Attorney General Put Up a Fight Before Relenting and Resigning

August 17, 2006
Attorney General Put Up a Fight Before Relenting and Resigning

TRENTON, Aug. 16 — Even as Gov. Jon S. Corzine was minutes away from publicly calling for the resignation of Attorney General Zulima V. Farber, Ms. Farber was deciding whether to fight the effort to force her out, according to four people involved in the complex negotiations.

On Monday, a special prosecutor released a report harshly criticizing Ms. Farber for interceding with the police on behalf of her companion during a traffic stop on May 26. Ms. Farber and her allies quickly began an effort to help her save her job as the state’s chief law enforcement official. The public interest group Women Advocating for Good Government, which lists Ms. Farber as a member of the executive board, started an e-mail campaign urging the governor and legislators not to push her from office.

In discussions with members of the governor’s inner circle on Wednesday, Ms. Farber and her allies also insisted that her misjudgment was no worse than Mr. Corzine’s actions in February, when he lent $5,000 in bail money to help a former Trenton lobbyist and campaign aide, Karen Golding, who was arrested and accused of stalking the chairman of the State Democratic Party.

“Zulima felt that if her appearance as attorney general was improper, so was his interference with Karen Golding,” said one person who has known both people for years, and was familiar with the negotiations this week. “She was upset there was no special investigation into that. And she was going to take him on.”

But Mr. Corzine was not swayed by that argument or the possibility of a protracted public fight to remove her. He met with Ms. Farber at his apartment in Hoboken on Monday night and listened to her pleas that she be punished with a fine, a letter of reprimand or some other sanction that would preserve her job. But by Tuesday morning, when Mr. Corzine and Ms. Farber met in his office in the Gateway Center in Newark, the governor stopped short of directly asking for a resignation, but told her that he thought it would be best if she stepped down, according to his aides.

Even then, Ms. Farber was unwilling to relent. By 3 p.m., as ranking legislators from both parties demanded that she step down, Mr. Corzine’s staff told Ms. Farber’s aides that the governor had scheduled a 4 p.m. news conference to call for her resignation. Only 15 minutes before Mr. Corzine was to step up to the lectern in his outer office at the State House on Tuesday, Ms. Farber’s advisers told the governor that she had decided to resign and asked that the announcement be pushed back to 6 p.m. so they could appear jointly.

The tense showdown and delicate negotiations between Mr. Corzine and Ms. Farber were a result of the unusual way that New Jersey’s Constitution has structured the office of attorney general. Unlike New York or Connecticut, where it is an elective office, New Jersey allows the governor to appoint but not dismiss an attorney general.

When New Jersey’s new State Constitution was written in 1947, its framers placed much power under the attorney general — giving the office jurisdiction over the state police, the juvenile justice system, every county prosecutor in the state and its own civil and criminal divisions.

Robert F. Williams, a scholar at the Rutgers University Law School in Camden, said that the Constitution did not want the office to be elective, so the attorney general would not be influenced by political donors. But, because the framers sought to keep the governor from lording over the office, they made it so the only ways to remove an attorney general are either by impeachment in the Legislature or through a complex process that requires a governor to prove serious misconduct.

That arrangement has created an uneasy relationship between governors and their attorneys general in New Jersey. Last year, Acting Gov. Richard J. Codey made it known that he was displeased with Attorney General Peter C. Harvey, who was appointed by former Gov. James E. McGreevey and criticized for accepting free boxing tickets and his handling of political corruption cases. Mr. Harvey, who was fined for accepting the tickets, overcame that criticism and served out his term.

During most of the past 60 years, however, the governor and the attorney general have worked as allies. “It’s natural that there is a team mentality,” Professor Williams said. “The governor picks the person, so there is a natural affinity and like-mindedness. Maybe there’s loyalty, too, but it’s unenforceable by the governor, because in New Jersey, you can’t just say, ‘Do what I say or your fired.’ ”

Mr. Corzine declined on Wednesday to name the candidates under consideration to replace Ms. Farber, but his aides said that the list included Stuart J. Rabner, a former United States attorney and the governor’s chief counsel; Paul J. Fishman, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice; and Anne Milgram, the first assistant under Ms. Farber who will become interim attorney general on Aug. 31.

John J. Farmer Jr., a former New Jersey attorney general, said that the powers of the office were so broad that Mr. Corzine’s choice would have to be braced to juggle the responsibility of overseeing such a large staff of lawyers, the 21 county prosecutors’ offices and the 30,000 civil cases that the state is involved in at any given time.

“Every important issue in the state ends up in your lap sooner or later,” said Mr. Farmer, who served under Gov. Christie Whitman and Acting Gov. Donald T. DiFrancesco. “So you’ve got to be disciplined to make decisions quickly, to think through the consequences and not spend too much time looking back.”

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