Federal prosecutors wrongly indicted a New Jersey mayoral candidate for a second time on corruption charges, according to a Newark federal judge who dismissed all charges in a political prosecution that helped former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie win his state’s governorship in 2009. Authorities improperly indicted unsuccessful Jersey City mayoral candidate Louis Manzo last year, U.S. District Judge José Linares ruled on Feb 17.
The dismissal frees the now-impoverished Manzo, left, from the charges he describes as "ruining my life" three years ago. Also, it vindicates his battle against prosecutors who had spent vast sums to convict him. The defendant's victory shames the Bush-appointed Christie, his successors from the Obama administration and those in the news media who accepted the prosecution version of events without digging deeper. Christie, at right, has long been touted in the media as a politician of national stature. But political reporters who focus on successful image-making make scant effort to examine such substance as his vast spending as a prosecutor. This occurred both in local, politically driven cases such as Manzo's and in the tens of millions of dollars in no-bid contacts that Christie provided to his former Justice Department cronies for supervising companies willing to work out deals to avoid indictment.
Also, Manzo's victory provides rare hope to other defendants nationwide who can now hope for justice if they are fortunate enough to find a fair judge, such as the Bush-appointed Linares. Linares has twice thrown out charges from prosecutors who were trying to create new law by prosecuting Manzo without a basis in legislation.
"This case," said Manzo, a Democratic former state assemblyman, "hopefully will stand a long time for the proposition that federal prosecutors can't come into a locality and selectively target local candidates -- thereby disrupting local elections with a federal political agenda." He expressed thanks to the judge, whom he described as providing a "scholarly and fair" judgment in a 60-page decision.
Manzo praised also his attorney, John Lynch, as extraordinarily dedicated and talented, and thanked also the Justice Integrity Project for featuring his case beginning more than two years ago. The Project cited it as a prominent national example of a political prosecution arising from the Bush administration's 2006 political purge of nine of Bush's first U.S. attorneys for political reasons. This left such fervent loyalists as Christie in office with incentive to use their vast powers for personal and party political gains.
Authorities have insisted they were prosecuting Manzo for legitimate reasons. Nonetheless, a spokeswoman told a New Jersey reporter after the verdict they would not pursue Manzo any longer. Prosecutors have maintained that their informant, Solomon Dwek, obtained admissions from two of Manzo's campaign aides (who pled guilty) that he would accept some $27,500 in donations for his mayoral campaign. Authorities alleged that Manzo would get the money if he would help Dwek's supposed development project, and also name a purported Dwek ally to a city post if elected. Manzo has said he never received or wanted their money, and never agreed to take any actions in return for donations. The defense has said a government witness supported Manzo's contention in a statement to the FBI that it withheld from the court.
As customary, the judge, shown at right, accepted the prosecution's allegations as true for the purposes of the pre-trial ruling. But he ruled for the defense in dismissing the case. In essence, the judge wrote that any assent by the defendant to a scheme, while "reprehensible" if proven, was not a valid offense under the law. Its history, the judge argued in his long analysis, shows that legislators in Congress and in the states devised it for office-holders, not candidates. Linares, a Cuban-born 2002 nominee of President Bush, made a similar ruling earlier in the case affirmed by a federal appeals court. But prosecutors re-framed the prosecution with a new indictment alleging interstate travel crime because Manzo met Dwek at a Staten Island restaurant across state lines from Jersey City.
Our Project's primary interest in the case stemmed from the its overall circumstances. For example, Christie approved a leniency deal permitting more than $10,000 a month for Dwek's living expenses for years. He was Jersey entrepreneur and a Caribbean cruise ship brothel operator who pled guilty to a $50 million bank fraud. The leniency deal was for him to help set up suspects for arrest by offering campaign donations in local elections, and also help unravel complications in the bank fraud he perpetrated. For the campaign "donations," the money authorized by Christie and his successors was from taxpayers. This shows a high-degree of central government involvement in local elections. Manzo this year filed an extensive brief alleging selective prosecution against Democrats and requesting a hearing. That brief remains under seal, with arguments and a call for oversight now void because the judge dismissed the case.
