Menendez's Firing of Staffer Buoys New Jersey GOP Hopes

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 29, 2006

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) severed ties with a longtime campaign associate who was taped seeking a political favor on his behalf, the latest of several ethics-related incidents to shadow Menendez as he seeks a full Senate term in November.

According to yesterday's editions of the Newark Star-Ledger and the Philadelphia Inquirer, the associate, Donald Scarinci, was a Menendez childhood friend who became the senator's closest political adviser and a top fundraiser. In a transcript of the recording reviewed by the newspapers, Scarinci asked a client, a Hudson County psychiatrist who held lucrative local contracts, to hire another physician as a favor to Menendez. The psychiatrist, Oscar Sandoval, secretly taped the conversation, which took place in 1999, when Menendez was a House member.

Gov. Jon S. Corzine (D) appointed Menendez in January to complete the governor's Senate term. The Scarinci story follows the disclosure of a federal review of a lease arrangement between Menendez and a Hudson County nonprofit organization.

The revelations have fueled Republican hopes that the New Jersey seat could flip to the GOP column in November. Although the state is strongly Democratic, polls show that the race between Menendez and GOP nominee Thomas Kean Jr. is extremely close.

A poll by Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics released yesterday showed Menendez leading Kean 45 percent to 44 percent among likely voters, with 11 percent undecided. A Quinnipiac University poll from last week found Kean ahead with likely voters by 48 percent to 45 percent, with 6 percent undecided.

The Scarinci story prompted speculation among some political operatives in Washington that Menendez could be replaced as the Democratic nominee, similar to what occurred in 2002, when Sen. Robert G. Torricelli was replaced by then-retired Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg five weeks before the election. Torricelli had dropped out of the race after a Senate admonishment over his financial dealings with a campaign supporter.

A senior Democratic campaign official dismissed talk of Menendez's departure as "disgusting" and "totally unfounded" and blamed Republicans for stirring it up. But some Democrats had worried when Corzine picked Menendez as his successor that his deep roots in Hudson County, a hotbed of public corruption scandals, could become a campaign focal point. Kean, the son and namesake of the popular former governor, has made a campaign issue of Menendez's Hudson ties.

Menendez spokesman Matthew Miller said the Sandoval disclosure was politically motivated and noted that the doctor was being sued by Hudson County to recover money lost through corruption. "Tom Kean Jr. has run his campaign in the gutter since the beginning and has now reached even further in to find this sleazy character," Miller said.

In a statement responding to the newspaper disclosures, Scarinci said he couldn't comment on details of the taped conversation, citing his involvement in the Hudson County lawsuit. But he added: "I will clearly state that none of my dealings with Dr. Sandoval were either directed or requested by Bob Menendez."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company