The Republican gubernatorial primary is over, but Democrats apparently have no intention of letting fade away the accusation by former candidate Rick Merkt that a friend and advisor of newly minted Republican nominee Chris Christie tried to buy him out of the gubernatorial race.
Assembly members Reed Gusciora (D-Princeton) and Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Englewood) today again called on Acting U.S. Attorney Ralph Marra to investigate whether John Inglesino, a former Morris County freeholder, offered Merkt, an assemblyman from Christie's home town of Mendham, a plum position on the campaign and in a future Christie administration if he dropped his plans to run for governor.
"Three weeks ago, Assemblyman Gusciora and I called on law enforcement to investigate a report of impropriety and see if the law had been broken," said Huttle. "The politicking of the primary election is now behind us, but the specter of corruption remains. Now is the time to determine if, and to what extent an illegal act took place. Now that the election is over we need to get to the bottom of this."
Merkt wound up getting a miniscule portion of the vote in Tuesday's primary, although his impact on the race was not clear when he announced his intention to run late in the summer.
"These members of the Assembly should spend their time crafting a budget that doesn't cripple New Jersey's economy, raise taxes and hurt the middle class rather than continuing their tired call for politically motivated investigations of allegations by defeated gubernatorial candidates," said Bill Stepien, Christie's campaign manager.
In a phone conversation with PolitickerNJ.com in mid May, Merkt said that he was "not looking to prompt an investigation" into whether allies of gubernatorial rival Chris Christie tried to bribe him to keep him out of the race for governor. But, upset at having been called a liar by Christie and Inglesino, he wanted to set the record straight.
Merkt's original statement, made during a press conference in response to a question from Star-Ledger columnist Paul Mulshine, brought full-throated denials by Christie and Inglesino, who both referred to it as a "lie."
Although the standard procedure for someone who feels he has just been offered a bribe would be to contact the legal authorities, Merkt said he did not think about it that way.
"I kind of just looked at it as a telephone call that was initiated to try to get me to leave the race by any strategy that they could devise. I really wasn't looking at it from the standpoint of legality - certainly not at the time," he said. "Secondly, I had no intention of accepting it so I kind of let it go by very quickly."
But Merkt did not appreciate being called a liar by the Christie camp, and went into greater detail about the content of the phone call and its aftermath.
Merkt said that he received the call from Inglesino in August, a few hours after he had called Assembly Minority Leader Alex DeCroce (R-Parsippany) to inform him of his intention to set up an exploratory committee.
"He said that he heard I was planning on announcing something shortly, so he urged me not to do it.... I told him that I had been thinking about it for the previous four months and decided to test the waters by forming an exploratory committee," said Merkt. "His response to me was that we had been good friends for years, that I was a leader in the Republican Party and that he had a lot of respect for me as a legislator, so he wanted to talk to me before I did this."
Merkt said that Inglesino started off the conversation warm and cajoling, noting that two candidates running out of Morris County could help Christie rival Steve Lonegan in the primary. Merkt said he responded that Christie was not even an announced candidate yet, to which Inglesino replied that he was indeed going to run but could not announce at the time because he was still U.S. Attorney.
Then, Merkt said, Inglesino told him that he would "play an important role" in the Christie campaign and administration if he did not run, to which Merkt responded that he would have an even more important role in his own administration.
At that point, according to Merkt, Inglesino stopped being so complimentary. He offered him a harsh assessment of his campiagn that turned out to be largely true -- that he had no chance, that he did not have the necessary name recognition, fundraising ability, and that he should remain in his safe Assembly seat. He said Merkt's campaign could only serve to hurt Christie's fundraising base, to which Merkt responded that he felt competition was healthy in Republican primaries. Inglesino, Merkt said, went on to denigrate Lonegan, and took on an altogether new tone.
"Then he told me that if I ran for governor this would be remembered, and that Chris Christie would not forget later on that I had run against him," said Merkt. "Of course I took this as a rather direct threat."
Merkt said the pressure intensified when he attended the Republican National Convention in Minnesota over the summer. In the hallway outside of the ballroom where the state Republicans held most of their events, he said he met with Christie confidante Bill Palatucci, who was even more direct.
"Palatucci absolutely went up one side and down the other, pretty much screaming at me about three inches from my space, saying I couldn't run, I had no support, nobody liked me, nobody would ever talk to me again," he said. "In 40 seconds Bill Palatucci convinced me that I had to run for governor, because nobody with that kind of personality should be permitted anywhere near the Executive Office. I can tell you, bystanders were amazed by Bill's meltdown."
One bystander Merkt named was Assemblywoman Allison Littell McHose (R-Franklin). Reached for comment, McHose said that she saw Merkt and Palatucci arguing in the hallway but could not hear what they were talking about.
Palatucci refused to comment.
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