Thursday, June 22, 2006

Menendez - Ledger - Late shift against Musto in 1982 trial

Published in the Star-Ledger, Thursday, June 22, 2006

Transcript shows late shift against boss by Menendez
He backed mayor until just before trial

Star-Ledger Staff

At the 1982 corruption trial of Union City Mayor William V. Musto, Robert Menendez acknowledged he remained loyal to his former mentor until just before he took the witness stand against him, according to transcripts from the case that has become an issue in his U.S. Senate race.

Menendez testified that even after 12 appearances before a grand jury that ultimately indicted Musto and six others, he supported Musto's bid for re-election as state senator and mayor, according to a transcript of his cross-examination, a copy of which was obtained by The Star-Ledger.

A spokeswoman for Menendez' opponent, Republican state Sen. Tom Kean Jr., said yesterday the transcript shows Menendez was not the crusading reformer he has portrayed himself to be.

"Menendez's story of his early political history doesn't comport with the facts," said Kean campaign press secretary Jill Hazelbaker.

Aides to Menendez, however, contend the trial transcript shows exactly the opposite -- that when it became clear to him Musto had put his personal interest ahead of the public interest, Menendez stood up to the Hudson County political boss.

"It's outrageous that someone like Tom Kean Jr., who never faced a tough decision in his life, would smear the reputation of someone who stood up at great personal risk and helped put a corrupt public official in jail," said Menendez spokesman Matt Miller. "It's pretty amazing that Tom Kean Jr. is siding with convicted felons and their defenders."

Menendez' account has been bolstered in recent days by comments from the lead prosecutor in the case.

James Plaisted, a former assistant U.S. attorney now in private practice, praised Menendez in a campaign press release Tuesday, saying he "courageously testified" and that he "stood up and demonstrated a commitment to cleaning up corruption." Plaisted, who is involved in a current trial, has declined to make himself available for interviews.

Hazelbaker said the transcript, along with Menendez' statement during a news conference shortly after he testified ("I had no choice but to testify. I did not go running to Newark.") are more reliable than the recollections of the prosecutor and the senator. They also point out that Plaisted, a Democrat, was a fundraiser and supporter of Gov. Jon Corzine's campaign in 2005. Corzine appointed Menendez to fill his Senate seat.

The transcript covers an often contentious cross-examination by Musto's lawyer, Irving Anolik, the last of the defense attorneys to question Menendez.

At the time, Menendez was secretary to the Union City Board of Education. He helped prosecutors sift through books and documents that showed Musto and others were taking kickbacks from a mob-connected construction firm doing work on local schools.

In direct testimony, Menendez said that before his first grand jury appearance Musto had advised him to invoke his rights under the Fifth Amendment and decline to testify -- a suggestion Menendez said he found "distasteful."

He also testified that Musto tried to pressure him by saying the government had a tape-recording of its informant saying Menendez had taken a bribe along with Musto and others.

Under cross-examination, Menendez admitted that he never told the grand jury about that conversation with Musto, and that he told prosecutors only after he found out from newspaper accounts that the secretly recorded tapes did not implicate him.

"In December 1981 there was proof positive to me that in fact that story that I had been told by the mayor was untrue, and at that time that assisted me in my recollection of not only that conversation but what else transpired with that conversation," Menendez said in the transcript from his January 1982 testimony.

Menendez also acknowledged that he had written two checks to the construction contractor for the same invoice, but said that it was nothing more than an error in bookkeeping.

Deborah Howlett covers politics. She may be reached at (609) 989-0273 or

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Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.