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Christie Loyalist To Run Ethics Panel That Would Get Bridgegate Complaints

The state Ethics Commission and the role it could play in the scandals is beginning to gain attention. Sen. Codey (D-Essex), who championed the 2005 ethics reform law while serving as governor, yesterday said that New Jersey appointees serving as commissioners of bistate agencies should be subject to the Ethics Commission.

His statement came on the heels of The Record’s report that Port Authority Chairman David Samson voted to approve a new $256 million PATH light rail station in Harrison, even though a client of his would gain financially. Samson’s law firm represented a developer who proposed to convert a nearby warehouse into luxury apartments.

Berns said he did not see any problem with the appointment of Guerrero in the wake of the various ethics allegations that have engulfed the Christie administration in recent weeks, including Zimmer’s charge that Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno threatened to hold up Sandy aid if she did not approve a high-rise development the governor wanted.

“She hadn’t been in the governor's office for a fairly lengthy time,” Berns said. Guerrero moved to the state Education Department as assistant commissioner for operations and legal affairs in October 2012 after serving two years and 10 months in the governor's office as Associate Counsel from the beginning of Christie’s first term.

“I’m not sure if all the people in the governor's office are jurisdictionally within the state Ethics Commission. The governor and lieutenant governor are not,” Berns said, then acknowledged that he believed the governor’s staff does fall under the commission’s jurisdiction. “However, this appointment has nothing to do with that (Bridgegate) because none of that has come before the commission.”

Guerrero’s appointment was approved yesterday by a vote of the seven-member commission. By statute, the commission includes three Christie administration officials – state Comptroller Marc D. Larkins, state Labor Commissioner Harold J. Wirths, and Wayne Hasenbalg, a former Christie deputy chief of staff who heads the Sports and Exposition Authority. The four public members are Republicans Berns, a partner at Einhorn Harris in Denville and former Assemblyman Kenneth LeFevre (R-Atlantic), and Democrats Michael E. Levin, a former Jackson Township mayor, and Joann LaPerla-Morales, the president of Middlesex County College.

Asked whether the vote by the commission was unanimous, Berns said, “I’m not at liberty to discuss that with you.” Asked if he considered the vote to be a personnel matter, he responded, “That’s correct.”

Guerrero, a George Washington University Law School graduate who clerked for a Superior Court judge, was hired by Dughi, Hewit and Palatucci in September 2001. Christie was then in his eighth year as a partner at the Cranford firm. Christie and Palatucci had worked hard for the election of George W. Bush, who nominated Christie as U.S. Attorney. Christie left the firm to take office on January 17, 2002. Palatucci remained a partner until 2005, and Guerrero left in September 2009 to serve as in-house counsel to the Elizabeth Board of Education before moving into the governor’s office when Christie took office in January 2010.

Before Christie took office, the Ethics Commission had always had a tradition of nonpartisan executive directors, Schluter said.

“Rita Strmensky served ably for 15 years under both Democratic and Republican governors who respected her independence,” he said. “When she announced she was leaving, Paula Franzese, our chairman and one of the most respected ethics experts in the entire country, put together a professional search and we considered a lot of outside candidates before deciding that Kathy Wiechnik, who had been serving as Rita’s deputy and learning under her, was the best choice.”

The Dissenting Vote

Schluter was the only commission member to vote against Christie’s choice of Tober, a Bernardsville lawyer who had been serving as a special counsel in his governor's office since his inauguration 13 months earlier, to replace nonpartisan Executive Director Kathleen Wiechnik in February 2011.

“Andrew Berns called me and told me, ‘We’re going to replace her (Wiechnik) and we’re going to put in a new person from the governor's office because that’s what the governor wants.’” Schluter recalled. “I wrote to Rich Bagger, the governor’s chief of staff, and objected strenuously to the fact that a new person was being put in just because the governor wanted his own person.”

Schluter’s protest was unavailing, and Tober was appointed with only Schluter in opposition.

Christie, who had rejected Schluter’s advice in 2010 to keep Franzese on as the Ethics Commission chair, chose not to reappoint Schluter either after his protest of Wiechnik’s ouster. When Schluter’s term expired last March, “I got a call from someone named Vinnie in the governor’s appointments office who told me I was a holdover and I was not being reappointed because the governor wanted his own person,” Schluter recalled.

More Trouble

Schluter’s complaint about Christie’s direct involvement in the appointment of two Ethics Commission executive directors is not the only controversy that has swirled around the commission in recent weeks.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, and David Pringle, director of the New Jersey Environmental Federation, both complained publicly that the Christie administration strong-armed the Ethics Commission two weeks ago to get a Pinelands Commission member barred from voting on a project represented by Samson’s law firm.

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