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Chris Christie and the Reign of the Imperial Prosecutor

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New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is being subjected to meaningful media scrutiny for possibly the first time in his public career. Prior to the ongoing revelations of his recent and reportedly growing scandals, Christie had received a virtual free pass from the media which ignored a host of previous ethical lapses. These documented indiscretions include a rather questionable quid pro quo that allowed his brother to escape criminal prosecution, the handing out of highly lucrative no bid monitoring contracts to cronies, improper loans to subordinates and more. Instead of meaningfully reporting Christie's plethora of misdeeds, the media served as little more than coopted cheerleaders. While the long overdue coverage is finally focusing on Christie's unsuitability for elected office, much of the recent reporting fails to consider how Christie's reign as U.S. attorney for the District of New Jersey impacts the glaring ethical deficiencies now coming to light. 


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Governor Chris Christie appears to be learning the hard way that prosecutorial excesses have no place in politics


It is impossible to understand Christie's current difficulties without first considering his tenure as the United States attorney for the District of New Jersey. Christie served at his prosecutorial post from 2002 through 2008. He was appointed to the position by George W. Bush for whom he had earnestly campaigned. He was widely recognized as "loyal Bushie" and easily remained at his post while the Bush administration purged U.S. attorneys whose loyalty to the regime was called into question. As early as 2005, the Bush Administration was stealthily ranking federal prosecutors by their allegiance to the president as well as their ability to advance the administration's agenda. Then-U.S. attorney Chris Christie was considered one of most loyal, according to documents which placed him among prosecutors who "produced, managed well and exhibited loyalty to the President and Attorney General." Despite this and prodigious Bush fundraising on the part of Christie and his brother Todd, some press accounts later claimed that Christie was high on the list of U.S. attorneys whose job was in jeopardy. Christie, in typical prosecutorial doublespeak, had previously said he was "shocked" to learn the Bush administration considered firing him, but that he did not know why he was put on a dismissal list or why he was taken off. Many Christie observers surmised that his inclusion on this list was a deliberate deception, giving Christie future deniability in Bush's burgeoning U.S. attorney scandal. Interestingly, blame for the political firings of selected Bush U.S. attorneys was laid squarely on a junior staffer, Monica Goodling. 


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George W. Bush installed Christie as U.S. attorney for the District of New Jersey in return for enormous fund raising efforts


 

The Newark office Christie assumed control of is widely recognized in the legal community as one of the most abusive U.S. attorney's offices in the nation. Christie's tenure there was no exception. Targets for federal prosecution were selected by using criteria that rarely had anything to do with the severity of their respective offense. The Newark office more often would simply select a desired target for prosecution and then see which of the thousands of amorphous federal offenses could successfully be applied. The ever-expanding Federal Criminal Code offered Christie and his gang of rogue prosecutors a plethora of possibilities.    

Much of what ingratiated Christie with the Bush administration was his religious-like zeal in pursuing "corruption" cases against political enemies, particularly Democrats. As had long been the case with the Newark office, no crime was too small or insignificant to pursue with the full might and resources of the federal government. The federal rules of evidence and other factors have created a playing field that is anything but level, and ripe for abuse at the hands of unscrupulous prosecutors like Christie. Criminal statutes were routinely twisted and used for purposes well beyond the intent of legislators. This kind of misconduct is typically lauded in U.S. attorney's offices, being seen as a type of creativity. Once a federal statute is successfully stretched beyond its intended purpose, subsequent prosecutors will do the same, feigning an inability to do otherwise due to their duty to employ all available prosecutorial tools. What Christie's prosecutors considered sound policy was recognized by the legal community for what it was: heavy handed threatening tactics wholly disproportionate to the often trivial offenses to which they were applied. 

The systematic abuse seen in the Newark office had a specific purpose. The top goal of the agenda was the advancement of Chris Christie's career. Federal prosecutors measure success in years. Despite what an appropriate sentence might be, more is always better for those seeking to advance up the prosecutorial-political ladder. Burying those unfortunate enough to wind up in the crosshairs of his office proved to be sound policy for an ambitious Chris Christie. 


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The Newark U.S. attorney's office has long been a hub of blatant opportunism and prosecutorial overkil l


 

Defense lawyers, well aware of the realities of trial, are quick to have clients plead guilty to questionably constructed federal charges. The net result is a federal system where the right to trial has been eviscerated and 97% of all cases end with a guilty plea. Incredibly, the overall federal conviction rate in the U.S. now exceeds 99%, something one would expect to only see in a third world dictatorship. Christie's U.S. attorney's office contributed mightily to these disgraceful statistics by threatening those who refused to accept their punishment via a guilty plea with outrageously disproportionate terms of imprisonment if they braved trial.

The scandalous behavior now coming to light is merely an extension of Christie's term as prosecutor. The difference now is that the implicit or often explicit threat no longer involves a penalty of a term in federal prison, but instead threatens a variety of alternative punitive acts. "Endorse me or I'll subject your town to hellacious traffic; do what I want or I'll cut off your access to state services; employ my hand picked developer or I'll withhold relief funds." It is governance by intimidation.

Christie's scurrilous record as a crime fighting U.S. attorney was greatly aided by an incredibly compliant press corp. His media relations were controlled by Michael Drewniak who essentially served as Christie's minister of information, spinning often dubious prosecutions into media gold. Drewniak would issue highly slanted press releases for the convictions and sentencing hearings involving the Newark office and disseminate them to their media myrmidons. These alleged news sources would then typically forego meaningful reporting and instead regurgitate the government prepared press releases, passing them off as news. 


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Michael Drewniak controlled and micromanaged Christie's media relations, but now finds himself mired in allegations of serious wrongdoin g


When Christie moved his base of operation from the U.S. attorney's office to the governor's mansion, many of his loyal acolytes were rewarded with a trip to Trenton. Among those making the move to Trenton was Michele Brown who served as an AUSA under Christie. Brown had received a $46000 loan from then U.S. Attorney Christie who had failed to list it on tax returns and ethics filings, saying the omission was an "oversight."

Brown was subsequently accused of improperly assisting Christie's run for governor. The New York Times reported that Brown personally interceded to oversee the responses to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests from the campaign of Governor Jon Corzine, Christie's opponent in his initial gubernatorial campaign. Brown took over for and displaced the staff member who normally oversaw FOIA request. She was later hired as Governor Christie's appointments counsel and subsequently appointed CEO of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (EDA). The EDA under Brown administered $460 million of federal funds for Hurricane Sandy relief. These are the same Hurricane Sandy funds at the center of recent Christie scandals. 

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Barry Scott Sussman- Born and raised in New Jersey. Graduated from Rutgers University with a BA in Sociology. Graduated with a JD from the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law specializing in Federal Criminal Procedure and Federal Prosecutorial (more...)
 
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Wow.   Every elected official needs to hav... by Douglas Pederson on Thursday, Jan 23, 2014 at 2:42:51 AM
Great article!  The quote most worth repeatin... by Mark Adams JD/MBA on Thursday, Jan 23, 2014 at 12:28:26 PM