So far, the charges that Chris Christie turned the U.S. attorney’s office into a “branch office” of his campaign for governor, as Jon Corzine put it yesterday, have centered on the relationship between Christie and Michele Brown, a close friend and top aide to Christie when he was US attorney. Brown reportedly took several actions this year that benefited Christie’s GOP bid for governor, and in 2007 got an undisclosed $46,000 loan from him.
But did another of Christie’s former top aides also put the prosecutor’s office in the service of his one-time boss’s political aspirations? Ralph Marra, who until this month was the acting U.S. attorney, has several times appeared to insert himself into the political back-and-forth over the race, appearing to pointedly criticize a request by the Corzine campaign for public information, and even triggering a Justice Department probe into whether he made inappropriately political public comments that may have boosted Christie.
Let’s look at the facts:
Christie has had a major hand in the Marra’s rise up the prosecutorial ranks. When Christie became U.S. attorney in 2002, he made Marra, a veteran prosecutor, his first assistant, the number 2 post in the office. Then when Christie stepped down last December to run for governor, Marra became acting U.S. attorney. (Marra returned to the first assistant position last week, with the confirmation of the new U.S. attorney, Paul Fishman.)
In July, Marra went before the cameras to announce a high-profile corruption bust that involved the arrests of a bevy of New Jersey mayors, elected officials, and rabbis. (It was this same bust that Brown reportedly tried to change the timing of, in one of her own apparent bids to help Christie.)
The case as a whole was a boon to Christie, under whose leadership much of the investigation had been carried out. And it appeared to damage Corzine, by focusing attention on the state’s rotten political culture which the incumbent governor had earlier pledged to clean up. But at the press conference, Marra made sure that message wasn’t lost, departing from the “just-the-facts” approach that prosecutors customarily take in such cases, and instead seeming to point the finger at the Corzine administration. Said Marra:
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.
According to video of the press conference, Marra also declared:
With so many profiting off a corrupt system is it any wonder that few want to change the system? Once again the victims in this are the average citizens and honest business people in this sate. They don’t have a chance in this culture of corruption.
The Justice Department’s internal ethics unit subsequently opened an investigation into whether his comments violated departmental guidelines that forbid political statements from prosecutors. (DOJ did not immediately respond to a request for comment from TPMmuckraker about the status of the probe.)
Then in August, Marra sent an email to the U.S. attorney’s office staff, obtained by PolitickerNJ.com, in which he slammed the “barrage of FOIA requests” which the Corzine campaign had made earlier that year, seeking information on Christie’s tenure as U.S. attorney. Marra said the requests had “unfairly drawn [the office] into a political campaign.” He also denounced what he called the “wholly trumped up (and then apparently leaked) complaint” by the Corzine campaign that led to the DOJ probe of his press conference comments, and defended those comments as “generic and general.”
As we noted yesterday, back in February Christie had appeared to announce his intention to appoint his former colleagues to positions in his administration, if elected. He told a crowd of supporters: “I’ve got a group of assistant U.S. attorneys sitting down in Newark … I’m going to take a whole group of them to Trenton with me and put them in every one of the departments.”
It’s worth asking whether some of Christie’s former colleagues, like Marra and Brown, decided to use their positions to help make that happen.
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.