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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

We must watch the watchmen, police or politician

Who watches the watchmen?
New by Thurman Hart September 02, 2008

Last week, I denounced the faux protesters in Denver. This week, in Minneapolis, the false protesters turned to violence. It was a very small number of people who did so, but that is always the case. It is why security zones now have to be set up around the perimeter of legal gatherings. While the police moved to disperse the faux protests, they know they are being watched. Numerous television cameras, and thousands of cellphone cameras, are hoping to catch an over-reaction. Despite their professionalism and training, the police are human beings and there is always a chance that they will abuse their authority. So we watch the watchmen of our freedoms.

But not all problems are so easily seen. Tucked away in a story about John Crowley's ambition is a story about the ambition of other men. Specifically: As Crowley welcomed these Republicans who might have backed him in a bid for U.S. Senate, others - state Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R-Monmouth), U.S. Attorney Chris Christie's brother Todd, GOP power player Bill Palatucci and more Republicans - huddled in a St. Paul restaurant discussing their own plans - apparently - for a Christie gubernatorial candidacy. These men are free to speak however they want about whatever they want. But, despite Bill Palatucci's warning that I should not speak ill of Chris Christie in this space, there is the potential for serious legal issues in their meeting. So long as it is just power brokers talking strategy about a future campaign, it is fine. But if Chris Christie is represented in the discussion - and Bill Palatucci is his buddy and Todd Christie is his brother - then the potential for Hatch Act violations looms in the background. The Hatch Act is a federal measure that is aimed at protecting specific government offices, like the US Attorneys' offices, from partisan influence. So US Attorneys, as part of their job description, are prohibited from doing things like fund-raising and running for public office. That is why Chris Christie avoided the Republican convention all together. But he did reportedly send his brother Todd to represent him.

While this is not an overt violation of the Hatch Act, it does appear to be an attempt to circumvent the spirit of the law. Regardless of one's thoughts on Christie's supposed non-partisanship to this point, any attempt to position himself for a 2009 gubernatorial run introduces the very political forces the Hatch Act was written to ban from federal law enforcement. It stands to reason that a person trying to win the Republican nomination for Governor in 2009 would not spend the last few months of his term in office bringing charges against Republican power brokers. Given the lead time on investigations and court proceedings, any investigations into Democratic power brokers, on the other hand, would lead to indictments, arrests, and court proceedings - including convictions - during the 2009 campaign season. If you're like me, you don't mind it so much to see crooked Democratic power brokers getting thrown in the hoosegow. But you'd kind of like to see crooked Republican power brokers in an adjoining cell. After all, this is Jersey, and it isn't like either side is exempt from taking a few easy dollars when the opportunity presents itself. But the pressure can work the other way, as well. Perhaps, sensitive to such accusations, Chris Christie simply decides that he is better off not to pursue any corruption charges during the next six months. How does that serve the interests of New Jersey? Perhaps he looks at a file for some anonymous Hudson County Democrat and says, "There's a case here, but I can't be seen to be only chasing Democrats. We have to let this one go."

The truth, though, is that Christie has racked up quite the partisan record. While he took down a couple of big-time Republicans early, his targets since that time have mostly been Democrats. Of course, corruption is not spread evenly and since more Democrats hold office in New Jersey, it is possible that his record speaks only of opportunity. But there has been nothing but silence from the US Attorney's office on known corruption in the Republican organizations in Somerset and Burlington Counties. Perhaps there is a reasonable explanation for it - I just haven't heard it. The point is not to demonize Chris Christie. His focus on corruption has helped clean up New Jersey politics immeasurably. If he wants to return to politics in the future, I'd welcome him as a worthy candidate. But his current position demands that future political considerations be set aside completely - and sending your brother to represent your interests at a meeting that sets out campaign strategy is not doing that. It may technically be legal, but it remains unethical. Chris Christie has, for the past seven years or so, been the watchman of New Jersey politics. Even if he hasn't cleaned up every inch of the sewer, it is a bit cleaner for his having held his current office. If he is to be Governor in the future, then he needs to protect his reputation as being above politics by remaining removed from politics as long as he holds his office. Otherwise, he is not a public crusader who represents our interests in removing corruption, but simply yet another Jersey politician who represents his own ambition in removing the competition. Christie is not incorruptable - no man is. A democracy flourishes only when we keep a careful eye on those who would lead us. We must watch the watchmen, whether they be police or politician, or we will have nothing worth watching.

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