Standing only inches apart, the two rival candidates in the upcoming Nov. 7 election were caustic. Among the many issues addressed, one stood out: the question of corruption and ethics.
"I'm proud of my campaign," Kean Jr. said. "I think it's important that people know that corruption costs the people of this state money."
"I regret that I have to respond to Tom Kean's vicious attacks," Menendez countered.
"It's hard to be lectured on ethics by an individual who is under federal criminal investigation," Kean fired back.
"That's an absolute lie on your part," Menendez replied.
"Oh, come on, Bob," Kean answered. "Let's be real."
The importance of corruption and ethics in this closely contested and nasty race could not be more real.
Kean has said that Menendez earned extra money by renting out property he owned to a Hudson County non-profit organization that got federal funds. Menendez's campaign, in turn, noted that Kean's campaign has sought dirt on Menendez by writing to former County Executive Robert Janiszewski while Janiszewski sits in federal prison.
While Menendez and Kean accuse each other of telling lies, voters in Hudson County and the rest of New Jersey will have to determine who will be best at changing the county's history of corruption, as detailed in last week's article about Hudson County corruption (go to www.secaucusreporter.com).
According to the most recent polls, the Republican rule of the U.S. Senate may be slipping away. Seven G.O.P. Senate candidates in the country are behind or in trouble. The Democrats need only six seats to regain control of the Senate, presuming that Menendez holds on to his seat in this surprisingly competitive race.
In the weeks to come, the issue of local political corruption may not just change the political landscape in New Jersey; it may change the nation.
Ethics accusations mount for Menendez
The first serious blow to the Democratic Senate candidate came in early September when federal investigators from the office of the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, Christopher Christie, subpoenaed records of a rental agreement between Menendez and the North Hudson Community Action Corporation (NHCAC), a non-profit health agency for the poor based in West New York.
Menendez rented a building to the agency from 1994 to 2003, collecting more than $300,000 in rent from the organization while he was serving at the representative for the 13th Congressional district. During the same period, he helped the agency receive millions in dollars in federal funds. Menendez has denied any allegations that these transactions were unethical, stating that they were approved by the House Ethics Committee.
The Menendez camp went further, suggesting that Christie, a Republican who was appointed by President George W. Bush to his position in December 2001, timed the subpoena of Menendez's tenants in a way to inflict maximum negative political damage on him.
Christie purportedly does have political aspirations. However, he has also won some accolades from on both sides of the aisle for his equal-opportunity approach to prosecuting political corruption. He has indicted or prosecuted a total of 97 people involved in corruption statewide.
At a Sept. 15 press conference following the guilty plea of former Democratic State Senate President John Lynch for mail fraud and tax evasion, Christie indirectly referred to the issue of his political timing.
"We have no preconceived notions when we go into investigations," Christie said. "We merely follow the evidence we uncover wherever it leads. We have no other agenda."
Menendez vs. corruption
Menendez himself was on the same side as the prosecutors in the early 1980s when his former mentor, Union City Mayor and State Sen. William Musto, stood trial for federal conviction on racketeering charges. Menendez, a young Cuban-American who had moved up through the ranks of Union City politics and had been an aide to Musto, now was among those who testified against Musto.
"He demonstrated by his actions that he is a reformer," said local attorney Donald Scarinci about Menendez in August. "He testified against his mentor Musto, who was a personal and a political disappointment to him. Several people who were indicted with Musto were members of organized crime. Bob Menendez testified against them. That took courage. I saw him wear the bullet-proof vest [during the trial]."
But recently, a more personal blow to Menendez's campaign came at the end of September, involving the aforementioned Scarinci.
Dr. Oscar Sandoval, a Union City psychiatrist and FBI informant who helped to bring down former Hudson County Executive Bobby Janiszewski in 2002, released transcripts of a taped telephone call made seven years ago in which Scarinci, Menendez's closest political and personal ally, told Sandoval that Menendez would consider it a "favor" if Sandoval hired another doctor, Vicente Ruiz, who was allied with Menendez.
Scarinci added "from my point of view, it makes sense for you because it gives you protection."
Scarinci's statements surfaced as part of dueling lawsuits filed between Hudson County and Sandoval. The county government filed a lawsuit earlier this year against Sandoval for being part of a group of county government vendors tied to political corruption under Janiszewski.
Menendez's campaign quickly announced that it had severed ties with Scarinci after the transcript revelations.
Scarinci released a written statement saying he could not respond to the tape because it is part of a lawsuit. But he added, "I will clearly state that none of my dealings with Dr. Sandoval were either directed or requested by Bob Menendez."
In an interview with the Reporter in August before the tape issue broke, Scarinci was less polite about Sandoval.
"Oscar Sandoval is insane," he said. "He's about as low a human being that exists. He's never taken responsibility for what he did. He's never done a day of time. Oscar Sandoval lives in his imagination."
'Guilt by geography'
Known as a tough campaigner, Menendez is not backing down. Menendez complained about the Republican "smear campaign" that is using "guilt by geography" to try to defeat him. He has gone on the record saying that he would "absolutely not" consider leaving the Senate race.
In an earlier interview with the Reporter, Menendez was defiant about Tom Kean Jr.'s claims that he is just another corrupt Hudson County political boss.
"It was Tom Kean Jr. and his father who muscled out many Republicans who expressed a desire to run for the Senate so that there wouldn't be any primary," he said. " It seems to me if any national political muscle was brought into this race, it was more by Kean Jr., who brought in U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney, U.S. Senator John McCain, former U.S. Senator and Presidential candidate Bob Dole, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former President Bush. There's a degree of bossism in the way he's acted."
