Failure to steer clear of trouble left the AG no margin for error

Failure to steer clear of trouble left the AG no margin for error

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Zulima Farber came in under a cloud. And she's leaving under one.

The first Hispanic to hold the high-profile job of attorney general, Farber's nomination was greeted with skepticism by critics who cited her history of driving infractions that helped scuttle her as a candidate for the state Supreme Court three years ago.

Now Farber will exit Trenton after only seven months on the job as New Jersey's top cop after a special prosecutor [READ REPORT]determined she broke ethics rules during a traffic stop involving her boyfriend.

"When she went in, she didn't have much leeway for making a mistake," said Senate President Richard Codey (D-Essex). "She came in with the criticism, obviously, of her driving record but also with a reputation as a very decent person, one with tremendous people skills. Absent her own problems, she would have stayed on."

After a brief teary-eyed meeting with Gov. Jon Corzine last evening, Farber stepped up to the same Statehouse podium where she was sworn in earlier this year and defended herself as simply "being human." She said she would "resign out of respect for the governor and for the goals we both share for the success of this administration."

Farber and Corzine both stressed special prosecutor Richard Williams found the attorney general did not commit a crime when she came to the aid of her boyfriend during the traffic stop. But ethics rules were violated, and there would be no second chances.

"She couldn't make the type of mistakes she made," said Sen. William Gormley (R-Atlantic), a longtime member of the Judiciary Committee who voted for Farber's nomination.

Yesterday, a somber Farber acknowledged her career has been derailed "not once, but twice" by traffic violations, but said, "I can't lead my life trying to figure out what would have been. That's the way life is."

Farber, now 61, is a former state public advocate and public defender and has been an assistant county prosecutor and a partner at Lowenstein Sandler, one of New Jersey's marquee law firms. She was the all but certain choice for an opening on the state Supreme Court in 2003 when then-Gov. James E. McGreevey backed off after black lawmakers objected because they wanted the seat to go to an African-American.

In withdrawing the nomination, McGreevey cited Farber's problem driving record of 13 traffic violations, three license suspensions and four bench warrants for failure to appear in court.

Saying her driving record "was not a substantive issue," Corzine chose Farber to co-chair his transition team's ethics advisory group and then for attorney general.

Farber was tapped to succeed Peter Harvey, the first attorney general ever sanctioned by state ethics regulators when he was fined $1,500 for taking free ringside seats to a boxing match in Atlantic City. When lawmakers confronted her about her driving infractions, she said emphatically: "I have the utmost respect for the law."

She won the nomination in a 25-10 Senate vote, and was sworn in on Jan. 30. Her longtime live-in companion, Hamlet Goore, held the Bible.

On Memorial Day weekend, Farber was again under fire when questions were raised about whether she intervened on Goore's behalf during a Memorial Day weekend traffic stop in Fairview.

As Williams investigated, the controversy led to calls for Farber's resignation and crept into the U.S. Senate race between state Sen. Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union) and U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), one of Farber's top political allies.

Liza Lopez, president of the Hispanic Bar Association of New Jersey, said she was discouraged by Farber's resignation because "she was doing an excellent job despite this incident."

During her truncated tenure, Farber made headlines on a wide range of topics.

Standing before the state Supreme Court, she argued the state did not properly oversee billions of dollars spent on court-ordered school reforms and said needy school districts can get by without increased funding.

She proudly announced that investigators in her department netted a National Hockey League assistant coach and a New Jersey State Police trooper who were accused of running a multimillion-dollar sports gambling operation that took bets from hockey players and the wife of Wayne Gretzky. Trooper James Harney turned state's evidence early this month as part of a plea deal that will likely send him to prison for 7 years.

Farber made gangs and public corruption her two hallmark issues, establishing new units within the Division of Criminal Justice.

Late last month, Farber's office and the State Police arrested 41 suspected leaders of the 9 Tre Gangsters, the state's bloodiest and most-feared street gang. And last week, the Attorney General's Office indicted the state's taxation director and five other Treasury Department employees on official misconduct charges, accused of taking thousands of dollars worth of dinners, entertainment and other gifts from a state vendor.

She drew Republican criticism when she cleared Assemblyman Joseph Cryan (D-Union) of allegations he was given a $2,000 cash donation that never appeared on his campaign finance reports, paving the way for him to become the new chairman of the Democratic State Committee. GOP lawmakers also objected when a bill to require jail time for all public officials convicted of corruption was softened because of Farber's objections to "mandatory sentencing" laws.

Former Attorney General John Farmer Jr. said Farber wasn't in the job long enough to judge her record.

"That's not a lot of time to make a mark on a department that big," Farmer said. "It took me a year to figure out what I was doing."

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