Secretary of Labor Raymond J. Donovan has been rebuffed by the White House in an attempt to force selection of his own candidate for a federal judgeship in New Jersey over the objections of the state's Republican governor and senator.
Reagan administration sources said yesterday that a White House judicial selection committee has recommended that county Judge John Bissell, the choice of New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean and Sen. Nicholas Brady (R-N.J.), be selected instead of Donovan's candidate, lawyer Frank Bate.
"Donovan really felt he had an ownership of New Jersey," said one administration official. Another source in the administration said, "You'd think he'd lay low, but he hasn't."
The recommendation of Bissell, which is subject to a routine background investigation before it is formally submitted to President Reagan, demonstrated the administration's political sensitivity about Donovan during a national election campaign.
After special prosecutor Leon Silverman twice found there was "insufficient credible evidence" to sustain allegations that Donovan had associated with organized-crime figures, Reagan has made it clear that he considers Donovan vindicated. But some White House advisers still want the labor secretary to keep the lowest possible profile before the Nov. 2 election.
Instead, Donovan and his New Jersey political associates have insisted on trying to play an active role in the patronage process, according to administration sources.
Donovan was a leading fund-raiser for Reagan in the 1980 campaign and was influential in political appointments when New Jersey had two Democratic senators. But the election of Republican Kean as New Jersey governor and his subsequent appointment of Brady after the resignation of Democratic senator Harrison A. Williams Jr. changed that relationship.
Facing the prospect of losing important Republican governorships elsewhere in the country, the Reagan administration has made it clear that Kean, not Donovan, is now calling the patronage shots for New Jersey.
"Raymond Donovan is secretary of labor but we don't recognize Raymond Donovan as New Jersey," said one administration official.
Conservatives within and outside the administration see Donovan as a presidential loyalist who has been the victim of both media attacks and attempts by White House pragmatists to jettison him for political reasons.
Those conservatives have organized an Oct. 13 tribute to Donovan at which White House counselor Edwin Meese III is scheduled to be a principal speaker, even though other White House aides have misgivings about Donovan. The labor secretary has apparently been emboldened by such demonstrations of support and tried to assert himself more actively within the administration.
The U.S. District Court vacancy in New Jersey opened up earlier this year when another judge retired. By tradition, the seat would be filled on the recommendation of the senior Republican senator. When Brady was appointed earlier this year to fill the rest of Williams' term, he told White House officials that he expected to carry out his senatorial prerogative and select the new judge.
But a close political associate of Donovan, New Jersey lawyer Thomas H. Bruinooge, who worked with him during the 1980 Reagan campaign, reportedly put forward the name of Morton Greenberg, a state appellate judge who subsequently withdrew.
Brady and Kean then offered their preferred choice for the seat, Judge Bissell of the Essex County Superior Court. Brady forwarded the name to the White House and the Justice Department, Brady's aides said.
But Bruinooge, who is described by several sources within and outside the administration as acting on Donovan's behalf, instead offered Bate, a former New Jersey assemblyman, as a candidate for the judgeship. Neither Bate nor Bruinooge was available for comment. Donovan also said through a spokesman he would not have any comment.
One of those who talked with Bate about the judgeship was Ted Geiser, a lawyer who represents Schiavone Construction Co., of Secaucus, N.J., where Donovan had been executive vice president and in which he still holds a majority interest with co-owner Ronald Schiavone. Geiser was co-counsel for Donovan in the Silverman inquiry, and also played a key role in the hiring of private detectives to investigate Senate staffers probing Donovan.
Geiser said yesterday that he had never talked to Donovan about the judgeship, but he did discuss it twice with Bate, first at a luncheon in May and, most recently, when they met Sept. 15 at a meeting of the New Jersey Supreme Court advisory committee on ethics. Geiser said he "relayed" Bate's name as a "splendid" candidate for the position to Bruinooge.
"I said, 'Frank, your name will be given consideration,' " Geiser recalled yesterday.
Other New Jersey sources said yesterday that Gov. Kean was furious at Donovan's apparent effort to advance a rival candidate for the judgeship. Kean reportedly felt Donovan was trying to usurp the patronage rights of his handpicked senator, Brady.