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Another scandal hits McGreevey
Originally appeared in the Trenton Times on Monday, August 25, 2003

By MICHAEL JENNINGS

The allegations that surfaced last week surrounding the fund-raising tactics of a longtime ally to Gov. James E. McGreevey were, by most accounts, just more of the same.

The governor's adversaries welcomed the Bergen Record's extended story detailing complaints from members of Woodbridge's large Asian-Indian community that Rajesh "Roger" Chugh shook them down for contributions to McGreevey's campaigns. For them it was further evidence that McGreevey and his administration are corrupt.

McGreevey's allies contend it was a blip.

They see the story either as more proof reporters are among those convinced McGreevey is unscrupulous or as just another brouhaha involving the Woodbridge mafia McGreevey brought with him to Trenton. That explains why McGreevey's middle name might as well be Embattled.

When scandalous accusations are made, public relations textbooks say there are two courses of action - repent if the charges are true, counterattack if they are not. McGreevey has instead chosen to walk down a dead-end street. He said it's "rubbish" to suggest he had reason to question the integrity of those who worked to him get elected.

The governor said he welcomes the eight or nine state and federal investigations of his administration, insisting he has demanded his staff meet the highest ethical standards. McGreevey seems to believe that publicly encouraging the probes gets him off the hook for the worms he embedded in the governor's office, unleashing viruses that keep crashing his administration.

Even the Psychic Hotline could recognize the venal vibes given off by Chugh - who was forced to resign from an $85,000 state job in June, or Paul Levinsohn and Gary Taffet - who spent 2002 as McGreevey's counsel and chief of staff respectively, and Charles Kushner - who was forced to resign from the Port Authority.

The smoke from the ethical questions surrounding the governor's office has cast a cloud over Attorney General Peter Harvey. Harvey's reputation still has the bruises suffered when a member of his staff, irked that Harvey had pulled the plug on an investigation of a McGreevey political ally, leaked a prosecution memo and suggested politics drove Harvey's decision.

Cover-up accusations are sure to fly unless Harvey starts indicting McGreevey's former friends. Some Republicans are already calling for Harvey to recuse himself from the Chugh case.

Ironically, U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie - the man on the top GOP list to Santa of possible challengers to McGreevey in 2005 - is probably the only one who can rescue McGreevey's reputation. Christie has aggressively been taking a bite out of political crime. A decision by him not to indict McGreevey's grubby buddies would put an end to the debate over whether they acted illegally.

Of course, not much that is politically immoral is illegal in New Jersey.

The governor last week signed legislation intended to perk up the Executive Commission on Ethical Standards. Like most commissions, it has a record of doing nothing much. McGreevey's first commission - the BEST commission was formed to root out inefficiencies in state government. It was an efficient operation, that only met during press conferences hyping the millions it never got around to saving taxpayers. The Chugh flap has upped the ante for McGreevey to do something so government ethics isn't such an oxymoron.

He is standing in the way of so-called pay-to-play legislation that would ban the well-established tradition of governors and mayors using contracts to reward campaign contributors.

The McGreevey administration is widely seen as the most brazen practitioner of pay-to-play in the modern era.

In his State of the State speech, the governor said he will veto the ban without a companion bill greatly limiting the political favors legislators can perform for their campaign donors.

Legislative leaders don't want those restrictions and so six months after the speech, nothing has happened. In the meantime, our politicians will continue to swim in contaminated waters and it will be front-page news when it's discovered they are contaminated.

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