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Another slap in the face for Katie Brennan | Moran

Prosecutors in Middlesex failed to interview key witnesses, and asked Brennan only one question: How much did she drink on the night in question?

I was one of the naive fools who felt relieved when Attorney General Gurbir Grewal moved the rape case against Al Alvarez to Middlesex County for a second look in October, after Hudson County decided against pressing charges.

A fresh look made great sense, given revelations that the Hudson County Prosecutor, Esther Suarez, had profound conflicts of interest in the case. She had known Alvarez since 2003. And during the investigation, she was on the short list to be Gov. Phil Murphy's next attorney general, while Alvarez was a senior advisor to the governor's campaign.

But I was dead wrong to feel relieved. Because Middlesex prosecutors did not conduct a fresh investigation into Katie Brennan's charge of rape after all. They didn't start from scratch. They relied heavily on the investigative work done in Hudson instead.

What sense does that make? If the conflicts in Hudson raised doubts about the integrity of the investigation, why would Middlesex rely on their work? How could that possibly reassure Brennan, or the public, that she was getting a fair shake?

Investigators in Middlesex did not bother to talk to Brennan's husband, who she called immediately after Alvarez left her apartment. They did not talk to her close friend, who rushed over to hold her hand while her husband flew back from a business trip abroad. How could they assess Brennan's credibility without taking those basic steps?

And while they did invite Brennan in to tell her story, they asked only one question, according to her lawyer, Alan Zegas, who was present.

"They asked her how much she had been drinking," he said. "And they took few, if any, notes."

I don't know what happened that night, and the truth is no one but Alvarez and Brennan know for sure. He says it was consensual, she says it wasn't, and there is apparently no forensic evidence to break that tie.

And so far, no one has presented evidence showing that Suarez meddled in the investigation. Grewal exonerated her, and the chief assistant supervising rape cases, John Mulkeen, says he made the decision against filing charges on his own.

But neither Mulkeen nor Grewal would comment when asked if Suarez knew about the investigation. That's curious. Grewal's exoneration letter skips around that question, and Mulkeen refused to discuss it, even though he freely discussed the points that reflected well on his boss.

Suarez says she knew nothing of the investigation, but many people find that hard to believe, including members of the Legislature's investigative committee. They have asked for e-mails from three specific dates in April and May of 2017, just as the investigation began. Suarez has refused to hand them over. Several sources said those e-mails discussed evidence in the case and were sent to Suarez. A subpoena is likely, so we'll probably find out more.

In the meantime, Suarez seems to be preparing an ignorance defense: "My role is not to read documents and files all day long," she said when asked about the e-mails by Craig McCarthy of NJ Advance Media. "I have to trust that other people are doing what they need to do."

Think about Brennan, having to wonder whether Suarez knew, whether Hudson's investigation was tainted, and why Middlesex wouldn't talk to her husband and best friend to help assess her credibility. Imagine what it felt like to her when she read a press release from Middlesex saying they found "no credible evidence" of rape.

This is exactly why ethics laws talk about avoiding the "appearance" of a conflict. The appearance itself raises doubts that no victim should have to endure.

If Grewal's purpose was to remove suspicions, then he should have insisted that Middlesex conduct a fresh investigation of its own, from the top. He left that up to Middlesex prosecutors, and he won't explain why. Middlesex won't discuss the case either.

Grewal is a star in the Murphy administration, for good reason. But he's blowing this assignment. The Legislature needs to ask him if he knew about the e-mails that were reportedly sent to Suarez, and if so, why he exonerated her.

While they're at it, they could ask him why Middlesex ignored the protocols on rape investigations he issued just a few months ago. "It is vital that prosecutors explain to victims - in a respectful and compassionate way - that sometimes criminal charges are simply not viable, and that a prosecutor can decline to charge a sexual assault case for a variety of reasons unrelated to the victim's credibility," the directive says.

Middlesex sent an e-mail to Brennan's attorney, and issued a press release saying they found no credible evidence of rape, a message that suggests they believe Brennan was lying, even without doing the legwork needed to assess her credibility. Respectful and compassionate? Not so much.

Facing scandal and fiscal crisis, Murphy's challenges deepen | Moran

I can't second guess the final decision of prosecutors in Hudson or in Middlesex. Rape charges are notoriously difficult to prove, and discussing the evidence in public would be monstrously unfair to Alvarez, who deserves the presumption of innocence.

