Sunday, June 6, 2010

It's The Checks and Balances, Stupid

In New Jersey, there are four State watchdogs.  The Inspector General is an independent agency; the State Comptroller is part of the executive branch; the State Commission of Investigation is part of the legislative branch; and the Medicaid Inspector General is an independent agency within the Inspector General's office.  Having independent investigators means that any branch of the government -- executive, legislative or judicial -- can be kept honest.

As part of his budget cutting program, Governor Christie wants to merge New Jersey's four watchdogs into one agency. And, not surprisingly, he wants all the inspectors combined with the State Comptroller in the executive branch.  Since the State Comptroller is appointed by the Governor for a 6 year term, the Governor's plan means that the one person in charge of State investigations, former Federal prosecutor Matthew Boxer, will be answerable to the Governor when his 6 year term ends in 2012.  Ask Justice Wallace -- I'm sorry, former Justice Wallace -- what that means for the future of checks and balances in State investigations.

For purposes of clarity, the Inspector General is also appointed by the Governor.  However, once appointed, the Inspector General serves for the Governor's entire term.  The current Inspector General, Mary Jane Cooper, has served in that capacity since originally appointed by acting Governor Codey.

Now, by operating of our State Constitution, New Jersey has the most powerful Governor in the nation.  Our Governor has a line item veto, which the President does not have.  But even the New Jersey Governor cannot eliminate the State Commission of Investigation.  That's how important the office is viewed within the context of our Constitution.  What the Governor CAN do is cut the funding to the State Commission of Investigation, which he has proposed doing.  He wants the agency's budget cut by about 75%.  There is no precedent for such a de-funding.

What makes this more than just a tale about cost-cutting and, perhaps, power-grabbing are certain facts from  Governor Christie's tenure as U.S  District Attorney.  As a federal prosecutor, Chris Christie was one of seventeen Federal prosecutors who served as advisers to former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez.  The United States Attorney General is supposed to be an independent entity.  But under President Bush, advisor Karl Rove was charged with using every branch of government to further the political goals of the President and the Republican party.  And so, the Attorney General became a political partisan.

Lawyers interviewing for jobs as Federal prosecutors were vetted for their political views.  And Federal prosecutors were urged to bring indictments that would affect elections.  Some prosecutors were forced to resign after refusing to bring such political prosecutions.

As a respected member of the now-politicized office of the Attorney General, U.S. Attorney Chris Christie brought an indictment against a North Jersey anti-poverty agency with ties to Senator Robert Menendez.  At the time, Senator Menendez was in a close re-election battle against Republican Tom Keane, Jr., son of the popular former governor.  The indictment was announced a few months before the election; to date, the indictment has resulted in no charges, but the District Attorney's office continues to refuse to clear Menendez' name.

Now, there is no agency charged with investigating Federal prosecutors for bringing prosecutions for political purposes.  However, the Attorney General is answerable to Congress.  Ultimately, Alberto Gonzalez was forced to resign under threat of being indicted for lying to Congress.  Lying about firing federal prosecutors for not bringing political indictments.

Chris Christie was not an innocent bystander to the politicization of the United States Attorney General's office.  As an influential advisor to Alberto Gonzalez, he was one of the architects.  Against this backdrop, it's clear that his move to bring all State investigatory activities under the authority of the executive branch is part of a pattern, a long-standing pattern of harnessing investigative power for partisan purposes.

Governor Chris Christie has attacked the independence of the judiciary; he has superseded the legislature on a number of occasions, giving rise to several law suits; and now he seeks control of the State's investigatory powers.  How long will it be before employees of the State Comptroller, both current and prospective, are vetted for party affiliation?

You can call this a lot of things, but don't pretend this is about balancing the State budget.

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