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Bribes, Payoffs, Politics: Menendez dumps key adviser caught on tape seeking 'favors'
- Categorized in: 2006 N.J. U.S. Senate Race, Bribes, Payoffs, and Politics, U.S. Attorney District of New Jersey, U.S. Senator Robert Menendez
Menendez dumps a close adviser caught on tape seeking 'favors'
September 28, 2006 Star Ledger
U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez's closest political adviser was secretly recorded seven years ago boasting of political power and urging a Hudson County contractor to hire someone as a favor to Menendez, according to a transcript obtained by The Star-Ledger.
Menendez's campaign said last night he had severed his ties with the adviser, Donald Scarinci, after learning of the taped conversation. The two men were childhood friends and Scarinci, a prominent attorney with extensive contracts in state and local governments, has been a key fundraiser for the senator throughout his long political career.
Scarinci was recorded in 1999 by Oscar Sandoval, a Union City psychiatrist who had contracts with the county jail and hospital in Hudson County, according to two people familiar with the tapes who requested anonymity because the recordings are evidence in a pending lawsuit.
A transcript of the recorded telephone conversation was obtained by The Star-Ledger and verified by the two sources. In it, Scarinci urged Sandoval to hire another physician, Vincente Ruiz, telling him: "Menendez will consider that a favor."
Matt Miller, spokesman for Menendez's campaign, said last night, "If this transcript is accurate, then Scarinci was using Menendez's name without his authorization or his knowledge. That was a lapse in judgment on his part and because of it, he will no longer have any role in our campaign."
Menendez, locked in a tight U.S. Senate election race against Republican Tom Kean Jr., is already facing political fallout from a federal investigation into a rental deal he had with a nonprofit organization in Union City years ago.
Menendez represented Hudson County in Congress before Gov. Jon Corzine tapped Menendez to replace him in the Senate in January, as Corzine left Washington to become governor.
Earlier this year, Hudson County filed a lawsuit against county government vendors tied to political corruption under former County Executive Robert Janiszewski, who is now in federal prison. The county is seeking to recoup money it lost through corruption.
One of the people the county government sued was Sandoval, who Janiszewski had testified had funneled bribes to him since the mid-1990s. By 2000, Sandoval was cooperating with the FBI and helped them catch Janiszewski accepting a bribe from him. Sandoval was never charged.
Sandoval filed a counter-suit against the county that claimed that county Democrats were retaliating against him for his cooperation with federal prosecutors.
Scarinci, who has not been accused of any crime, said in a statement last night that the tape recording is part of the lawsuit.
"I have been provided a transcript of what is claimed to be a conversation that took place more than seven years ago. The tape and its contents have long been part of a civil lawsuit brought by the County of Hudson to retrieve millions of dollars that Dr. Sandoval allegedly stole," Scarinci said. "As I am party to the lawsuit and represented companies owned by Dr. Sandoval during the time it is contended this recording was made, regretfully I am legally constrained from making any further statement at this time."
He added: "That being said, I will clearly state that none of my dealings with Dr. Sandoval were either directed or requested by Bob Menendez."
Sandoval's attorney, Edward Duschock of Edison, said last night that Sandoval does not believe Menendez has terminated his relationship with Scarinci. Duschock added: "Scarinci was doing Menendez's bidding -- either directly or indirectly."
Sandoval's testimony in federal court helped put two Hudson County freeholders in jail, including his girlfriend Nidia Davila Colon. While he was cooperating with federal prosecutors against and secretly taping Colon, he was also having sexual relations with her and treating her as her doctor.
U.S. District Judge William Bassler, who sentenced Colon, called Sandoval a "Svengali" who had treated his patient and girlfriend "most shabbily."
During the 1999 conversation, Sandoval complained to Scarinci, a powerful figure in Hudson County politics, that he was having trouble getting his county contracts signed. The transcript shows Scarinci sought to get Ruiz hired and dropped Menendez's name, but his motivations were unclear.
"If you can take this guy back, and do something with him, that would be a favor to the congressman," Scarinci is quoted as saying. "If you can deal with Dr. Ruiz and make him happy, Menendez will consider that a favor, if you can't, then that's okay."
Scarinci went on to say, from "my point of view, it makes sense for you because it gives you protection." Sandoval claimed in court papers that he viewed that to mean he would get protection from Janiszewski putting his contracts in jeopardy. But the transcripts leave that unclear.
At another point, Scarinci says, "The only reason why I stuck my nose into this Ruiz thing is cause Menendez asked me" and that a condition of helping Ruiz is that "he's gotta pledge he is not going to go after you."
Ruiz did not return phone calls last night. Ruiz in 1998 earned $125,192 as a physician with the North Hudson Community Action Corp.
Earlier this month, federal investigators issued a subpoena seeking records from North Hudson related to its lease of a Union City building Menendez owned while he was in Congress. Menendez had helped NHCAC get federal funding, but has said there was nothing improper about the rental and that it was cleared by the House ethics committee.
Miller, Menendez's spokesman, said last night that the senator "has known Ruiz for some time as a long-time Union City resident. They are not friends, they know each other."
In the secret recording of Scarinci and Sandoval, Scarinci drops expletives and makes other boasts, the transcript shows.
"I never took a check from anybody. For me it was all, for me the game was, you know, you know, contributions, that was the game for me," he said.
He also he tells Sandoval that he helped Democrats take control of Bergen County government and would "absolutely" let Sandoval and Ruiz approach him about a medical project at the jail there.
At another point, he boasts of helping Davila Colon, who worked for Menendez's congressional office between 1992 and 1997, get a job with Carl Goldberg, a prominent developer and key fundraiser for Menendez. "Do you know how Nidia got the (expletive) job with Carl Goldberg? Do you know who did that? I (expletive) did that. I did it myself," he said. Scarinci also described Goldberg as "Menendez's main player."
Goldberg issued a statement last night saying he was "puzzled and dismayed by how my role was portrayed in a conversation that took place seven and a half years ago."
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