Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The top federal prosecutor in New Jersey is facing an internal ethics investigation over public comments that may have helped his former boss’s campaign for governor, officials said Tuesday.

The probe marks a particularly embarrassing turn for federal authorities charged with curbing corruption in scandal-scarred New Jersey: An internal affairs investigation has been launched into their handling of a major corruption case just days after they filed charges in the case.

The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the probe, told the Associated Press that the Justice Department was examining whether Acting U.S. Attorney Ralph J. Marra Jr. made inappropriate public comments that boosted Republican Chris Christie’s political challenge to incumbent Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine. Before running for office, Mr. Christie was the U.S. attorney for New Jersey, and Mr. Marra was his top deputy.

Mr. Marra made the comments last month while announcing the corruption case against dozens of suspects.

Since the arrests, public corruption has become the dominant issue in the race for governor.

The investigation by the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility is just another potential embarrassment for the department, which already has acknowledged mishandling other high-profile public corruption cases, particularly the botched prosecution of former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens.

Such internal investigations are rarely acknowledged publicly, and the results are usually unknown. Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler declined to comment or even confirm the existence of the probe in New Jersey.

Greg Reinert, a spokesman for Mr. Marra’s office, said he was unaware of such an investigation and declined to comment.

At issue are comments Mr. Marra made at a news conference last month announcing the arrests of 44 people as part of a sweeping federal corruption probe. Of those arrested, 29 were elected or public officials - a high count even in a state with a reputation for official misdeeds.

Asked about the issue of corruption in the state, Mr. Marra said: “There are easily reforms that could be made within this state that would make our job easier, or even take some of the load off our job. There are too many people that profit off the system the way it is, and so they have no incentive to change it. The few people that want to change it seem to get shouted down. So how long that cycle’s going to continue I just don’t know.”

Justice Department guidelines say a prosecutor “shall refrain from making extrajudicial comments that pose a serious and imminent threat of heightening public condemnation of the accused.”

Lawyers often refer to the rule as keeping them within “the four corners” of the indictment.

Patrick M. Collins, a former federal corruption prosecutor in Illinois - another state with perennial corruption problems - said the rule is designed to prevent prosecutors from publicly declaring a defendant’s guilt before trial; but the concerns about Mr. Marra’s comments would likely be different.

“It could be construed as an implicit endorsement of his former boss,” said Mr. Collins, who added that the remarks could just as easily reflect “the frustrations of a career prosecutor speaking as a human being.”

Mr. Marra’s comments were particularly notable given his professional history with Mr. Christie, and the fact that Mr. Christie has centered his campaign on a vow to clean up the state and root out political corruption.

The corruption scandal gave Mr. Christie an opening to campaign on his strongest issue: law and order.

After the arrests, Mr. Christie laid out a plan to impose tighter standards on public officials, and said the arrests show “a failure of leadership.”

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