Christie was the Bush administration's Republican U.S. attorney from 2001 to the end of 2008. Before winning election as a crime-fighter he awarded tens of millions of dollars in no-bid federal contracts to Republican former New Jersey U.S. Attorney Herbert Stein and U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft. Upon election as governor, Christie hired for state jobs a dozen former subordinates in the U.S. attorney's office for key posts, including top executives who implemented the dragnet capturing Manzo after Christie put the sting in motion. These included the top two interim prosecutors who carried forward the Dwek-focused "Bid Rig III" corruption investigation. Massive publicity about the arrest of Manzo and more than 40 others in July 2009 helped create momentum for Christie's gubernatorial victory that fall.
Christie's spokesman has called Manzo's allegations "total nonsense," and has denied irregularities in the 2009 corruption sting congruent with Christie's campaign theme that he was fighting corruption by dishonest Democrats.
Obama-appointed U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, left, and his team obtained a new indictment against Manzo. It alleged Manzo corruptly crossed state lines in 2009 from Jersey City to Staten Island for his meeting with Dwek. Manzo says he never obtained funds from Dwek, and alleges that the new indictment shows manufactured government jurisdiction because it was Dwek who requested the meeting across the Hudson River. Further, Manzo charges that authorities misused their powers when they arranged a leniency deal with Dwek that allowed payments to Dwek of between $10,000 and $12,000 each month in funds belonging to Dwek's bank fraud victims.
There is something wrong, in my view, with a federal arrangement for Dwek to be paid top-dollar by powerless victims of his bank to inveigle others into compromising situations far less serious, even if proven, than Dwek's own crimes.
News media coverage of the case has been heavily pro-prosecution, just as it is in similar cases around the nation. Even after the verdict, some reporters couldn't resist including pro-prosecution spin that Manzo "beat the rap" or is "off the hook" implying guilt instead of reflecting on the repeated rulings that no law applied to the situation.
Jersey Journal columnist Agustin Torres was one of the few reporters open to the possibility that there might be more to the case than crime-fighting prosecutors. So was his colleague Michaelangelo Conte, along with Bob Braun of the Newark Star-Ledger, Al Sullivan of the Hudson Reporter, and Melissa Hayes, now of the Bergen Record, and radio broadcaster Bob Carson. There were very few others among at least a hundred relevant New Jersey political and court reporters on an information list our Project maintains. Most reporters must rely for their information primarily on prosecutors, governors and similar public officials, especially in these days of reduced newsroom budgets. So, scrutiny of such of officials increasingly remains within private conversations among journalists not easily shared with readers and viewers.
Yet Torres wrote in the Jersey Journal: "Legal arguments aside, with no trial, New Jersey residents have been cheated out of hearing the names of Republican officials in the state who met with FBI informant Solomon Dwek and who were never indicted. Those names were part of Manzo's expected prosecutorial misconduct defense and have never been publicly released by the court. Any appeal [by prosecutors to keep pursuing Manzo] may mean eventually opening this can of worms."
As for Manzo? "'The Ghost Who Walks' is also known in comics as 'The Phantom,'" Torres continued, saying the term could apply also to Manzo. The reporter quoted Manzo as saying: "With God nothing is impossible. He blesses the truth....John Lynch was an awesome Guardian Angel who delivered a truthful and brilliant defense. I am thankful for the many people who prayed vigilantly for this victory, which was delivered by a just God."
Selected News Reports Referenced Above
New Jersey Cases
By Louis Manzo
Letter to the Editor, Feb. 24, 2012.
God is great! I wanted to take the opportunity to express my public thanks to my attorney John Lynch, the Justice Integrity Project's Andrew Kreig, and so many people who were there for me in so many different ways, and who prayed for me throughout the course of my recent ordeal. Throughout this time, although I might have been angry with our government, I never lost my faith or my love for our country. Sometimes government will fail us, but we are blessed to live in a country where our founders had the wisdom to craft a constitution to protect us from those failures.
