N.J. Independent Counsel Not So: Republicans Say of Christie Probe

Photograph by Mel Evans/AP Photo

Co-chairs, New Jersey Assemblyman John S. Wisniewski, second right, D-Sayreville, N.J., and New Jersey Sen. Loretta Weinberg, right, D-Teaneck, N.J., address a joint bipartisan committee of members of the New Jersey Senate and Assembly on Jan. 27, 2014.

The independent counsel hired by Democrats in New Jersey to guide the probe of any possible ties between Gov. Chris Christie’s administration and politically connected lane closures at the George Washington Bridge may not be so independent, Republicans in the Legislature are charging.

Jenner & Block LLC, the firm of former assistant U.S. attorney and current counsel to the committee Reid Schar, billed the state’s Democrats $760,273.33 to represent them in the 2001 and 2011 redistricting process, according to documents reviewed by Bloomberg News. The billing included $554,580.16 in fees to represent the party in the 2001 reapportionment and $205,693.17 in 2011, according to tabulations by the state’s Office of Legislative Services.

Assemblyman John Wisniewski, co-chairman of the panel leading the “Bridgegate” inquiry, was chairman of the Democratic State Committee during the 2011 redrawing of the state’s political map.

“It’s highly concerning that a firm paid three-quarters of a million dollars to get and retain a Democratic majority is now counsel to what is supposed be a truly bipartisan committee,” Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, a Republican from Westfield, said in an interview. “This is the prime reason why a counsel for the committee should have been hired through a committee vote and not behind closed doors before committed was even formed.”

Wisniewski said in an intervview that Schar himself never represented Democrats in New Jersey and “there’s no conflict here.”

“There’s no conflict. Period. They are a well-regarded law firm. They are a national law firm and on a routine basis they check for any conflicts before they start,” he said. “It seems to me it that there is a concerted effort on a variety of levels to try and call into question the work of this committee before it’s even done any work, and to inject partisanship.”

Republicans have said Democrats didn’t solicit their input in hiring Schar and have said the committee, which Democrats control with eight members to their four, has often left the shut out of the process.

Democrats captured a majority of seats in the 80-member Assembly in the 2001 elections, and two years later reclaimed the Senate. They’ve since held on to both and currently hold a 48-32 majority in the Assembly and 24-16 edge in the Senate.

Schar was lead investigator and prosecutor in the 2011 corruption trial of Rod Blagojevich, the former Democratic governor of Illinois who drew a 14-year prison sentence for trying to trade the vacated U.S. Senate seat of President Barack Obama. He didn’t return a message today left by Bloomberg News to his Chicago office. Wisniewski wasn’t immediately available for comment.

The controversy has weighed on Christie, a Republican mentioned as a possible 2016 White House candidate.

Forty-eight percent of state voters said they approved of the Republican’s job performance, wiping out the bounce he received in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, according to a survey released today by Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind institute. His approval rating stood at 62 percent in an October poll by the same group.

 – With assistance from David Voreacos in Newark.

 

 

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