FBI searches office of former Sen. Lynch

FBI searches office of former Sen. Lynch
Documents from powerful Democrat and developer partner sought in corruption probe

Thursday, November 10, 2005
Star-Ledger Staff

FBI agents yesterday raided an office shared by former state Sen. John Lynch and a politically active developer, bringing into the open a longstanding corruption probe involving one of the state's most powerful political figures.

Agents executed a search warrant at the Tinton Falls office that Lynch, a Democrat and political mentor to former Gov. James E. McGreevey, shares with developer Jack Westlake, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the raid.

The purpose of the raid was unclear, although sources believed that FBI agents were seeking documents related to the men's business dealings, including an unidentified real estate project in New Brunswick.

Lynch and Westlake have been under scrutiny by federal prosecutors for more than a year in a probe that began when two former McGreevey aides scored millions of dollars developing and selling highway billboards just before the ex- governor took office in 2002. The sources said the same FBI agents on the billboard investigation supervised yesterday's search.

Spokesmen for the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment.

Lynch did not return a phone call seeking comment, but issued a statement through his attorneys that denied any wrongdoing.

"I am not surprised that I am the subject of an active investigation," the statement said. "I have done nothing improper and I am sure that any investigation will come to that conclusion."

Westlake's attorney, John Whipple, acknowledged the raid and said he would "take the appropriate steps -- in court, if necessary" to recover the seized records. He declined to say more.

Even though he no longer holds office, the 67-year-old Lynch has long been described as one of New Jersey's most influential political leaders.

An attorney, he followed in his father's footsteps and served as mayor of his native New Brunswick from 1979 to 1991. He further built his reputation during two decades in the state Senate, and nurtured McGreevey's rise from the Assembly to Woodbridge mayor to the governorship.

Lynch left the Senate in 2002, but his influence remains intact, particularly because he handpicked many of the officials who control Middlesex County. By extension, Lynch's blessing or opposition translates into political fundraising and can shift the outcome of a race.

Lynch bristles at the description of him as "party boss" and yesterday said it was one reason he has been a target for law enforcement.

"I am sure that I have been repeatedly investigated due to the repeated press accounts calling me a 'boss,' a 'warlord' and many other uncomplimentary names as a result of the nonsense perpetrated by people associated with the McGreevey administration," he said in his statement.

Though lesser-known statewide, Westlake has raised tens of thousands of dollars for McGreevey and other Democrats. The 75-year-old Red Bank resident also serves as president of the Monmouth County Board of Taxation.

In the business world, Westlake has gained notice as a developer who is helping revive the South Amboy waterfront. He and Lynch share not only an office but ownership in an unrelated business, Executive Continental Inc.

The two-story brick building that agents raided at 1 Executive Drive served as an office for both men and as the home of New Directions Through Responsible Leadership, a political action committee created by Lynch that has donated thousands of dollars to Democrats around the state. Westlake also serves on the committee.

There was no visible sign of the agents' presence when a reporter visited the building yesterday afternoon. Two attorneys from the criminal defense firms representing Lynch and Westlake, Steven Sanders and Mary Gibbons Whipple, emerged from the office but said they would have no comment.

Sanders works in the firm of Arseneault, Fassett & Mariano, which represents Lynch. Whipple is a partner to Westlake's lawyer, John Whipple.

Lynch's financial dealings with Westlake have been the subject of scrutiny by federal investigators for at least a year. Last December, a Camden-based jury issued subpoenas for documents related to the men's dealings.

The grand jury was initially impaneled to determine whether Gary Taffet and Paul Levinsohn, top aides to McGreevey, had improperly used their political influence to win government approvals of billboards along public roadways. In the months before the pair joined McGreevey's administration in January 2002 -- Taffet as chief of staff and Levinsohn as chief counsel -- they made more than $2.4 million each selling and leasing billboards. Neither man has ever been charged with a crime.

Westlake and Lynch played roles in the venture. Westlake was a partner in the business and Lynch helped the two McGreevey aides win state approval for a billboard on NJ Transit property in Gloucester County.

A state senator at the time, Lynch called the transit agency's executive director to ask for a quick approval, according to high- ranking state officials. Without it, the billboard plan had little market value. The agency approved the lease on Dec. 14, 2001, in about half the time it usually takes and about a month before the pair took their offices. Lynch has declined comment on the alleged call to the transit agency.

The same grand jury last year issued subpoenas for business records of three other developers, Anthony Diaco of Middletown, Jack Morris of Piscataway and Richard Crossed of Rochester, N.Y. Diaco is a business partner of Westlake; Morris is a business partner of Lynch. Crossed is CEO of Conifer Realty LLC, an upstate New York real estate company with offices in Woodbridge and Camden.

In March, Lynch told The Star-Ledger editorial board: "I have no doubt in my mind that the federal people, and probably rightfully so, have investigated me many times. I know they did. Now, are they investigating me today? Have they ever stopped?"

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