Republican gubernatorial candidate Christopher Christie declined an invitation to attend a dinner last night hosted by Peter Murphy, a former Passaic County Republican Chairman whom Christie prosecuted on federal corruption charges in 2003. Murphy and Michael Mecca, a former Freeholder and County Chairman, have organized a group that opposes the leadership of the incumbent Chairman, Assemblyman Scott Rumana (R-Wayne).
According to a statement released by the organizers of the dinner, Christie "was invited but called to say he could not attend - but he did say he looked forward to meeting with the group at a later date." Two other candidates, former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan and Assemblyman Rick Merkt (R-Mendham), did attend. Organizers say the dinner "attracted nine of sixteen GOP municipal chairs -- a statistic of extraordinary significance -- and three former chairmen, as well as mayors and councilmen from Haledon, Hawthorne, Little Falls, North Haledon, Prospect Park, Ringwood, Totowa, Wanaque, and West Milford."
Rumana is expected to back Christie, as is his chief political ally, State Sen. Kevin O'Toole (R-Cedar Grove), the Essex County Republican Chairman. If the Murphy/Mecca group backs Lonegan or Merkt, this could be the first real electoral test between the two rival Republican organizations.
Seven months before Christie became U.S. Attorney, Murphy was convicted for his role in helping a company obtain a medical services contract for the county jail with the understanding that proceeds of the contract would go to a four politically active individuals he selected. He was sentenced to 43 months in prison and served nearly a year before the U.S. Court of Appeals ordered his release while they considered his appeal. The Third Circuit overturned his conviction in May 2003.
Just before his new trial was to begin, Murphy pleaded guilty today to mail fraud and was sentenced to eleven-and-a-half months in prison - the time he had already served.
"We are pleased with the end result here - that Mr. Murphy served a considerable amount of time in prison for crimes which he has finally acknowledged committing as Republican party chairman in Passaic County," Christie said in a November 7, 2003 statement. "For those crimes, Mr. Murphy has lost his prestige and power, nearly a year of freedom and now is a convicted felon."
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