By Mark Lagerkvist │ New Jersey Watchdog
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie made a crucial decision last month on Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, his second-in-command who’s embroiled by scandal and entangled in a criminal investigation riddled with conflicts of interest.
Christie named her as his running mate for the 2013 election. He effectively anointed Guadagno his heir apparent to take the reigns as governor should Christie resign to run for president in 2016.
In his State of the State speech on Tuesday, Christie will speak at great length. But he won’t utter a single word on the troubles of Guadagno, whose false statements enabled one of her top aides get nearly $250,000 out of the state pension fund.
Nor is Christie likely to address his own failure to appoint an independent investigator to determine whether Guadagno violated state law – not to mention his administration’s bid to keep records of the controversy secret.
Since none of this will be disclosed in Christie’s remarks, New Jersey Watchdog offers its “State of the Governor” report – a synopsis of the ongoing soap opera that undermines the character and integrity of a popular politician who aspires to be the next president of the United States.
ACT I: The pension scam
The opening act began in 2008 with Guadagno as sheriff of Monmouth County.
Guadagno hired Michael W. Donovan Jr. as her “chief of law enforcement division” at a salary of $87,500 a year. She announced the appointment in a memo to her staff. The sheriff’s official website subsequently identified Donovan as “sheriff’s officer chief,” supervising 115 subordinate officers and 30 civilian employees.
In accepting that position, Donovan faced a legal problem. He was collecting an $85,000 a year state pension as a retired investigator for the county prosecutor. “Double-dipping” is often legal in New Jersey, but this was different.
Because the position of sheriff’s chief is specifically covered by the pension system, Donovan should have been required to stop receiving pension checks, plus resume his contributions to the state retirement fund.
So Guadagno lied about Donovan’s job title, enabling her chief to improperly continue to collect a pension, a New Jersey Watchdog investigation revealed in October 2010. Donovan’s combination of salary and retirement checks totaled $172,500 a year.
In county payroll records, the oath of office and a news release, Donovan was listed as the sheriff’s “chief warrant officer” — a similar sounding, but low-ranking position that’s not part of the pension system. A chief warrant officer is responsible for serving warrants and other legal documents.
However, on Guadagno’s organizational chart, Donovan was listed as chief of law enforcement. The position of chief warrant officer is not on the chart.
The favor was repaid. The following year, Donovan campaigned for Guadagno and Gov. Chris Christie as Monmouth County chairman of the “Law Enforcement for Christie-Guadagno” team in the gubernatorial election. (Click here for New Jersey Watchdog’s story on LECG’s 12 double-dippers.)
While sheriff’s chief, Donovan pocketed $227,000 in checks from the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System. Since he did not re-enroll in PFRS, he avoided another $18,000 in contributions. If the state decides Donovan violated pension law, he could be forced to repay $245,000.
The stakes are also high for Guadagno, elected lieutenant governor in 2010. Under state statute, “Any person who shall knowingly make any false statement or shall falsify or permit to be falsified any record or records of this retirement system…shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.”
ACT II: The cover-up
New Jersey governors have the power to order independent investigations of state officers – and to remove those officials for cause, under Article V, Section IV of the State Constitution.
For example, Gov. Jon Corzine appointed a retired appellate judge in 2006 to investigate allegations against Attorney General Zulima Farber.
After Farber’s boyfriend was stopped by police for driving an unregistered vehicle, she instructed her State Police chauffeur to take her to the scene of the incident. The investigation concluded that Farber violated the state ethical code, but not any laws. Under pressure, Farber resigned.
In contrast, Christie never authorized an independent investigation of allegations against Guadagno, despite an apparent violation of law.
The case was referred to the Attorney General’s Division of Criminal Justice, where the case was riddled with potential conflicts of interest:
Guadagno is DCJ’s former deputy director. She held the post from 1998 to 2001.
Nearly two dozen DCJ investigators and supervisors are double-dippers who collect state paychecks plus pensions, New Jersey Watchdog found.
Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa, a Christie appointee, is ultimately in charge of an investigation that could implicate fellow cabinet member Guadagno.
Twenty months later, the so-called criminal probe looks like a de facto cover-up. Spokespeople for Chiesa, Christie and Guadagno have declined comment. And since Christie announced Guadagno as his running mate for 2013, it is unlikely they will offer the public a pre-election explanation.
New Jersey Watchdog, meanwhile, has been waging a battle to obtain the records gathered during a secretive state Treasury review of the Donovan matter. The state treasurer is a Christie appointee who sits with Guadagno in the governor’s cabinet.
The fight began in March 2011 with an Open Public Records Act request. After Treasury officials refused to release any documents, New Jersey Watchdog filed its complaint with the state Government Records Council.
In a July 2012 decision, the Council ordered the Treasury to turn over 26 documents for in-camera inspection. After review, the GRC was to decide which records, if any, to release to New Jersey Watchdog.
Attempting to avoid outside review, the Treasury took the fight to the Appellate Division of Superior Court. A motion by the Attorney General – another Christie appointee and cabinet member – on behalf of Treasury was opposed by briefs from New Jersey Watchdog and GRC. The Treasury lost the appeal in November when the state appellate court denied its motion.
But in a strange turn of events, the Council surrendered shortly after its appellate court victory. Rather than enforce its own order and review the contested records, the GRC suddenly decided to refer the case to the state’s Office of Administrative Law for decision.
“Because of the nature of the subject of this complaint, this complaint should be referred to the Office of Administrative Law…” according to a draft of the GRC staff recommendation released just before its December meeting.
As soon as the meeting started, the GRC went into executive session to discuss the case in private – and change the wording of the resolution it would adopt. When the public was invited to return, the reference to “the nature of the subject of this complaint” and its political inference had disappeared. It was replaced by an assertion the Council did not have enough resources or staff to finish the case it started “because of the significant procedural issues contemplated.”
It is worth noting that all the Council’s four voting members serve at Christie’s pleasure. Two are officials in Christie’s cabinet – his education and community affairs commissioners. The other two are public members appointed by the governor’s office.
The governor also appoints the judges in OAL. The chief administrative law judge reports directly to Christie.
The transfer of the case from GRC to OAL is likely to delay a decision for several months – and possibly until after the 2013 election.
ACT III: The opera ain’t over…
The final act of this New Jersey soap opera has yet to be written.
As 2013 begins, Christie is riding the Hurricane Sandy recovery effort to a high tide of political popularity. His approval rating is soaring above 70 percent. His re-election campaign raised $2.1 million in its first 36 days. Early polls show him to be the front-runner among Republican hopefuls for the 2016 presidential nomination.
However, history reminds that politics is a cruel and fickle mistress that can quickly turn a hero into a zero.
Richard Nixon, for example, won the 1972 election by 18 million votes – the largest margin of any U.S. presidential election. Less than two years later, he left office in disgrace – the first president ever to resign.
Nixon was undone by Watergate – not so much by the burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters as by the subsequent cover-up of the crime.
For Christie, his political Achilles heel may prove to be “Guadagno-gate.” His lieutenant governor’s role in the pension controversy is well-documented by available public records; links to those documents are embedded in this story. The evidence points to a prima facie violation of state law.
Christie’s obvious sin of omission is his failure to appoint an independent investigator. As a former U.S. Attorney, he should know better. Whether the governor is guilty of sins of commission remains to be seen.
Guadagno-gate may play a role in this year’s gubernatorial race. It may be a factor in the next presidential contest. But there is one lingering likelihood:
The opera ain’t over until the Fat Governor sings.
Contact Mark Lagerkvist at [email protected].