But we can conclude this: New Jersey's criminal justice system mistreated Brennan from start to finish, just as Murphy's senior aides mistreated her. That's bound to discourage women who are raped from coming forward. And that's a tragedy.

More: Tom Moran columns 

Tom Moran may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  or call (973) 836-4909. Follow him on Twitter @tomamoran. Find NJ.com Opinion on Facebook.


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The state of the union is bleak | Sheneman cartoon

Maybe the president do his stump speech in Moscow.

I bet the president really misses Paul Ryan.

It might be the first time anyone has longed for the presence of former House Speaker Ryan. We're in the early goings of the Democrats reign over the House of Representatives and already the president is experiencing the side effects of accountability.

In return for his alt-right performative government shutdown, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has told President Trump to stay home next Tuesday instead of delivering the State of the Union.

Citing the absurdity of holding a government-funded stump speech while 800,000 federal employees are either sitting at home wondering how to pay their mortgage, Nancy Pelosi decided the House chamber would be better left vacant than turned into a Trump rally. 

You get the idea that aides had to explain what a co-equal branch of government is when they told the president he couldn't give his speech.

He apparently threatened to show up anyway and I don't know, give the speech in the hallway? Mick Mulvaney doesn't have the keys to the House Chamber so his options were limited.

Just yesterday Trump conceded the point to Speaker Pelosi and agreed -- as if he had a choice -- to postpone the State of the Union until the government reopens, whenever the hell that is. 

After two years of doing and saying whatever he wanted while Ryan and the House Republicans abdicated their oversight duties, this is at least a small taste of accountability for the president. 

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Governor: Women legislators want the gag order lifted, too | Moran

At press conference, the governor takes a few cheap shots at the Star-Ledger. Here's our answer.

Gov. Phil Murphy was asked Tuesday about our editorial calling for him to lift the gag order that is preventing some staffers and volunteers from discussing the treatment of women.

"I did not read it," he said. Ouch.

"I'm told it was riddled with a lot of inaccuracies." Cheap shot. Prove it. You can't.

But here's the meat: "There's an agenda there," the governor said. "I'm not sure what it is."

On that, I can help. Our "agenda" is to report on the treatment of women in Murphy world. No mystery there.

In fact, if the governor would take about three minutes to read the editorial, he would find that several leading women legislators agreed that he should lift the gag order. 

"I would like to hear a rational reason as to why not, and I haven't heard that," says Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, the co-chair of the joint committee investigating the mistreatment of Katie Brennan, who testified that another campaign worker raped her.

"That's how we get to the truth," says Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz, R-Union.

"If there's something that's obviously really wrong and someone speaks out, no matter what environment they're in, they should be allowed to," says Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin, D-Essex, Weinberg's co-chair. 

Do all these women have hidden agendas, too?

Here's the backdrop in a nutshell: Murphy insisted that some of the people who worked on his campaign and transition sign non-disclosure agreements about what they saw and heard behind the scenes.

We asked him to release those people, especially the women, after hearing Brennan testify that she told senior players on Murphy's team that she was raped by Al Alvarez during the campaign. Murphy's team went on to hire Alvarez for a plum job in the administration, and later gave him a fat raise, even as they promised Brennan they would get rid of him. They didn't do that until Brennan went to the Wall Street Journal and outed them all.

You can read more about that, and the complaints of two other women, in the editorial here.

But for now, the important thing is that Murphy won't lift the gag order. Instead, he's lashing out at us. Which raises the obvious question: What is he hiding?

More: Tom Moran columns 

Tom Moran may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  or call (973) 836-4909. Follow him on Twitter @tomamoran. Find NJ.com Opinion on Facebook.


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Hudson prosecutor, on hot seat, stiff arms Legislature. | Moran

The investigative committee suspects she's lying when she says she knew nothing about the Katie Brennan rape case. It wants key emails. She is refusing.

What is Hudson County Prosecutor Esther Suarez hiding? Why is she fighting the Legislature's request for documents related to the explosive rape allegations from Katie Brennan -- documents that could shed light on Suarez's own truthfulness in the case?

