Treffinger drops out of U.S. Senate race

The Star-Ledger | April 23, 2002


By David Kinney

Essex County Executive James Treffinger dropped out of the race for U.S. Senate yesterday, four days after federal agents raided his county offices in search of evidence in a widespread corruption investigation.

Treffinger, front-runner in the Republican primary until Thursday’s abrupt turn of events, maintained his innocence but conceded what his supporters concluded days ago: He would be unable to raise the millions of dollars he needs to mount a credible campaign under the cloud of criminal allegations.

“Until this afternoon, I intended to stay in this race, but I now believe that doing so would hamper the Republican Party,” Treffinger said in a statement issued after he made one last appeal to county party leaders, during which he emphatically defended himself and said he believed he could still win.

Minutes after his appeal, Treffinger issued his public statement saying he realized he could no longer compete – that the federal investigation would force him to focus on “my own fight to maintain my reputation for integrity and probity.” His exit throws the primary wide open. Even yesterday, GOP leaders tried and failed to court a marquee candidate to replace Treffinger.

The 51-year-old former Fulbright scholar, Wall Street lawyer and Verona mayor will remain county executive. His term expires at year’s end. However, sources said he will step aside as the county Republican Party chairman.

Dozens of FBI and IRS agents searched his county offices and several other locations around the state Thursday. According to warrants, they sought evidence of fraud, obstruction of justice, witness-tampering and other crimes.

Investigators want to know whether Treffinger traded lucrative Essex County contracts for donations to his Senate campaigns, gave political allies no-show jobs and used employees on the county payroll for campaign work.

At least five current or former Treffinger aides are cooperating with the probe, sources said. Hours after the raid, the sources said, Treffinger listened to damaging tapes prosecutors secretly recorded.

Agents also sought information about United Gunite, a construction company that made millions of dollars on public work. Its top officers have admitted bribing public officials around the state. The agents also wanted documents on Gourmet Dining Services, a catering firm that has won Essex County contracts, and Century 21 Construction, a developer involved in a major county land sale.

Treffinger attorney Jack Arseneault cautioned against interpreting Treffinger’s withdrawal as an admission of wrongdoing: “There is a presumption in the public’s mind of guilt. That is an incorrect presumption, but it’s a reality.”

Three candidates are still vying for the nomination to face Democrat Sen. Robert Torricelli in the fall: state Sens. Diane Allen (R-Burlington) and John Matheussen (R-Gloucester), and millionaire Douglas Forrester. All three were jockeying for a shot at the nine county endorsements Treffinger still had.

Chairmen in most of the counties were considering backing no candidate. Attorneys for the party rushed to the Division of Elections yesterday to have Treffinger’s name stripped off the ballots before they are certified and printed this week.

Political strategists say an open primary would benefit Forrester, who has $2.2 million in the bank. If the party organizations do not back a candidate, the one with the most money to buy TV ads and mailers has the edge.

Republicans welcomed Treffinger’s move.

“It was a difficult decision for Jim Treffinger, because he believes in himself and that he’s done nothing wrong and felt he was the best candidate,” said Ocean County GOP Chairman George Gilmore. “But I feel Jim made the best decision for the party.”

Added Allen: “He did something very courageous. He desperately wanted to win and to be a U.S. senator, and yet he put the party first.”

Democrats took the occasion to ridicule the field of potential challengers.

“There’s still no credible challenger against Senator Torricelli,” said Rep. Robert Menendez (D-13th Dist.), New Jersey’s top House Democrat. “Nobody has the stature he has. It continues to be a lackluster field. The A- Team has been missing on the Republican side, and today is just one more example of it.”

Some Republicans may agree. A few party leaders scrambled Sunday to find a replacement for Treffinger, and appeals went out to state Sen. William Gormley (R-Atlantic), former presidential candidate and publishing magnate Steve Forbes, and former Gov. Tom Kean, party sources said. All of them declined.

Even late Sunday night, Treffinger was telling associates he planned to stay and fight. The candidate met with his campaign manager and spoke with his political consultants early yesterday, then made one final call to the nine county party leaders who still supported him.

“You’re talking about a competitive person,” said one person close to Treffinger. “He doesn’t give up easy. You’re talking about a guy who doesn’t throw in the towel.”

His hope: that they’d urge him to stay in the race, sources close to him said.

Instead, after Treffinger forcefully declared himself innocent and vowed he could win, the chairmen told him it was over.

He must have expected that answer: Minutes after the call, his campaign issued his two-page withdrawal statement.

Treffinger, on the advice of his attorneys, declined to speak to reporters.

His written statement lashed out at reports in the media over the weekend. “I am unable to respond and set the record straight,” he said, “unable to counter innuendo or refute untrue speculations by so-called ‘unidentified sources’ who can sling mud under the clock of anonymity.”

Treffinger Campaign Manager Charlie Smith likes to say candidates win with money, message and organization. For Treffinger, Thursday’s raids ruined all three.

Immediately after the raids, campaign sources said, Treffinger realized his fund-raising effort would grind to a halt, leaving him with a meager $530,000 to make his case to primary voters.

And national Republicans made it clear Friday they would not support a Treffinger candidacy. Treffinger said he became convinced “the necessary financial help from Washington to wage an effective campaign in the fall would not be there for my candidacy.”

With county Republican leaders wavering, the bedrock of his campaign – top ballot position in 11 key counties – was cracking. Two chairmen stripped their support in the first hours after the raids.

Lastly, he couldn’t sell his message. As one GOP ally put it yesterday: “You can’t be a defendant and a candidate at the same time.”

It would be especially hard this year, when Republicans are targeting Torricelli as an unethical leader. Torricelli faced a three-year federal investigation into his 1996 fund-raising before prosecutors dropped their effort in January. He still faces a Senate ethics inquiry.

Torricelli dismisses the persistent GOP attack.

“The Republicans have offered no new ideas, no new positions, no new vision for the state of New Jersey,” Torricelli campaign manager Ken Snyder said. “All they’ve offered are relentless, negative attacks that the people of New Jersey will reject.”