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McGreevey continues to slip with a little help from friends

Originally appeared in the Press of Atlantic City on 08/24/03

By PETE McALEER Statehouse Bureau,

Gov. James E. McGreevey had good news to announce last Tuesday. The Victims of Crime Compensation Board, under a new leader appointed by McGreevey, had eliminated a seven-year backlog of cases in just six months.

But the focus of McGreevey's Newark press conference soon shifted to another of the governor's appointees. Would McGreevey support an investigation, reporters wanted to know, into the campaign fund-raising tactics of former assistant state department commissioner Roger Chugh?

Chugh, The Record of Bergen County reported last week, allegedly threatened and pressured business people in the Little India section of Middlesex County into contributing to McGreevey's gubernatorial campaign in 2001. Little India borders Woodbridge Township, where McGreevey was mayor for a decade.

The Record also interviewed Democratic leaders who said McGreevey ignored warnings about Chugh and instead pronounced him "captain of the community" in Little India during the campaign.

McGreevey flatly denies the charge. So does Chugh, who left the state department in June. At the Newark press conference Tuesday, McGreevey said he supported an investigation. His reaction swallowed up the headlines.

So, more than 18 months into his first term, McGreevey continues to get tripped up with a little help from his friends.

Chugh is just the latest name on the list of McGreevey comrades who played key roles in the governor's campaign, then landed jobs in the administration from which they eventually had to resign.

There has also been Golan Cipel, an Israeli citizen who resigned from his position as homeland security counsel after failing to get needed security clearances; Charles Kushner, the governor's top campaign contributor, who abandoned his appointment to the New York-New Jersey Port board of commissioners amid questions about the legality of his contributions; and two former top aides to McGreevey, former chief of staff Gary Taffet and former chief counsel Paul Levinsohn, who are under federal investigation after making millions on a host of questionable billboard deals while running McGreevey's campaign and setting up the new administration.

Is the governor simply too loyal, or has he taken political patronage to a new low?

"I couldn't even call this loyalty," state Sen. Bill Gormley, R-Atlantic, said. "Whatever it is, public confidence has to be restored."

Gormley is among the more than half-dozen Republican legislators who have issued press releases in recent days calling for an independent investigator to handle the Chugh case. Assemblywoman Arlene Friscia, a Mercer County Democrat who bolted to the Republican party last month after losing in the primary election, held a press conference Thursday in Little India with business members who said Chugh extorted them for campaign cash.

Friscia urged McGreevey to support an investigation from an independent prosecutor in order to show "that our government is not for sale."

It's a theme that is likely to be repeated until November, Rider University political analyst David Rebovich said. The Chugh scandal, because of its timing, could be the most damaging yet to McGreevey, Rebovich said. It provides Republicans with fresh ammunition just as the campaign season is about to get under way.

"It's another dot for Republicans to connect to suggest that the McGreevey administration doesn't just have a couple of bad apples, but that the whole basket might be spoiled," Rebovich said.

With every legislator up for re-election, the Chugh story could also be a distraction for Democrats on the campaign trail.

"They're going to be asked what they think about the governor," Rebovich said. "There could be a lot of long pauses."

For McGreevey, the Chugh story and those that preceded it are more than mere distractions. They threaten to define his administration, dogging the governor even when he is in friendly territory.

On Thursday, McGreevey received a warm welcome when he arrived at a farm in Fairfield Township in Cumberland County. He had come to announce that the farm's 600 acres would be preserved, saving it from future development. It was a perfect opportunity for the governor to talk about his plans for "smart growth," a theme he's tried to hammer home since his State of the State address in January.

As McGreevey made his way through the crowd, one woman tapped him on the arm.

"Don't let them knock you down," she said.

"I won't," the Governor answered. "I'll keep going."

The problem for McGreevey is, no matter where he goes, questions about his friends follow.

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