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U.S. Investigating Claims of Improper Pressure by Ex-McGreevey Fund-Raiser

By DAVID KOCIENIEWSKI

Originally appeared in the New York Times on 08/19/03

TRENTON, Aug. 18 — The United States attorney's office is investigating allegations that a former aide to Gov. James E. McGreevey improperly solicited campaign donations by pressuring business owners who needed inspections and zoning variances from Woodbridge Township, where Mr. McGreevey was then mayor, federal authorities said today.

Rajesh (Roger) Chugh, 49, helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for Mr. McGreevey's campaigns for governor in 1997 and 2001, according to state records and party officials, and held a job in the administration from early 2002 until this June. But earlier this year, F.B.I. agents began examining allegations that Mr. Chugh (pronounced choog), an immigrant from the Punjab region of India, solicited contributions by threatening to block building permits for business owners in the Little India section of Woodbridge.

The complaints against Mr. Chugh were first reported in The Record of Hackensack, which quoted two business owners who said Mr. Chugh demanded campaign contributions in exchange for his help with their dealings in Woodbridge. The paper also quoted several Democratic Party officials who said they warned Mr. McGreevey about Mr. Chugh's aggressive behavior during the campaigns and were troubled when he was hired as a $10,000 per month consultant to the state party during the campaign and given an $85,000 job as an assistant in the secretary of state's office.

Cathy Ellis, the governor's spokeswoman, said today that Mr. McGreevey's campaign was careful to scrutinize all contributions solicited by Mr. Chugh. She added that the state party briefly suspended Mr. Chugh during the 2001 campaign to review the donations he had solicited. But Ms. Ellis said that none of the contributors to the campaign ever filed a formal complaint about Mr. Chugh's activities with any government or law enforcement agency.

"If Jim McGreevey had known of any illegal or unethical activity he would have taken action," Ms. Ellis said. "He wouldn't have tolerated it."

Mr. Chugh has always been viewed as one of the more puzzling appointments Mr. McGreevey has made. Several months after accepting a job in the secretary of state's office, he became the focus of unflattering news coverage because he ran a Web site that overstated his résumé and included personal details more often seen in dating service ads, like references to his physical appearance and fondness for candlelight dinners.

The governor surprised many of his supporters by allowing Mr. Chugh to retain his job, and Mr. Chugh continued to raise eyebrows with his eccentric behavior: he occasionally stunned people in Trenton by dropping to his knees and touching their feet, a traditional Indian greeting.

But Republicans today seized on the news of the campaign finance allegations and the federal inquiry, saying that Mr. Chugh had become the latest in a succession of appointments to raise questions about the ethical standards of the McGreevey administration.

"This is a question of whether or not a member of the McGreevey campaign, and later his administration, used tactics of extortion to raise money for Governor McGreevey's campaign and whether or not the governor had any knowledge of these practices," said State Senator Joseph M. Kyrillos Jr., Republican state chairman.

Michael Drewniak, spokesman for United States Attorney Christopher J. Christie, declined to discuss the matter. Mr. Chugh did not return calls requesting comment.

But officials in the McGreevey administration, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that Mr. Chugh resigned in June after news reporters asked the governor's office about court records indicating that a travel business he ran in the mid-1990's had written tens of thousands of dollars in bad checks and was the subject of hundreds of thousands of dollars in liens and court judgments.

Many officials in the New Jersey Indian community said they had warned Mr. McGreevey that Mr. Chugh had been bragging about his ability to handle political problems for campaign contributors. Pradip (Peter) Kothari, who owns a travel agency in Iselin, said he and five other business leaders confronted Mr. McGreevey about Mr. Chugh's fund-raising abuses in March 2001, in a meeting that lasted four hours.

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