During our argument to dismiss the false charges against me, my attorney put forth the evidence of the kleptocracy that exists in the United States Attorney's Office. Prosecutors who were promised jobs in Trenton if Christie won the gubernatorial election were donating to his campaign and negotiating for their jobs while they worked the Bid Rig III investigation that buoyed Christie's campaign. In so doing, these prosecutors violated internal USAO guidelines and federal laws.
The difference between history's boldest accomplishments, and its most staggering failures is often, simply, the diligent will to persevere. You are never beaten until you quit. Victory and justice will always belong to those who believe and have faith in the truth.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Last Friday, in a 60-page opinion filed by U.S. District Court Judge Jose Linares, all federal corruption charges against Manzo were dismissed. Manzo was one of 46 people arrested in 2009 as part of the massive Bid Rig III federal probe.
Hudson Reporter, How he fought the FBI sting – and won, Al Sullivan, Feb 29, 2012. Former Assemblyman Manzo alleges misconduct in aspects of ‘Bid Rig’ investigation, Louis Manzo said he never despaired. He said he knew he didn’t do anything wrong. From the beginning, when he was charged in the federal government’s now infamous 2009 New Jersey political corruption sting, former Assemblyman Louis Manzo proclaimed his innocence. More to the point, he claimed that the sting was a political stunt to help get then-U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie elected governor. Two weeks ago, after more than two and half years of legal wrangling, the remaining charges against Manzo were dismissed. Now, Manzo says that there are probably a few other politicians who could have beaten the rap as well, but they probably didn’t have the money to fight. He also says the prosecution was selective in the sting, aiming for Democrats and purposely backing away from certain Republicans. “God is great,” Manzo said in an interview last week, thanking his attorney John Lynch, the Justice Integrity Project’s Andrew Kreig, and many people who were there for him and prayed for him while he fought the charges. “I never lost my faith or my love for our country. Sometimes government will fail us, but we are blessed to live in a country where our founders had the wisdom to craft a Constitution to protect us from those failures.”
Jersey Journal, Federal judge dismisses all charges against former Jersey City Assemblyman, Michaelangelo Conte, Feb. 17, 2012. A federal judge today dismissed all charges against former Jersey City Assemblyman Lou Manzo. In a stunning blow to federal prosecutors, a federal judge in Newark has dismissed all charges against former Jersey City assemblyman Lou Manzo, one of 44 people arrested in the massive corruption sweep of July 2009. In a 60-page ruling released today, Judge Jose Linares granted Manzo’s motion to dismiss all counts in his indictment. Manzo is accused of accepting more than $20,000 from a government informant, Solomon Dwek, who was posing as a developer seeking favors. Manzo, who was not an elected official at the time, but was running for mayor of Jersey City, was charged with two counts of extortion of under the Hobbs Act and two counts of violating the Travel Act, meaning he crossed state lines to commit a crime.
Jersey Journal, Former Jersey City pol says corruption charges against him part of effort to elect Christie governor, Michaelangelo Conte, Jan. 26, 2012. The attorney representing former Jersey City assemblyman and mayoral candidate Lou Manzo, left, argued in court today that corruption charges against Manzo are bogus and was part of a conspiracy to get Republican Gov. Chris Christie elected. John Lynch, Manzo's attorney, argued today that all charges against his client should be immediately dropped and that the probe was aimed at helping Christie get elected by embarrassing Democrats. He also noted that several assistant US attorneys who worked on the cases got state jobs after Christie was elected. Christie was US Attorney at the inception of the massive probe that resulted in charges against Manzo and numerous other Hudson County Democrats. The governor's press secretary, Michael Drewniak, today called Manzo's claims "total nonsense," and accused Manzo in a phone interview of trying to divert attention from the crimes he has been charged with. One of 46 people arrested as part of the Operation Bid Rig III sting in 2009, Manzo was accused of accepting more than $20,000 from a government informant who was posing as developer who was seeking favors. Assistant US Attorney Eric Kanefsky said today that for Manzo to show there was selective prosecution, he would have to prove that others in his situation were not prosecuted because they were not Democrats. He also said that if there had been a conflict of interest in the US Attorney's Office, there is none now since Christie and his closest allies no longer work there.
