January 10, 2006

Old Gray Lady is Lesniak's Lover

Our local press is so dead we hardly ever hear about “power broker” state senator Raymond Lesniak – who the Star-Ledger called the “de facto head” of Union County government. But every once in a while a newspaper will satiate our curiosities with one of those predictable profile pieces. The latest was in the Jan. 9 New York Times.

Here are the highlights and lowlights:

Days before his announcement, Mr. McGreevey sought out Senator Lesniak and confided that he was gay - an admission the governor made to the senator even before he told his wife, Mr. Lesniak later recalled. And it was the counsel of Mr. Lesniak, a born-again Christian and a friend from Mr. McGreevey's days as the mayor of Woodbridge, upon which the governor relied while weighing whether to leave office....

In many instances, the contracts awarded to Mr. Lesniak's firm came after the senator or his allies offered campaign contributions or other political support to local officials who decide who will get the work, a fact that Mr. Lesniak acknowledges...

"I don't deny that," Mr. Lesniak said of connections between his support and contracts for his firm. "People say, 'You raise money for people who get elected and then they hire your law firm.' I go, 'Shocking, isn't it?' Are you supposed to hire people who donated to your opponent?"

By Mr. Lesniak's estimates, government work accounted for as much as a quarter of his firm's business in recent years. Currently, he said, it accounts for about 10 percent...

During the 1990's, when Mr. McGreevey was the mayor of Woodbridge, Weiner Lesniak collected more than $5 million in fees from the municipality. At the same time, the firm contributed about $41,800 to Mr. McGreevey's campaigns, according to public records....

"I operate within the law totally and exclusively," he said. "But I'm not going to unilaterally disarm myself or the people that I support."

A bachelor bon vivant who dispenses advice with the enthusiasm of a self-help guru, Mr. Lesniak, 59, cuts a distinctive figure in the Senate, with his gravelly baritone and his eagerness to seize the spotlight....

After leaving the Army in the late 1960's, he played accordion in a polka band, Jolly Rich and the Polka Stars, to help pay his way through Rutgers.

A framed copy of one of their albums, "Polkas With a Kick," is on a wall in his office. "Can you pick me out?" he asked, pointing to a band photo on the back cover. "It isn't easy." As if trying to read a born-again, polka-playing political boss would be.

* * *

If our local newspapers had gossip columns they’d probably print all those widely circulated rumors about the senator’s bachelorhood, which became all the more interesting when we learned Lesniak was McGreevey’s confidante for his “coming out.”

* * *

Below is a letter I wrote complaining to the editor. It probably won’t be published because I forgot to make it short.

And here’s is a piece I wrote in 2002 for my old site, dahiller.com, about Weiner Lesniak being hired by the Hillside school board.

* * *
To the Editors:

Considering Democrats have been illumintating the Republican-led “culture of corruption” in Washington, I was excited to find that the January 9 edition of the Times featured a profile on New Jersey powerbroker Ray Lesniak, a Democrat. I was swiftly disappointed realizing the piece was more about the state senator’s born-again Christianity and polka dancing then his role in the Garden State’s own thriving culture of corruption.

I would have preferred to read about his law firm’s conflicts of interest in business and land deals and how the senator’s de facto control over local governments, including choosing which firms they should hire (usually ones that contribute to his campaigns), have contributed to soaring property taxes and an inordinate $1 million-per-day Union County government budget. The Times could have come to my town of Hillside, where three years ago Mr. Lesniak’s firm billed our school board three times as much as was spent on legal fees prior to hiring him and after we fired him when I won a seat on the board.

Mr. Lesniak says it doesn’t make sense to “hire people who donated to your opponent,” but the problem isn’t merely that officials hire their campaign contributors. The problem is that officials hire contributors who may be less qualified and more expensive than their competitors. Just look at what Mr. Lesniak bills his school boards and city halls, for instance.