Menendez: How lawyer partnered with politics

How lawyer partnered with politics

October 12, 2006  Inquirer

WASHINGTON - From the start, Donald Scarinci's career has been a seamless blend of law and politics.

Early on, he forged an alliance with U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.), and, after getting his law degree in 1983, saw his legal career take off as government and then private-sector clients flocked to his North Jersey firm.

The law firm has earned millions in fees from government agencies - including $2.88 million in the last four years from New Jersey's Casino Reinvestment Development Authority.

But now that double career track is the cause of a huge setback for Scarinci and a political problem for Menendez.

Menendez's Senate campaign announced Sept. 27 that it was severing ties with Scarinci, a close adviser and fund-raiser, after disclosure of a surreptitious 1999 tape recording on which Scarinci appears to pressure a government vendor to hire a Menendez ally. Last week, Scarinci announced he was taking a leave of absence from his law firm, Scarinci & Hollenbeck.

In New Jersey legal and political circles, Scarinci is seen as a rainmaker, a partner whose ability to generate legal work through political contacts is worth as much as, if not more than, his skill as a lawyer.

"That is a type of patronage that is very common," said Craig Holman, a government-ethics analyst at Public Citizen, a left-of-center watchdog group in Washington.

Scarinci, who has denied pressuring anyone on Menendez's behalf, declined to comment for this article.

In an e-mail, Kenneth J. Hollenbeck, a managing partner of the law firm, wrote: "To suggest or imply that this firm or, for that matter, any other attorney or law firm is hired and thereafter retains his or her position as an attorney representing a public entity solely because he or she is 'politically active' is, in my opinion, simply inaccurate." He would not comment further.

Senior New Jersey Democrats say Scarinci's role in helping to clear the field in 2000 for Jim McGreevey to become the Democratic nominee for governor positioned the firm to pick up millions in state legal fees.

After his victory in 2001, McGreevey named Scarinci counsel for his transition team and later urged that Scarinci's firm represent the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority - replacing another politically connected firm, Hill Wallack.

Jim Kennedy, then the authority's executive director, said McGreevey's office had pushed Scarinci's firm.

"Typically, the governor recommends who they want as counsel," Kennedy said. "They recommended Scarinci's firm."

Scarinci's firm also is general counsel for the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commissioners in Newark, who operate one of the country's largest sewage plants and are appointed by the governor. Anthony Ardis, clerk for the commissioners, said the firm, hired in 2002, had billed the agency $506,000 this year.

Among the law firm's municipal clients is the City of Passaic, which will pay it as much as $500,000 this year. Another big public client: Monmouth County. Since 2005, Monmouth has paid the firm $469,000 for work on labor issues.

The major companies that Scarinci & Hollenbeck represent include developers of the multibillion-dollar Xanadu shopping and entertainment complex in the Meadowlands and a sprawling commercial and residential development on the site of a former military base at the Military Ocean Terminal in Bayonne on the Hudson River.

Acquaintances describe Scarinci, a major political fund-raiser, as clever and politically astute. According to campaign-finance reports, he and members of his firm have given at least $210,000 to candidates in federal races, most of them Democrats, since 1997. Meanwhile, records show, the firm and its members have given at least $425,000 to state candidates and political committees, most of which went to Democrats.

Scarinci has known Menendez since they were high school classmates in Union City and aides in the administration of Union City Mayor William Musto. Scarinci was named town attorney in Union City after Menendez took over as mayor in 1986. He was deeply involved in Menendez's political campaigns when Menendez was in the U.S. House, serving as treasurer, contributor and fund-raiser.

Menendez's daughter worked at the firm as a legal assistant, but left a few weeks ago amid the political furor over Scarinci's recorded remarks.

On the tape, Scarinci plays the role of political broker and deal maker. He advises Hudson County psychiatrist Oscar Sandoval to hire a doctor as "a favor" to Menendez, who has said he had no knowledge of the conversation.

In another previously unreleased tape obtained by The Inquirer, Scarinci takes on a similar role. In the 2001 conversation, he reproaches Sandoval for going public with complaints about a competing Hudson County contractor who Sandoval said lacked proper credentials.

Scarinci suggests on the tape it would have been better for Sandoval to have worked things out in private.

"We surgically operate so that things operate... hopefully as quietly as they can," Scarinci said. "The long speeches... we could have accomplished the exact same thing in a very quiet way."

Hudson County has long been a source of legal fees for the Scarinci firm. The firm bills the county about $330,000 a year to represent it on labor issues.

Though the firm has been on a list of outside counsel to represent the state Attorney General's Office since 1991, it apparently started doing such work only after McGreevey took office. In 2002, the Attorney General's Office named Scarinci & Hollenbeck as special labor counsel for NJ Transit. The firm also was picked to handle condemnation cases for the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission. It received a total of $126,000 from both clients.

From 1999 until January, Scarinci worked for the New Jersey Assembly Democrats, earning more than $60,000 and credit toward his public pension.

"Bob Menendez is the leader of the Hudson Democratic Party, and it is a source of political power and strength, and when Hudson Democrats help someone, Donald is sometimes the facilitator of that help," one prominent Democratic official said, adding that he did not want to be identified because he didn't want to appear disloyal.

"Playing the role of political broker at the highest level of state politics brings in government legal work. If you are the guy who made the governor the governor, you stand a pretty good chance of getting that work."

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