Federal prosecutors wrongly indicted a New Jersey mayoral candidate for a second time on corruption charges, according to a Newark federal judge who dismissed all charges in a political prosecution that helped former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie win his state’s governorship in 2009. Authorities improperly indicted unsuccessful Jersey City mayoral candidate Louis Manzo last year, U.S. District Judge José Linares ruled on Feb 17.The dismissal frees the now-impoverished Manzo, left, from the charges he describes as “ruining my life” three years ago. Also, it vindicates his battle against prosecutors who had spent vast sums to convict him.
The defendant’s victory shames the Bush-appointed Christie, his successors from the Obama administration and those in the news media who accepted the prosecution version of events without digging deeper. Christie, at right, has long been touted in the media as a politician of national stature. But political reporters who focus on successful image-making make scant effort to examine such substance as his vast spending as a prosecutor — both in local politically driven cases such as Manzo’s and or in the tens of millions of dollars in no-bid contacts that he provided to his former Justice Department cronies.
Also, Manzo’s victory provides rare hope to other defendants nationwide who can now hope for justice if they are fortunate enough to find a fair judge, such as the Bush-appointed Linares. Linares has twice thrown out charges from prosecutors who were trying to create new law by prosecuting Manzo without a basis in legislation.
“This case,” said Manzo, a Democratic former state assemblyman, “hopefully will stand a long time for the proposition that federal prosecutors can’t come into a locality and selectively target local candidates thereby disrupting local elections with a federal political agenda.” He expressed thanks to the judge, whom he described as providing a “scholarly and fair” judgment in a 60-page decision.
Manzo praised also his attorney, John Lynch, as extraordinarily dedicated and talented, and thanked also the Justice Integrity Project for featuring his case beginning more than two years ago. The non-partisan project I direct, which takes no funding from defendants or their supporters, cited the Manzo case more than two years ago as a prominent national example of a political prosecution arising from the Bush administration’s 2006 political purge of nine of Bush’s first U.S. attorneys for political reasons, thereby leaving such fervent loyalists as Christie in office with incentive to use their vast powers for personal and party political gains.
Authorities have insisted they were prosecuting Manzo for legitimate reasons. Nonetheless, a spokeswoman told a New Jersey reporter after the verdict they would not pursue Manzo any longer. Prosecutors have maintained that their informant, Solomon Dwek, obtained admissions from two of Manzo’s campaign aides (who pled guilty) that he would accept some $27,500 in donations for his mayoral campaign. Authorities alleged that Manzo would get the money if he would help Dwek’s supposed development project, and also name a purported Dwek ally to a city post if elected. Manzo has said he never received any money and never agreed to take any actions in return for donations. The defense has said a government witness supported Manzo’s contention in a statement to the FBI that it withheld from the court.As customary, the judge, shown at right, accepted the prosecution’s allegations as true for the purposes of the pre-trial ruling. But he ruled for the defense in dismissing the case. In essence, the judge wrote that any assent by the defendant to a scheme, while “reprehensible” if proven, was not a valid offense under a law whose history shown it was devised for office-holders, not candidates. Linares, a Cuban-born 2002 nominee of President Bush, made a similar ruling earlier in the case affirmed by a federal appeals court. But prosecutors re-framed the prosecution with a new indictment alleging an interstate travel violation because Manzo met Dwek at a Staten Island restaurant across state lines from Jersey City.
Our Project’s primary interest in the case stemmed from the its overall circumstances. For example, Christie approved a leniency deal permitting more than $10,000 a month for Dwek — a cruise ship brothel operator who has pleaded guilty to a $50 million bank fraud — if he would help set up suspects for arrest by offering campaign donations in local elections. The money authorized by Christie and his successors for the donations was from taxpayers showing a high-degree of central government involvement in local elections. Manzo this year filed an extensive brief alleging selective prosecution against Democrats and requesting a hearing. That brief remains under seal, with arguments and a call for oversight now void because the judge dismissed the case.
Christie was the Bush administration’s Republican U.S. attorney from 2001 to the end of 2008. Before winning election as a crime-fighter he awarded tens of millions of dollars in no-bid federal contracts to Republican former New Jersey U.S. Attorney Herbert Stein and U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft. Upon election as governor, Christie hired for state jobs a dozen former subordinates in the U.S. attorney’s office for key posts, including top executives who implemented the dragnet capturing Manzo after Christie put the sting in motion. These included the top two interim prosecutors who carried forward the Dwek-focused “Bid Rig III” corruption investigation whose arrest of Manzo and more than 40 others in July 2009 helped create momentum for Christie’s gubernatorial victory that fall.
Christie’s spokesman has called Manzo’s allegations “total nonsense,” and has denied irregularities in the 2009 corruption sting congruent with Christie’s campaign theme that he was fighting corruption by dishonest Democrats.
Obama-appointed U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, left, and his team obtained a new indictment against Manzo. It alleged Manzo corruptly crossed state lines in 2009 from Jersey City to Staten Island for his meeting with Dwek. Manzo says he never obtained funds from Dwek, and alleges that the new indictment shows manufactured government jurisdiction because it was Dwek who requested the meeting across the Hudson River. Further, Manzo charges that authorities misused their powers when they arranged a leniency deal with Dwek that allowed payments to Dwek of between $10,000 and $12,000 each month in funds belonging to Dwek’s bank fraud victims. There is something wrong with a federal arrangement for Dwek to be paid top-dollar by powerless victims of his bank to inveigle others into compromising situations far less serious, even if proven, than Dwek’s own crimes.
News media coverage of the case has been heavily pro-prosecution, just as it is in similar cases around the nation. Even after the verdict, some reporters couldn’t resist including pro-prosecution spin that Manzo “beat the rap” or is “off the hook” implying guilt instead of reflecting on the repeated rulings that no law applied to the situation.
Jersey Journal columnist Agustin Torres was one of the few reporters open to the possibility that there might be more to the case than crime-fighting prosecutors. There were very few others among at least a hundred relevant New Jersey political and court reporters on an information list our Project maintains. Most reporters must rely for their information primarily on prosecutors, governors and similar public officials, especially in these days of reduced newsroom budgets. So, scrutiny of such of officials increasingly remains within private conversations among journalists not easily shared with readers and viewers.
Yet Torres wrote in the Jersey Journal: “Legal arguments aside, with no trial, New Jersey residents have been cheated out of hearing the names of Republican officials in the state who met with FBI informant Solomon Dwek and who were never indicted. Those names were part of Manzo’s expected prosecutorial misconduct defense and have never been publicly released by the court. Any appeal [by prosecutors to keep pursuing Manzo] may mean eventually opening this can of worms.”
As for Manzo? “‘The Ghost Who Walks’ is also known in comics as ‘The Phantom,’” Torres continued, saying the term could apply also to Manzo. The reporter quoted Manzo as saying: “With God nothing is impossible. He blesses the truth….John Lynch was an awesome Guardian Angel who delivered a truthful and brilliant defense. I am thankful for the many people who prayed vigilantly for this victory, which was delivered by a just God.”