Welcome to the next phase of the Brennan rape scandal. Until now, the focus has been on the Murphy administration's frat-boy behavior -- the failure to take Brennan's rape charge seriously, the decision to hire the man she accused, Al Alvarez, and to give him a fat raise, despite promising Brennan that they'd get rid of him.

But the role of Suarez is coming next. She claims that she knew nothing about the case while her team worked on it for eight months in 2017, a claim that is now under scrutiny by the legislative committee.

It's important because if Suarez was involved, it would amount to a gargantuan conflict of interest that would throw the legitimacy of the rape investigation into doubt.

Suarez has acknowledged that she knew Alvarez personally. And she was on Phil Murphy's short list to be named the next attorney general during this same period, several sources say, presenting an even sharper conflict. Prosecuting one of Murphy's senior campaign aides during the campaign is not the sort of thing that ingratiates a job applicant.

So far, there is no evidence that Suarez meddled in the case. The head of the unit that handles rape cases, John Mulkeen, said on Saturday that he made the decision not file criminal charges against Alvarez, and that neither Suarez nor Murphy's team played any role.

"I did not speak to her (Suarez) about the decision," Mulkeen said. "All the conspiracy theories that say the governor's office interfered are nonsense. That's a complete work of fiction."

Brennan's lawyer in the criminal case, Alan Zegas, doesn't buy it for a minute: "The decision not to prosecute was political," he said. "Katie Brennan told a completely believable story. She had a right to have a grand jury make a determination and was denied that opportunity."

Suppose, for a moment, that Suarez didn't interfere, but that she knew her crew was investigating the case.

Even that would be ample grounds to shift the case to another county. Brennan should not have to trust Mulkeen's word, or worry that Suarez might have overruled him if his decision went the other way. Moving the case would remove any doubt, which is why ethics rules typically bar even the "appearance" of a conflict.

The committee is clearly suspicious of Suarez. It made two requests for documents, both of them rejected by Suarez. The first came in December and was a broad demand. The second was more narrow, asking for emails from four specific dates in April and May of 2017, soon after Brennan made her complaint.

How did the committee know those four dates? It seems clear its investigators are working with a whistleblower who had knowledge of the inner workings of Suarez's office.

Suarez herself seemed to confirm that in her rejection of the committee's request, which came from her counsel, Ralph Lamparello. In it, Lamparello notes that the committee's request noted that it had "received information that Prosecutor Suarez had received e-mail communications regarding Ms. Brennan's allegations."

I asked Mulkeen if Suarez was included on the investigative emails, which would indicate she is lying when she denies knowledge of the investigation. He wouldn't confirm or deny it. So, why is he giving her only a half-exoneration?

My guess is that the committee will escalate this fight over documents by issuing a subpoena, which members will discuss, according to Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, the co-chair. Watch for Suarez to be swearing her oath sometime soon.

I keep thinking about the human wreckage behind this case. Alavarez lost his job, and will forever be shamed, over a charge that we can't be sure is true, a charge that was never heard in a court of law.

And Brennan is living a familiar nightmare. She did everything a rape victim is supposed to do, went straight to police, submitted to intrusive rape kit investigation, called her husband and best friend right away. She worked quietly behind the scenes to get justice from Murphy's team, and was ignored. She went public, she testified with grand dignity under oath -- and now sleazy men are making sleazy calls to people like me, trying to discredit her in all the familiar ways.

Facing scandal and fiscal crisis, Murphy's challenges deepen | Moran

Suarez wouldn't talk to me. She could remove a great deal of suspicion by releasing the emails the committee is seeking, even if most of the content is redacted. She could clear this up in a flash. Why wouldn't she do that if she's telling the truth?

Attorney General Gurbir Grewal investigated Hudson County's handling of the case and gave Suarez a full-throated exoneration. My guess, though, is that he's regretting the last line in his exoneration letter, when he told the committee to drop its investigation of Suarez before it even got started. That was overreach with a political bent, and it annoyed legislators who are only doing their job of oversight.

As for Murphy, he's caught in a bind that's strangely similar to Suarez's. Murphy claims that he didn't know about Brennan's allegation until the Wall Street Journal called either, even though his senior staff knew, just as hers did. And Murphy, today, is still enforcing a gag order that blocks women who worked on his campaign from testifying about any sexual harassment they may have faced.

Here's a free tip for both of them: If you want people to believe you, stop hiding relevant information. It makes you look guilty -- even if you're not.

