A deal that's sweet for Lynch, sour for the state

A deal that's sweet for Lynch, sour for the state
Bob Braun Star Ledger September 18, 2006

John Lynch, the powerful Democrat who helped make Jim McGreevey governor, has finally participated in that familiar New Jersey political ceremony that occurs more frequently than the inauguration of a new state chief executive.

The guilty plea.

It is a tedious ritual in which a once arrogant man (or woman) humbly attempts to persuade us he is truly sorry, but only for the crimes that he is willing to admit and, because of the good work of high-priced lawyers, he doesn't have to admit very much.

This allows him to save a lot of money on legal bills, keep most of his sins hidden from public view and spend only a fraction of the time he would have spent in prison had he thrown the dice, opted for trial and lost.

It also allows prosecutors -- in this case, U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie -- to offer forceful but vague assurances, like "an era of corruption" has come to an end, without offering much of a clue about what he is talking about.

Christie, who deserves praise for his doggedness in pursuit of the Jersey venal, then can use the occasion to call on you and me and the people we elect to end what he believes is a stinking political mess.

"It's up to the public and its leaders to demand change," he said.

What the guilty plea does not allow, however, is knowledge of the kind of information that could lead to the reforms Christie wants to see occur.

In fact, a guilty plea is one of the best ways devised by the minds of lawyers to keep crimes secret.

In federal court, Lynch pleaded guilty to two unrelated felony counts -- mail fraud and tax evasion. In a news conference following the ceremony, Christie refused comment in response to substantive questions about what happened and cautioned against linking the two charges. The money Lynch didn't report on his 1040 was, apparently, not the money he gained by fraud.

What that means is that, behind the few pages of the plea deal, there is an invisible mountain of interesting stuff about how one of the most powerful state political bosses of our time -- a state Senate president, acting governor and mayor of New Brunswick -- made his money and built his power. We'll never know it.

"It's a balance," Christie conceded. "The public interest is served by the plea. The people will know he has admitted his guilt and will be punished."

But it probably did not come as much of a surprise the other day that a powerful political figure pleaded guilty to corruption charges. These kinds of stories fly by us like Continental jets lumbering over Elizabeth. We stop paying attention. The chances are good many of the state's residents already have forgotten just which politician it was who said how awfully sorry he was to disappoint his family, his supporters, his constituents -- on and on ...

And it's a certainty now that both the extent of Lynch's crimes and the identity of some others involved in them will never be known. The case, said Christie, is "over."

The U.S. attorney said he has both a legal and ethical obligation not to reveal more of what he knows. He's right, because he can only comment on the information contained in the charges made public, the charges Lynch admitted as part of the deal.

But that begs some very important questions. Why not go to trial if the case is so strong? All manner of interesting (and, often, unexpected) information comes out of a trial -- and this guy isn't just some rural councilman hitting the petty cash account -- he's a political kingmaker. A "warlord," said McGreevey. It would probably be worth the cost to the state to put him on trial just to find out how the culture of corruption really works.

If that's not possible, then why limit the deal to two relatively minor issues, especially if the point is not so much putting one pol in the slammer but changing the way crooked politicians are able to afford such great suits? We really don't know what Lynch did, with whom he did it. We just know he's a corrupt politician -- hey, well, stop the presses.

Christie's answer is weak: It's a matter of negotiations with defense lawyers. Lynch, himself a lawyer, had a good one -- Jack Arseneault. He knows how to negotiate, and he'll be paid well by Lynch.

But the negotiations had only two parties -- the feds and Lynch. Hey, guys, look over here -- there's an entire state filled with people who probably ought to know, might even like to know, who else -- if anyone -- Lynch shook down. Who else, if anyone, was in on the deals. Who profited, who didn't.

Sure, there are risks, but if, as Christie implied the other day, the feds had Lynch cold, they could afford to get him to admit to more and at least give us some sort of narrative.

Instead, we are treated to very little information, preachments to act, amorphous talk about getting our leaders to do something about ill-defined corruption, and even a statement from Lynch, who has the galactic gall to promise he will "cease being part of the problem, and start being part of the solution."

Oh, please. Save it for Oprah.

What's especially absurd about this is that, while a government agency that knows a lot says little, Jim McGreevey, one of Lynch's political creations, is getting all sorts of tittering attention by pretending to tell all in a book for which he is receiving royalties.

I'd rather know more about how Lynch got paid off than about how McGreevey got kissed by the state's former homeland security adviser.

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