Intrigue rises as McGreevey deadline passes

N.J. governor's intention to remain in office until Nov. 15 bewilders some

September 05, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

TRENTON, N.J. - Gov. James E. McGreevey's uncharted, uncertain journey toward resignation reached two important milestones in recent days, yet with each new fact that emerged, the entire ordeal seemed to grow more puzzling.

The first came Monday, when lawyers for Golan Cipel, the former aide who prompted the resignation by threatening to file a lawsuit against McGreevey alleging harassment and sexual assault, announced that he would not sue after all.

Then at midnight Friday, McGreevey - who vows to remain in office until Nov. 15 and allow the state Senate president to complete the final 14 months of his term - outlasted the constitutional deadline that would have triggered a special election.

That sequence of events has bewildered many of McGreevey's supporters and left political analysts intrigued.

While lawyers for Cipel insist that they were prepared to file suit, Cipel has not behaved like a man eager to invite further news media scrutiny by placing himself at the center of a gay sex scandal with a prominent elected official.

Shortly after Aug. 12, when McGreevey disclosed that he was gay and announced that he would resign, Cipel returned to his hometown in Israel, where he has repeatedly told reporters that he is heterosexual and that he was coerced into sexual liaisons by McGreevey.

Game of brinksmanship

During three tense weeks of negotiations before McGreevey's announcement, lawyers for McGreevey and Cipel played a game of brinksmanship, with the governor's team trying to avert a lawsuit that would bring him public humiliation.

Cipel's lawyers say that 30 minutes before the governor announced his resignation, the two sides had reached an agreement in which Cipel would get $2 million and a confidential letter of apology in exchange for keeping the matter private.

McGreevey's lawyers say that Cipel's lawyers had demanded money but that they had never agreed to a settlement.

Cipel's reluctance to have his involvement made public and the fact that his lawyer is not a member of the state bar and had never handled a harassment complaint have left some McGreevey supporters doubting that a suit would ever have been filed and wondering whether McGreevey overreacted.

McGreevey has declined to discuss the issue. But one of his confidants, state Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak, said it was unfair to second-guess the governor's decision. Even in a socially tolerant state such as New Jersey, it would be difficult for an elected official to endure the double-barreled scandal of a same-sex extramarital affair. But Cipel's allegations included an additional bombshell: a charge, which has not been corroborated, that McGreevey had sexually assaulted him.

Faced with the unpredictable behavior of Cipel's lawyer and the explosiveness of the allegations, most of his advisers said, McGreevey decided that it was wiser to leave office as a gay martyr than as an official accused of being a molester.

`Just too much risk'

"There was just too much risk," said Lesniak, who participated in the discussions with Cipel's lawyer and who said he believed that the entire matter was an attempt to extort money from the governor.

"He couldn't take the chance of these salacious charges being filed against him, even though they are totally false," Lesniak said. "And Governor McGreevey could have just called their bluff and let this hang over his head for eternity. But then he'd wake up every day and have to worry about it being disclosed or some attempt to intimidate or extort him."

But given the various corruption scandals that have surrounded McGreevey's aides and fund-raisers, many New Jersey political officials and analysts say they believe that there is more to the story involving either additional personal indiscretions or outright corruption.

Cipel was also privy to some of McGreevey's interactions with Gary Taffet, the governor's former chief of staff, who is the subject of a federal investigation into allegations that he used his position on McGreevey's transition team to inflate the value of a billboard company.

Cipel also had close ties to Charles Kushner, McGreevey's biggest campaign donor, who pleaded guilty last month to hiring a prostitute to coerce witnesses in a campaign finance probe.

In a state where federal agents have accused McGreevey of using "Machiavelli" as a code word to signal complicity in an illicit land deal, there are boundless possibilities as far as where things go from here, and what other skeletons might be out there.

But even those who have criticized the McGreevey administration's ethical lapses say they are baffled by McGreevey's intention to remain in office until Nov. 15.

"My initial suspicion was that there had to be more to this than the sex," said David Rebovich, a political science professor at Rider University in Lawrenceville.

"Maybe Golan was in the room when some ugly pay-to-play deal was consummated, and threatened to tell all," he said. "But if McGreevey feared that his dark political secrets might come out, he wouldn't stay until Nov. 15, because he wouldn't want the law on his tail. So I think everyone in New Jersey is still waiting for the dots to be connected."

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