 

More: Tom Moran columns 

Tom Moran may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  or call (973) 836-4909. Follow him on Twitter @tomamoran. Find NJ.com Opinion on Facebook.


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Humpty Trumpty sat on his border wall | Sheneman cartoon

Trump got himself into this shutdown mess because he is incompetent.

Self-proclaimed "stable genius" Donald Trump has negotiated himself into a corner with no obvious way out.

The leader of the free world has decided that the best way to get funding for his very stupid border wall is to pitch a hissy fit the likes of which have never been seen before. He now presides over the longest/dumbest government shutdown in the history of the republic with no end in sight.

The president fancies himself a master negotiator. Everyone who has ever negotiated with him before views him as a dupe. He takes his marching orders from the conservative Twitter-verse and has managed to negotiate his way out of his beloved wall several times.

Democrats were willing to pay for the ridiculous barrier in return for preserving DACA, far-right pundit Ann Coulter put the kibosh on that in 180 characters or less. 

Trump has, through decades of media coverage, crafted the persona of a prosperous businessman. A prominent real estate developer in the financial mecca of Manhattan and a billionaire many times over. That turned out to be, shocker, a lie.

Trump is not, nor has he ever been, a big time real estate developer. He propped up a meager portfolio with a few high profile projects like the Grand Hyatt and Trump Tower. He built his "empire" with money his daddy ran through a gauntlet of tax evasion schemes and still managed to burn through that several times over.

Trump got himself into this shutdown mess because he is incompetent.

He, in his own words, likes to "wing it" in all things. There was no plan to get in and there is sure as hell no plan to get out. In the balance are the institutions that form the United States government and the livelihoods of 800,000 government workers. 

God bless America. 

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Slight to South Jersey in Murphy message was petty | Editorial

It's tough to believe that the governor's exclusion of any mention of South Jersey points in his annual message was just an oversight. Let's hope actions speak louder than words.

It would be difficult to imagine that, after a year like 2018, former Gov. Chris Christie would have given a 2019 State of the State address that didn't mention any successes, modest though they might be, in Camden and Atlantic City. 

There was continued progress in Camden's schools, and a further reduction in its overall crime rate. Atlantic City welcomed the reopening of two casinos, as well as ribbon-cuttings on a new Stockton University branch and a South Jersey Gas headquarters.

From current Gov. Phil Murphy, not a peep about either city. And, while Murphy's remarks were short on audience "shout-outs" of the type that President Ronald Reagan made famous, there were acknowledgements to the mayors of Newark and Plainfield, and innovative programs in Jersey City. Mars (Hackettstown and Newark) Teva Pharmaceuticals (Parsippany-Troy Hills) and the RealReal (Perth Amboy) were mentioned as responsible users of state business development programs.

Murphy highlighted a "dreamer" from Orange now attending an Essex County college, and the owner of a home-brewing supply company in North Brunswick. Scouring the text of Murphy's address from top to bottom, we couldn't find an allusion to anyone, any company, or any government entity in the southern third of the state worthy of praise. It's surprising that Murphy remembered to acknowledge Jim Florio, who is from Camden County, among former governors who attended Tuesday's speech.

It's seems obvious that the governor's choice to ignore South Jersey was  intentional, probably the latest incarnation of an intra-party spat with Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester. But the snub to all of the counties south of Trenton is petty. It's also insulting to the large number of people and businesses trying to make a difference in our region.

With so much of the governor's remarks focused on needed reforms to the Economic Development Authority tax incentive programs that threw scads of tax breaks at companies willing to move to Camden, it's understandable that Murphy wouldn't mention that it's great to have Subaru stay in South Jersey due to one of one of those Camden deals. It wouldn't have fit Tuesday's narrative.

Look, we've been critical of the same EDA programs that Murphy, and a just-finished audit he commissioned, attacked. There's too little oversight, too little rationalization of per-job incentive amounts, no restriction on poaching jobs from nearby New Jersey suburbs, and considerable evidence that associates of South Jersey power broker George Norcross III had a pipeline to a lot of the EDA's Camden handouts. And, yes, the recent programs that tilted EDA resources to Camden were the brainchild of Sweeney and U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, D-1st Dist., George's brother and a state senator at the time they were conceived.

