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Friday, August 12, 2005

Scandals in New Jersey Politics?

Republicans are trying hard to scandalize the campaign of Senator Jon Corzine in his bid to become Governor of New Jersey. The big kerfluffle at the moment centers around the Senator's $470,000 loan to his extra-marital girlfriend several years ago. At the time, he was already Senator and she was the head of the state employees union who was going through a messy divorce (the Senator would also go through a divorce around that time). The loan was for her to buy out her husband's interest in their house in Hunterdon County (nice houses out there).

Ah, but then she didn't pay back the loan, the relationship ended, and he forgave the debt.

But, she apparently still lives in the same building as the Senator and her phone in Hunterdon County is disconnected.

While I'm not crazy about the idea of the Senator breaking his marriage vows, that issue should remain between him and his now ex-wife. Senator Corzine is certainly not the first or last middle-aged man or politician of any age to look outside his marriage for whatever reason. Both Corzine and the union leader have publically stated that their relationship is over. So much the worse for the Senator as he apparently flung with a woman on a romance that wasn't as lasting as the marriage it broke up. Well, it's personal business for all three - all of whom are grown-ups and have no protection from poor judgment and broken hearts.

Is it political corruption?

Well, he was already Senator and she was already in charge of the union. You can't make any case that either used the other to get where they are.

The Senator is also charged by Republicans as having "bought" his nomination with a series of high dollar donations to the various county party chairs. Apparently the loan didn't do the trick, then. He still had to go through the same muddy swamp of county fifedoms that everyone else in New Jersey has to deal with.

Was it likely that the state employees union would back anyone else but the Democratic nominee? For the life of me, I can't think of a single Republican Governor they've said anything good about, or vice versa.

So what would have been different if Corzine had not become involved with the union leader and hadn't given her the loan? Well, he'd probably still be married and she wouldn't have the house she apparently doesn't even live in. If the $470,000 were called "pal-imony" would everyone be happy and leave it alone?

Honestly, I understand why there is concern about this, but I can't really see political corruption playing out in this game.

The problem is that it is sexy (literally, I suppose) and it makes good headlines. Because of that, and the ultimately empty ending, it throws into question real ethical questions that need to be pursued.

If I were just going to play the party game, I'd blast into Doug Forrester here. However, I have a different point to make and Matt Stoller has done a good job of chronicalling Forrester's problems anyway. (Of course, he's paid to do that sort of thing, and I'm not.)

What bothers me about the Corzine "sex scandal" is that it comes too closely on the heels of the revelation that Kay Elizabeth LaCuisi went from low-level, underpaid district staffer for Congressman Bob Menendez to one of the highest paid lobbyists on the East Coast with only one stop between - that stop being Menendez's bed. Compared to the meeting of two people at the top of their games (as in the Corzine story), here is a story where there is simply no way LaCuisi gets to where she is today without Menendez "helping" her along the way.

It isn't that a female staffer can't rise quickly. And, if LaCuisi had been the district Chief of Staff with heavy contacts throughout the state prior to working for Menendez, that would be a plausible explanation. However, she was his scheduler - the person who keeps his personal schedule and makes appointments. Every contact she made was by, for, and through the Congressman. As a scheduler, she wouldn't sit in on meetings and learn the power-play - she would sit outside the meeting and take phone calls requesting the Congressman's attendance.

In her defense, LaCuisi claims that she is good at her job and it cannot be denied that she definitely gets results. The question is: does she get those results because of her political abilities or because of her personal relationship with the Congressman? After all, not only did she go from his employee to his lobbyist, but she also holds a leadership position on the Hudson County Democratic Committee - which determines which candidate they will support in various elections. If it isn't intentional, then an incredible circumstance just developed where LaCuisi is in position to help Menendez pick who gets to run on his under-ticket, to funnel pet projects to the Congressman, and to pick up incredible personal wealth along the way. If nothing else, there is an incredible conflict of ethical interest in her position on the HCDC and her work as a lobbyist in Washington.

Given the fact that many consider Menendez to have a lock on the Senate seat that Corzine will vacate if he wins the Governor's race, I would expect Republicans to pick up on that relationship a bit closer. After all, it's the one with the real meat on the bone. If they continue to gnaw at what continues to amount to much-ado-about-nothing, they will find they have no teeth left when '06 rolls around.

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