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Ex-Official Pleads Guilty in New Jersey Fraud Case

James W. Treffinger, a former county leader with big aspirations, says he falsified papers and urged a witness to lie in a federal investigation.

May 31, 2003|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The former political boss of New Jersey's Essex County pleaded guilty Friday to federal corruption and fraud charges, becoming the latest in a series of public officials to be convicted in a crackdown by the U.S. attorney.

James W. Treffinger, a former Republican official who once had ambitions of becoming a U.S. senator, told U.S. District Judge John W. Bissell in Newark that he helped create phony backdated documents and counseled a witness to lie to thwart a federal investigation into the award of no-bid contracts to a prominent New Jersey construction firm, according to documents released by the U.S. attorney's office.

The 53-year-old defendant also admitted that he hired and used Essex County employees to assist his 2000 Senate race, prosecutors said.

U.S. Atty. Christopher J. Christie praised his associates and FBI officials who worked on the Treffinger case, saying he hoped it would send a message to other politicians that New Jersey's long tradition of corruption would no longer be tolerated.

"Jim Treffinger was once the leading candidate for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate, and for him to stand in court today and admit that he obstructed justice and defrauded the people of Essex County is an enormous development," Christie said in a telephone interview.

"It doesn't matter who you are or what position you hold. If you break the law, we will catch you and send you to jail," he added.

Treffinger, who remains free on $100,000 bail, will be sentenced on Sept. 10. He could receive up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, although federal guidelines indicate he might receive somewhere between 10 and 16 months in prison. The sentence will be determined by Bissell.

The guilty plea capped a lengthy investigation, which included extensive wiretapping of Treffinger and his associates.

At one point, the former county executive was heard to boast to a friend that he was seeking a presidential appointment to become New Jersey's U.S. attorney, and that if he won the job, many political officials -- including himself -- would be off-limits to prosecutors because "[there are] plenty of mobsters to go after. You don't have to go after all these poor politicians plying their trade," according to documents released by prosecutors.

Christie, a former Morris County elected official who served as a fund-raiser for President Bush's 2000 campaign in New Jersey, was appointed by the president to the U.S. attorney's post last year.

He quickly gained a reputation as one of the nation's leading anticorruption prosecutors, filing 26 cases against a multitude of officeholders, more than any other U.S. attorney's office, according to statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Besides Treffinger's case, the New Jersey prosecutions have continued.

In the last two months, Kenneth E. Nixon, former director of the Asbury Park Housing Authority, pleaded guilty to mail fraud; Martin G. Barnes, former mayor of Paterson, was sentenced to 37 months in federal prison for accepting free trips, a swimming pool and other favors from city vendors; and Sara B. Bost, former mayor of Irvington Township, pleaded guilty during the third week of her corruption trial to attempted witness tampering.

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