Is that a reason for Murphy to toss away a whole region along with some of its brackish bath water? We don't think so. So, we'll remind the governor again -- as we did when his initial transition team and cabinet picks showed a lack of geographic diversity -- that New Jersey's southern border is not New Brunswick. And there a lot of people in a lot of need in Cumberland and Salem counties.

If seen through to fruition, many of Murphy's priorities, such as a boosted minimum wage and a more responsive NJ Transit, will lift all boats, all over the state. But believe it or not, governor, some of those boats are harbored in shore towns located below Asbury Park and Long Branch.

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Murphy is the anti-Christie. Does he have an Act II? | Moran

The governor has not presented a plan to solve the fiscal crisis. With his budget address set for March 5, that's reason for worry.

Ask yourself this question: What do all the accomplishments that Gov. Phil Murphy rattled off during his State of the State speech Tuesday afternoon have in common?

Equal pay for women. Gun control. Paid sick leave. Action on climate change. College scholarships for Dreamers. A solid start towards free tuition at community colleges. And coming up next, a higher minimum wage, recreational weed for adults, and voting rights for ex-felons.

The answer: They are all liberal touchstones that are relatively easy layups for a Democratic governor working with a Democratic legislature in a blue state. Chris Christie left, and the dam broke.

That's not a knock on Murphy. He had a Christie mess to clean up, and he's doing it pretty well.

But I was struck that the speech offered almost nothing on the future, or the fiscal crisis that looms over everything, the crisis that makes it impossible to build the liberal utopia Murphy wants, or even to meet more earthly goals, like making the trains run on time.

On that point, there was bipartisan disappointment after the speech.

"We've got to address reality," said Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester.

"This was a campaign speech," said Assemblyman Jon Bramnick, the Republican leader. "Did you hear anything today that might change your mind about leaving the state?"

If Murphy hit one point hard, it was his determination to shrink and reform the state's incredibly expensive and sloppy system for providing subsidies to businesses. Murphy ordered an audit on those programs last year before he hung the drapes in his office, to his great credit, and the findings were at least as horrifying as expected.

The program will cost about $1 billion next year, Murphy said. The audit found that some of that money is going to companies that didn't create the jobs they promised, and that the subsidies per job were more than seven times as generous as a similar program in Massachusetts.

But Murphy made it sound like fixing that program would produce enormous savings to address the fiscal crisis, and that's a myth.

"For the same price as these tax breaks, New Jersey could have funded our public schools, funded NJ TRANSIT, met our pension obligations, provided more property tax relief, or all of the above," he said. "We could have rebuilt the entire Portal Bridge, on our own, seven times. We could have built the ARC Tunnel, or at least financed nearly the entire length of the Gateway Tunnel."

Don't believe it. It's not even close to being true.

Murphy was referring to the $11 billion in tax breaks the Economic Development Authority has agreed to provide over the last 15 years combined. The cost is growing, but as Murphy said, it will come to $1 billion next year, not enough to finance even a fraction of his long list. That $1 billion, for example, is less than one-third of this single year's pension payments.

And killing the incentive program would not produce $1 billion in cash next year. These are long-term contracts, so savings resulting from fixing the program will take years to arrive. And without these tax incentives, how many companies would have actually left the state, taking their revenue with them?

Murphy knows that incentives can make a difference, in a day when states and cities are caught in an arms race over tax breaks. He supported the massive subsidies for Amazon, which alone would have cost $5 billion. He made a point of saying that he wants to reform the program, not kill it.

So, don't fall for the idea that fixing the incentive program will solve the fiscal crisis. That's going to be harder work, with much greater political pain and anguish. It won't be as easy as cleaning up after Christie's mess.

The political challenge for Murphy is that he has attached himself to the public worker unions, especially the New Jersey Education Association. And so far, every credible expert who has examined New Jersey's books has concluded that cutting health and pension benefits is at the heart of the solution. The latest example was the report of a bipartisan commission co-chaired by Tom Byrne, the late governor's son and former chairman of the Democratic State Committee.

Facing fiscal crisis and scandal, Murphy's challenges deepen | Moran

Maybe Murphy has a better idea. I hope he does.

But if so, he's done a great job hiding it. Christie spent his first year holding town halls and public events to pitch the need to cut benefits. Agree or not, we knew what he wanted to do. He did the prep work.

