In a major setback for the U.S. Justice Department and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a federal appeals court last week dismissed federal bribery and conspiracy charges against two New Jersey Democrats targeted in a trap set by Christie. The decision helps illustrate why our non-partisan Justice Integrity Project has repeatedly pointed to the 46-defendant "Bid Rig III" case as one of the nation's most scandalous political prosecutions of recent years.
The ruling delivered yet another courtroom loss to federal prosecutors who are trying to vindicate the partisan methods that the Republican Christie, in the top left photo, used as New Jersey's U.S. Attorney from 2001 through 2008 on his way to his state's governor's mansion campaigning as a crime-fighter and reformer. But New Jersey's federal prosecutors have lost their last two jury trials in the case. This is an unprecedented embarrassment for their during the past decade according to an Associated Press report, and carries national importance.
Among the reasons for the losses, prosectors' chief witness Solomon Dwek committed a $50 million bank fraud and ran a brothel before the government supplied him with vast amounts of taxpayer money to try bribe local politicians and persuade rabbis to launder funds. Moreover, Dwek has had to admit on the witness stand that prosecutors cooperated in paying him between $10,000 and $12,000 a month from court-supervised assets of the victims of his frauds.
In contrast to the frugal public image Christie has fostered, the money was to pay for Dwek's services and expertise helping authorities win prosecutions. The charges, with all but one of the political defendants a Democrat, were announced during the Christie campaign. Some news reports claim the charges were timed by his former staff for maximum impact to improve his standing with voters and news reporters.
On Feb. 17, the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Christie's successors wrongly applied a 1946 federal bribery law when they convicted Jersey City mayoral candidate Louis Manzo, right at top, and his campaign manager (and brother) Ronald in an elaborate sting that Christie set in motion before he resigned in 2008 near the end of the Bush administration.
The three-judge appeals court upheld the pre-trial ruling of the defendants' trial judge that prosecutors wrongly charged the Manzos under the Hobbs Act. The appellate judges said authorities have never previously used the law to win convictions against a candidate unelected to office. Judge D. Michael Fisher, a 2003 Bush appointee, wrote the unanimous decision. Democrats Thomas L. Ambro and Marjorie O. Rendell, wife of just-retired Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, concurred.
The judges traced the history of language in the Hobbs Act through what they called "centuries" of common law in the Anglo-American system. That review convinced them to decline prosecutors' request that the court expand the law enough to cover candidates such as the Manzo brothers. The ruling upheld a similar decision last spring by U.S. District Judge Jose' L. Linares, a 2002 Bush appointee.
Louis Manzo told us this weekend, "I thank a just God for answering a lot of people's prayers by granting this victory and the wisdom of the Appellate Court for pronouncing it." Rebekah Carmichael, spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, right, commented to us, "We are reviewing the Court's decision to determine our next steps." So far, the Obama appointee Fishman has largely remained out of the headlines by having his team follow-through on the Bid Rig III prosecutions.
On our Project website, we have documented the case's scandalous origins and the prosecutors working on it with Christie and his successor who contributed to his political campaign and then flocked to posts in his administration after his 2009 campaign victory. We have documented our findings also in our recent reports,"Christie's Corruption Case Christie's Corruption Case Shows Horrid Legacy of 'Loyal Bushies,' Cover-up'" in December and in "Feds Drop Scandal-Prone Star Witness in Politicized NJ Witch-Hunt" in November.
Remarkably enough, the mainstream media (with few and sporadic exceptions) treats Christie as a reformer largely because he says he is -- and because he won his election. We examined these perceptions and the DOJ's role last September in "Politicians, Press Cheat Taxpayers By Whitewashing DOJ's Wasteful Election-Season Witch-hunt." That column began:
Washington Post columnist David Broder last week cited New Jersey's freshman Gov. Chris Christie as a role model for Pennsylvania's Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Corbett, who similarly boasts of a platform to limit government and fight crime. This exclusive report by the Justice Integrity Project that I lead shows the following: Far from limiting government, Christie wasted vast amounts of taxpayer funds to help himself and his cronies.
The pattern continues, with the Washington-insider tabloid Politico reporting on Feb. 20, "Christie adviser mulls PAC," as follows: "One of Chris Christie's top political advisers revealed that he is considering formation of a federal political action committee because of the extraordinary interest in the New Jersey governor." Understandably enough, a politician and his supporters want to put the best spin on coverage by political reporters.
What's harder to discern is why Christie's major Democratic opponents and the press would allow him such a free ride without criticism when the abuses are so readily documented, as we have done regarding his multi-million no-bid giveaways as U.S. attorney to cronies and his near-firing during the notorious Bush political purge of U.S. attorneys in 2006.
That scandal was because DOJ and White House advisor Karl Rove, a mentor to Christie, wanted to foster more of a "loyal Bushie" mentality nationally among prosecutors who would target Democrats especially shortly before elections, even if the charges might seem dubious.
Meanwhile, Christie's successors at the Justice Department have some tough decisions to make on whether they will cut their losses or continue as they've been doing on polishing the legacy of Christie and his interim successor, Acting U.S. Attorney Ralph Marra. Marra supervised the Manzo sting and Bid Rig III indictments before decamping for a plum post in the Christie administration supervising gambling.
More specifically, will Fishman and his Washington colleagues seek Supreme Court review of the Manzo decision? Whatever the case on that, they face another difficult choice in coming weeks over how to handle several defendants who previously pleaded guilty to Hobbs Act violations even though they, like the Manzo brothers, were not elected officials. Most of those defendants will undoubtedly seek to void their guilty pleas based on the appeals court ruling.
The Obama administration has proceed all-out to sustain convictions in this and most of the other notorious Bush-era political prosecutions across the nation. As an additional factor, the Dwek meetings with Bid Rig III defendants and their indictment occurred during 2009 when Democrats nominally controlled the office. This was through Christie-appointed Acting U.S. Attorney Ralph Marra and First Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle Brown.