Justice Integrity Project, Defendant Claims Bias by Christie, Obama DOJ, Andrew Kreig, Oct. 17, 2011. A former New Jersey assemblyman defending himself on corruption charges filed on Oct. 18 a wide-ranging brief alleging selective prosecution in the 2009 case that helped propel Chris Christie to his state's governor's mansion. Louis Manzo requested also that the courts either vacate his most recent indictment as vindictive, or that his case be transferred to special prosecutor.
Justice Integrity Project, Court Slaps Feds Again For Christie-Era NJ Prosecutions, Andrew Kreig, Feb. 21, 2011. In a major setback for the U.S. Justice Department and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a federal appeals court last week dismissed federal bribery and conspiracy charges against two New Jersey Democrats targeted in a trap set by Christie. Our non-partisan Justice Integrity Project has repeatedly pointed to the 46-defendant “Bid Rig III” case as one of the nation’s most scandalous political prosecutions of recent years.
Other Law-Related Political News
USA Today, DOJ paying legal fees for prosecutors who botched case, Brad Heath, Feb. 2, 2013. The U.S. government has spent nearly $1.8 million defending prosecutors from allegations that they broke the law in the botched corruption case against former Alaska senator Ted Stevens, Justice Department records show. The case against Stevens fell apart three years ago when the Justice Department admitted its attorneys had improperly concealed evidence that could have helped his defense. A court-ordered investigation concluded in November that prosecutors had engaged in "significant, widespread, and at times intentional misconduct," but that they should not face criminal contempt of court charges. Records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show the department paid about $1.6 million since 2009 to private lawyers representing the six prosecutors targeted by that court investigation. It paid an additional $208,000 to defend three prosecutors from a separate finding that they had committed civil contempt of court. "Unfortunately, it's the taxpayers who are losing twice," said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, left, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee. "First, the Justice Department committed serious legal errors and ethical missteps in its taxpayer-funded investigation and trial against Sen. Stevens. And second, this is an unseemly high amount of money being spent by the taxpayers to defend what appears to be egregious misconduct."
Hunterdon County (NJ) Democrat, Former assistant prosecutor files lawsuit against Hunterdon County Prosecutor's Office, N.J., various officials, Lillian Shupe, Feb. 2, 2012. Another former assistant prosecutor has filed a lawsuit against the Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office. Ben Barlyn, who was hired as an assistant prosecutor in 2007, is taking the action. He claims he was fired Aug. 24, 2010 after he complained about the dismissal of criminal charges against Sheriff’s Office personnel. Arnold Lakind, of the law firm, Szaferman, Lakind, Blumstein & Blader, on Wednesday, Feb. 1 filed suit in Superior Court of Mercer County in Trenton on Barlyn’s behalf. Besides the Prosecutor’s Office, listed as defendants are Paula Dow, who was state attorney general at the time; then acting Hunterdon prosecutor Dermot O’Grady; Hunterdon County; the state; the state Division of Criminal Justice; the Attorney General’s Office and up to 25 other people whose identities are not known at this time.
Red State, GOP Operative Roger Stone Defects to Libertarian Party, William E. Lewis Jr., Feb. 18, 2012. Roger J. Stone Jr, the celebrated political consultant, lobbyist, strategist, and youngest staffer on Richard Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign, announced Wednesday that he quit the Republican Party. Stone – who is widely noted for his use of opposition research on behalf of Republican candidates – is now registered in his home state of Florida as a Libertarian. As a lifelong Republican – having registered to vote the day he turned 18 – Stone has worked on the campaign staff of Republican candidates in twelve national Republican Presidential campaigns. In his earliest and most famous role, Stone was the youngest campaign staffer on President Richard Nixon’s 1972 re-election committee, famously known as the Committee to Re-elect the President, or “CREEP,” as it has became known. From the StoneZone, a clearly unhappy Stone explains why he left the Grand Old Party and changed his political affiliation.