Corzine: Gadfly's arrest not my doing. Local top cop calls it school district's call

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Corzine: Gadfly's arrest not my doing
Local top cop calls it school district's call

Wednesday, January 23, 2008 Star-Ledger
Gov. Jon Corzine insisted yesterday his office had nothing to do with the arrest of conservative activist Steve Lonegan at a town hall meeting in Cape May County, even though the mayor of Middle Township said local police acted at the direction of the governor's staff.
"All I know is they were doing what they were told to do," Mayor F. Nathan Doughty, a Democrat, said. Asked who had told them what to do, he said, "The governor's people."
Corzine was adamant in rejecting Doughty's claim about Saturday's arrest at Middle Township High School. Lonegan was arrested moments before the start of the town meeting at which the governor was to explain his plan to increase tolls on the state's major highways.
"That's just nonsense. It's nonsense," Corzine said. "I'm not going to be embarrassed by it. I can't find anybody that was around that said anything like that happened. Most of the staff was with me."
Doughty referred further questions about the arrest to Middle Township police, whose chief, Joe Evangelista, backed up Corzine's account.
Doughty was inside the school at the time of the arrest and might not have had first-hand knowledge of what transpired outside, Evangelista said. The lieutenant in charge of the scene consulted only with school district officials before arresting Lo negan on a charge of defiant trespass.
"The governor and his staff and even his security detail had nothing to do with this," Evangelista said. "They were not under their direction. That's why (police officers) went to the superintendent and business administrator. This is their property. It was their call."
Schools Superintendent Michael Kopakowski did not return phone calls seeking comment.
The tumult over Lonegan's ar rest distracted from the ongoing debate of the governor's "financial restructuring" proposal at a time when Corzine's sales pitch is about to reach full boil.
Corzine held a news conference yesterday to introduce a diverse, 17-member "steering committee," headed by former U.S. Rep. Bob Franks, a Republican, that will advocate for his plan to use steep toll hikes to reduce the state's debt by half. The group represents "the highest echelons of some of the most important as pects of our society," Corzine said.
The committee includes Den nis Bone, president of Verizon NJ; Fred Hassan, chairman of Scher ing Plough; the Rev. Reginald Jackson of the Black Ministers Council; Shirley Tilghman, president of Princeton University; Gil Medina, former commerce commissioner in the Whitman administration; and former state Supreme Court Chief Justice James Zazzali.
By the end of the news conference, however, Corzine was fending off questions about the arrest Lonegan, the gadfly former mayor of Bogota who lost a bid for governor in the 2005 Republican primary.
"I had nothing to do with that," Corzine said of the arrest.
Lonegan, an outspoken oppo nent of much of the governor's agenda, said he was handing out fliers on the school lawn before the town meeting when school officials approached him and told him all protests were confined to a corner across the street.
When Lonegan didn't leave, a police officer approached and insisted he move.
"This guy was not going to tell me I can't hand out fliers at a public meeting," Lonegan said. "I said, 'Look, the only way you are going to stop me is to arrest me.' It took six cops to bring me in -- more than it took to get John Dil linger."
Lonegan was handcuffed, frisked and taken to police headquarters, where he was photographed and fingerprinted. He received a written summons for de fiant trespass and was released. He is scheduled to appear in Middle Township Municipal Court Jan. 30.
Lonegan insisted the governor's staff was behind his arrest. "Who else would give these guys the directive to do this?" he said.
Aides to Corzine insisted the governor had nothing to gain by having Lonegan arrested. Corzine also pointed out that Seth Grossman, another protester arrested with Lonegan, returned to the high school in time to take part in the town hall meeting.
Lonegan has been at every town hall meeting the governor has held on his toll plan and was among those who questioned Corzine at the first meeting in Livingston.
"I've got no objection to passing out leaflets, standing on your head, running with placards," Corzine said. "But if that's against the law, then it's against the law."
The arrest raised questions about whether Lonegan actually broke the law.
Evangelista, the Middle Township police chief, could not cite a specific town ordinance against protests on the high school campus, but said school district administrators made it clear they did not want protesters on school property.
"We gave him a warning, he refused to comply, so we arrested him on trespassing," Evangelista said.
Lonegan's arrest appears to be "bogus," said Deborah Jacobs, executive director of the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
"From what it sounds like, he was engaged in political speech activities, which are the most protected kind of speech," she said.
State Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R-Bergen) said he was "deeply disturbed" by Lonegan's arrest and called on U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie to investigate.
News accounts and video "seem to indicate that Corzine's people conspired with the local police to shut down the peaceful protest outside of the high school," Cardinale said. "Who does he think he is, Joe Stalin?"
The Senate budget committee is scheduled to hold its first hear ing on Corzine's plan this afternoon in Trenton.

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