The Menendez campaign has also criticized the timing of contributions totaling over $13,000 from Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield executives and their families to the Kean Jr. Senate campaign shortly before he voted twice during a June 2005 state Senate vote to let the insurance company keep a $40 million tax exemption.
Kean Jr. Campaign spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker stated that Kean Jr. "has never taken contributions with strings attached."
Referring to the challenges he faces and the closeness of the race, Menendez said that "the reality is I'm the underdog in this race. Tom Kean Jr. comes from a family with a great name...This election will be between the son of immigrants who grew up poor and walked in the shoes of the average New Jerseyan, versus the son of a powerful governor whose family goes back to the colonial period. As New Jerseyans get to know me and what I stand for and see the differences between us, I believe those polls will widen."
Menendez counters Kean Jr.'s ethics charges by tying the Republican candidate to the perceived policy failures of a Republican administration, especially the wars on terror and in Iraq.
"It's an election about where the nation heads," he said. "If you believe the nation is headed in the right direction and you agree with the President's policies, you would be voting for Tom Kean Jr."
At his campaign headquarters in Mountainside, N.J., the man who wants to foil Menendez's plan begged to differ.
Kean Jr. has gone on the record about not being totally in accord with the Bush administration about its prosecution of the Iraq war, specifically calling for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. In an early October interview, Kean Jr. returned to the question of his campaign rival's ethics.
"When Bob Menendez was appointed to the Senate, many newspapers and individuals criticized his ethical background," he said. "Unfortunately, that's not what New Jersey needs right now. The concerns voiced at the beginning of the campaign are now being borne out."
Kean went to on to talk about what he believes is the cost of corruption.
"The system that currently exists costs taxpayers too much money," he said. "Every time you have an inflated contract through pay-to-play, every time a legislator puts federal taxpayer dollars into their own pocket, how else could that money have been used? This is not about Hudson County or the people of Hudson County. This is about a system of government that has focused far too long on a pay-to-play culture."
He spoke of his own plan to stem corruption.
"State Senator Richard Codey and Governor Corzine have made a big deal about having the first-ever Ethics Commission that has members of the general public as a majority of that commission," he said. "That was my bill. I was the one to push that through. I was the first individual in the Assembly to introduce a bill to abolish the practice of pay-to-play. My plan to clean up Congress would include promoting the creation of an independent ethics oversight entity made up by a majority of members of the general public like I did in the state Assembly. I want to make it a federal crime to steer contracts to lobbyists. I also promoted a bill to ban dual office holding. Thirty-eight states think it's illegal. It should be stopped here."
He made mention of Hudson County's political past.
"This is about a system that Frank Hague started and has continued unbroken for years," he said. "The one time people tried to break it through the leadership of [the late Jersey City mayor and State Sen.] Glenn Cunningham, Bob Menendez tried to hurt him."
Kean consultant writes to Janiszewski
Another name from Hudson County's recent political past surfaced unexpectedly during the campaign: imprisoned former Hudson County Executive Bobby Janiszewski. Chris Lyon works as a subcontractor for Kean's chief campaign political consultant Matt Leonardo. It was publicly revealed at the end of September that Lyon had established a written correspondence with Janiszewski in an attempt to dig up damaging information about Menendez.
Following an Oct. 1 news conference, Gov. Corzine, who appointed Menendez to the Senate in January, expressed his concerns about these tactics.
"Now we have a situation where the Republican candidate is actually using a person in jail as a campaign consultant and an advisor," he said.
Kean subsequently defended himself and his campaign.
"I don't know the daily activities of the people who are providing research for the campaign," he said. "But thousands of people have come to us to talk about the corruption that has surrounded Bob Menendez, and this is one individual that knew exactly what he had done in his past. Is anybody going to believe that Menendez hasn't done research into my background? Authorities at the federal and state level would like to know more information, not less. If they've got questions or concerns, I encourage more people to reach out."
Kean Jr. maintains his stance that ethics should remain an important theme going into the campaign's final weeks.
"Bob Menendez was a sitting political boss at the exact same time he was a member of Congress," he said. "New Jersey cannot afford what Bob Menendez has built in Hudson County to be spread statewide."
A policy perspective
Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, commented recently at how the corruption issue is affecting the Senate election.
"The revelations concerning Menendez have taken their toll [on his campaign]," he said. "In combination with former State Senator John Lynch's guilty plea for fraud and tax evasion, former Governor Jim McGreevey's book, and State Senator Wayne Bryant stepping down from the head of the budget committee [all Democratic officials], it begins to form a kind of mosaic. It is the kind of problem Senator Menendez would find really troublesome to deal with. But is it fatal? No."
He said, "The incriminating evidence would have to be a lot more direct. It would have to be his voice on the tape, or a subpoena to him personally. Menendez still has the solid support of prominent Democrats."
Baker sees a Menendez victory as possible for both national and local reasons. The resignation of Republican U.S. Rep. Mark Foley after revelations that the Florida congressman had sent sexually explicit messages to underage congressional pages has hurt the G.O.P. nationally.
In Baker's view, ethics is only one of many complex issues facing New Jerseyans.
"This is a Senate election," he said. "Local issues are important, but there are national concerns. There is a lot of concern is this state about the conduct of the war in Iraq. Ethics issues cannot win a Senate campaign by themselves. There is in New Jersey, for better or for worse, a fairly high threshold for what people consider corruption. There is a belief that politics is a game not played by choir boys, so politicians get a certain amount of slack cut for them where a couple of allegations for questionable dealings are pardoned. I think there's a feeling that somehow having impeccable honesty in Trenton is more important than sending it to Washington."
See last week's article 'Hudson County's culture of corruption' for more on these issues.
Mark J. Bonamo can be reached at email@example.com.