The 43-count grand jury indictment read like a primer in small-town abuse of power. It accused Sheriff Deborah Trout of hiring deputies without conducting proper background checks, and making employees sign loyalty oaths. Her deputies, the indictment charged, threatened one of their critics and manufactured fake police badges for a prominent donor to Gov. Chris Christie.The article details how the Attorney General for the state of New Jersey -- appointed by Chris Christie -- made an absolute mockery of justice in this case, protecting a fellow Christie ally, firing long-time career prosecutors, and throwing out an indictment that was more than solid.
When the charges became public, the indicted undersheriff, Michael Russo, shrugged it off. Governor Christie, he assured an aide, would “have this whole thing thrown out,” according to The Hunterdon County Democrat. That sounded like bluster. Then the state killed the case.
The case against Sheriff Trout -- a high-profile Christie supporter and Republican -- was filed by Hunterdon County assistant prosecutor William McGovern, a no-nonsense Republican himself. This was no partisan witch hunt. The article's author interviewed a number of members of the grand jury that signed off on the indictment, and each of them found the evidence brought against the defendants by the original prosecuting attorneys to be highly persuasive. One juror called the case a "no-brainer." Another said all the jurors agreed, and that the case was "cut and dried."
Yet, after the indictment was unsealed on May 7, 2010, Paula Dow, the Christie-appointed Attorney General, moved quickly. She sent in a deputy, Dermot O’Grady, to take over the local prosecutor's office. Referring to the indictments of Trout and her deputies, a spokesman for the Attorney General's office offered this cryptic statement, “It’s still a Hunterdon case. But we control the office.” McGovern was swiftly removed by O'Grady as the case's lead prosecutor.
The new officials sent by the state started mucking around, and ultimately withdrew the indictment. One career officer, Detective Sgt. Kenneth Rowe, stated: “In my 28 years...I have never seen a prosecutorial agency act or work as a defense counsel. Why the interest in this small-time case?” To clarify, the bar for withdrawing an indictment is quite high, according to a 2001 New Jersey decision, which declared it should not occur “unless prosecutorial misconduct is extreme and clearly infringes upon the grand jury decision-making process.” No such misconduct has been cited as yet.
Three of the top prosecutors in the Hunterdon county office were gone within the year. Bennett Barlyn, now a middle school teacher, was fired after calling out the blatant corruption displayed in this case by the Attorney General's office. Barlyn had this to say:
“In the end, it’s easy to get rid of a prosecutor. But it raises that question: In New Jersey, who watches the watchman?”In the aftermath of quashing these indictments, Paula Dow has remained in Chris Christie's good graces. The governor in early 2012 gave her a job at the Port Authority (paying north of $200K), and has since nominated her for a seat on the New Jersey Superior Court. Now, the article makes clear that there is no evidence that Dow was taking orders from Christie in the case of Sheriff Trout. But this case stinks worse than the swamps of Jersey (sorry, couldn't resist).
In his bid for re-election, Chris Christie has been running well ahead Barbara Buono. However, an analysis at Pollster published today -- but which does not mention the NYT article discussed above -- says we shouldn't count Buono out just yet. The blatant, partisan corruption shown by Christie appointees here may well jolt the race, and cause New Jersey voters to reassess whether their governor is a straight-talking truth-teller or a bald-faced, cheating liar.