliation.   One hopes that Chris Christie learned this lesson, but the signs that he did not are only growing. 

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