Murphy has done none of that. He's spent his first year cleaning up after Christie. The question now is what he plans for Act II.

More: Tom Moran columns 

Tom Moran may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  or call (973) 836-4909. Follow him on Twitter @tomamoran. Find NJ.com Opinion on Facebook.


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Firing a former governor: Fulop's dumbest feud? | Editorial

Crucial re-entry services are now in jeopardy, for no substantive reason.

An ex-governor who has done admirable work helping people who get out of prison find jobs and reacclimate suddenly gets fired, and nobody can figure out why.
 
But somewhere behind it all is Steven Fulop. The Jersey City mayor won't answer our questions. As usual when he gets into hot water, he's hiding under his desk.
 
All he'll say is that former Gov. Jim McGreevey was canned over accusations of "misappropriating funds." What funds? How? He won't explain.

McGreevey alleges he is victim of Fulop retaliation
 
And there's plenty of reason for skepticism here. The backstory is that Fulop has been stacking the board that oversees this re-entry and unemployment center, called the Jersey City Employment and Training Program (JCETP), with his political minions, including one of the mayor's drivers.
 
Now they've canned its famous executive director, McGreevey. The program they're messing with is well-renowned, with bipartisan support. It's left us scratching our heads. Why pick a fight with this guy?
 
McGreevey says he's being retaliated against for firing Fulop's political operative last year, who was caught shaking down ex-offenders. Maybe. Perhaps it's a clash of egos. Regardless, crucial services are now in jeopardy, for no substantive reason.
 
The new head of the board, Sudhan Thomas - a Fulop ally who is also president of the school board, and just abruptly fired the superintendent - won't give any justification for canning McGreevey.
 
"New Jersey is an at-will employment state," was all he'd say on the record. "The board hired him, and the board fired him."

Jersey City police chief: Fulop devised 'illegal' operation to snarl traffic at Holland Tunnel
 
Please. This is a public program, funded by our tax dollars. If you can present evidence of a real problem, fine. But they've given no tangible, remotely credible reason for McGreevey's firing, either on or off the record.
 
It makes this look like nothing more than a turf patronage war. We have no cause to think Fulop is above that. Remember when he was accused of plotting a Bridgegate-style payback on the Port Authority, as part of a legal tiff?
 
The mayor ordered cops to do traffic stops that created gridlock, to cause problems for the Port Authority, the police chief claimed. Fulop denied it all, but stops did happen, and did snarl traffic.
 
The program targeted now is especially sympathetic: a one-stop center in which people coming out of prison aren't just hooked up with job training, but all kinds of other services, like drug treatment, mental health counseling or housing.
 
It's audited regularly because it receives public funding, McGreevey says. The state and federal money decreased over the years, because it's tied to a falling unemployment rate. But it's not hard to see why, as a former governor, he was known as an able fundraiser.
 
McGreevey says he's raised more than 4 million for JCEPT in his nearly six years as executive director and tapped into other grant money as part of his statewide nonprofit, The New Jersey Reentry Corporation, which also benefits clients in Jersey City.
 
Why should we feel confident that Thomas, a first-time board member who just appointed himself to McGreevey's job, and another board newcomer as his deputy, can be as effective?
 
A board once made up of independent members is now stacked with city officials tied to Fulop; it fired an executive director and gave no cause. For donors, this is politically rancid. Why give money?
 
We have no reason to believe they're going to come close to the success McGreevey has achieved. In jeopardy are vital services for people released with little more than a bus ticket, who genuinely want to turn their lives around. They deserve better. We all do.

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Moment arrives to reveal dark money donors | Moran

A half century after the Watergate scandal set off a scramble to push big money out of American politics, big money is bigger than ever. Reformers keep trying to set up barriers, and politicians keep finding ways around them, often with the help of the courts. But there is one consolation: We can force disclosure of political spending, so...

A half century after the Watergate scandal set off a scramble to push big money out of American politics, big money is bigger than ever. Reformers keep trying to set up barriers, and politicians keep finding ways around them, often with the help of the courts.

But there is one consolation: We can force disclosure of political spending, so that voters can at least try to connect the dots.

New Jersey is poised to make huge progress on that front, finally. A strong bill to pry open the books of dark money funds is suddenly on a fast-track for approval in both the Senate and Assembly, after collecting dust for more than two years. Gov. Phil Murphy says he supports the bill as well.

What changed? It would be nice to think that these guys had a sudden change of heart. But the truth is a bit darker. Both Murphy and Senate President Steve Sweeney were embarrassed by their reliance on these funds in two separate incidents this month.

First, a group of senior advisors to Murphy, including his campaign manager, Brendan Gill, broke their promise to reveal the names of donors who contributed to a dark money fund they use to promote Murphy's agenda.

The group raising those funds, New Direction New Jersey, is technically independent of the governor. But that's a fiction. He appears in its TV commercials, and last week he belatedly admitted that he solicits donations as well. He says that he wants the group to voluntary release the names of donors, but when they refused, he did nothing to break ties with them, or even criticize them by name.

So, we still don't know who sent those checks to Team Murphy. Was it unions with contracts to negotiate? Lawyers seeking state work? Murphy won't help us find out.

Next came Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester. Four months after he pushed through an outrageous and widely criticized bill to subsidize PSEG's nuclear power plants by $300 million a year, the company sent a $55,000 check to a dark money fund associated with his chief ally, George Norcross. It was revealed only because PSEG mistakenly sent the check to the wrong fund, one that must reveal its donors.

Now, Murphy and Sweeney need to do some penance, and the pending bill was just the thing. Sponsored by Sen. Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, and Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker, D-Mercer, the bill would put New Jersey on an equal footing with states like Connecticut and New York. It would force dark money funds like 501c4's to reveal their donors and expenses.

Sweeney said he wants to modify the bill to include money spent trying to influence the operations of government, not just campaigns. He also wants to make it retroactive to the start of 2018, a legally questionable move. Both changes deserve close scrutiny. Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, said he supports the original bill in principle, and it studying those changes.

Can Dems use shutdown to help immigrants? | Moran

Hearings are expected soon, with a possible vote in both houses at the end of this month. That's lightning speed by Trenton standards. To avoid mistakes, it's vital that the committees call Jeff Brindle, of the Election Law Enforcement Commission, who has pushed for this change for years and helped the sponsors craft the bill; and representative of the Brennan Center for Justice, a leading national voice for campaign finance reform, whose people also helped in the crafting.

This is great news. Voters deserve to know who is pulling the strings backstage. If that happens because Murphy and Sweeney see fresh reason to restore faith in their integrity, so be it.

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Hudson Regional Hospital signs on as presenter of The Jersey Journal's 60th annual Hudson County Spelling Bee

The winner of the bee goes on to participate in the Scripps National Spelling Bee outside of Washington, D.C., in the spring.

Hudson Regional Hospital has signed on as the presenter of the 2019 Jersey Journal-Hudson County Spelling Bee.

"We jumped at the chance to support the Hudson County Spelling Bee as a great educational opportunity for the elementary and middle school students in our community who participate," said Dr. Nizar Kifaieh, president and CEO of the Secaucus hospital. "Good luck to all the participants and their families."

So far, 62 Hudson County schools have signed up to participate in the bee, which is set for Saturday, Feb. 23, at Secaucus High School's Arthur F. Couch Performing Arts Center. In case of very inclement weather, the bee will be held March 2.

The winner of the bee goes on to participate in the Scripps National Spelling Bee outside of Washington, D.C., in the spring.

All elementary school programs in Hudson County are invited to register to send their top speller to compete, said David Blomquist, editor and publisher of The Jersey Journal.

The bee, now in its 60th year, is sponsored by the Hudson County Office of Cultural and Heritage Affairs, and County Executive Tom DeGise underwrites the champion's national participation. It is organized and directed by The Jersey Journal.

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"We're thrilled to welcome Hudson Regional Hospital as this year's bee presenter,'' Jersey Journal editor-at-large Margaret Schmidt said. "It's so important for the larger community to support educational opportunities like this for the county's children." 

The bee is open to students through grade 8 who attend Hudson County schools that have registered to participate.

Participating schools receive a virtual bee-in-a-box that includes study words, rules, pronunciation guides and an array of materials they may use to implement their own school spelling bees.

In addition to the grand prize of competing on the national stage at the Scripps bee, a variety of prizes will be given out at the local bee to the top Hudson speller and several runners-up.

To enroll, go to spellingbee.com. The deadline for registration is Jan. 31.

For more information, contact Spelling Bee Director Harvey Zucker at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

 

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