Former Assemblyman Louis Manzo hates it when people say he “beat the rap.”
“I didn’t beat the rap; I was found not guilty,” he said. “Beating the rap implies I got away with something. But I didn’t do anything wrong in the first place.”
Seated in the Broadway Diner on an early spring day, Manzo has come back to his old haunt to promote his recently published book: “Ruthless Ambition: The Rise and Fall of Chris Christie.”
Manzo was found not guilty last year of charges which were part of 2009’s Operation Bid Rig III, in which over 40 politicians and religious figures were arrested in an FBI sting. The government used Solomon Dwek, a Central Jersey businessman who faced fraud charges, to offer local officials campaign donations in exchange for political favors. The sting resulted in the convictions or guilty pleas from nearly a dozen Hudson County residents.
In July of 2009, Manzo was arrested, accused of taking $20,000 to allegedly help Dwek, who was posing as a developer, get a fictional project approved. No longer a public official when the FBI arrested him, Manzo had just lost an election to become mayor of Jersey City.
Some of his charges were dismissed because they applied only to an elected official. But Manzo believes federal authorities were so bent on getting him that they continued to add charges, even after the judge in the case said they were often not relevant.
“Eventually the judge decided he would focus on federal misconduct in the case,” Manzo said. “That’s when the U.S. Attorney decided not to continue.”
But exoneration came with a heavy price. Manzo lost home, job and savings, and has since taken up residence at a family property in Central Jersey. But it’s his reputation that suffered most.
“When you Google, my being acquitted doesn’t come up first,” he said.
From the beginning, Manzo’s legal team contended that the charges were part of a conspiracy by some members of the U.S. Attorney’s office to get Gov. Christopher Christie elected governor, something Christie’s office denies. The Republican governor had been the U.S. Attorney in New Jersey at the launch of the investigation, and many of the people who were involved with it have moved on to work under him when he was elected governor in November 2009. Almost all of the politicians arrested in the sting were Democrats.
The possible conspiracy is a theme Manzo pursues with documentation in his book.
A book at the right time
A lot has happened since Manzo’s acquittal. His book arrives for sale at a time when Christie is under scrutiny for a number of interrelated events, such as the mysterious closing of lanes on the George Washington Bridge last September. Some have alleged that the lane closures were political retaliation because the mayor of Fort Lee did not endorse Christie for re-election. The Christie administration has also come under fire for allegedly tying relief aid for victims of Hurricane Sandy to development projects associated with friends of Christie.
“I open the book with Bridgegate,” Manzo said. “This is all part of the same pattern.”
The book not only explores how the sting operation came together under Christie for the alleged purpose of advancing Christie’s political career, but also how this was part of a long-established pattern of behavior that goes back to when Christie first ran for public office.
“This book began when I was charged,” he said. “I’ve spent five years putting it together.”
Manzo said the book also explores how someone like Christie could become a viable potential candidate for president of the United States, and deals with Christie’s rise to power and his eventual topple into multiple scandals and investigations.
In some ways, Manzo’s effort was helped by the previously published “Jersey Sting,” a nonfiction book written by two reporters, which opened the door to records that might not otherwise have been available.
“That book told the story from the prosecutor’s point of view,” Manzo said. “My book covers other sides they did not.”
He said the book tries to make the case that Bid Rig III, serving as a political tool to get Christie elected, often allegedly violated the very principles of justice that Christie and others in the U.S. Attorney’s Office took oaths to uphold.
At a time when every aspect of Christie’s career is under scrutiny, Manzo’s book becomes a kind of road map for others to follow.
Some have criticized the Bid Rig investigation because certain elected officials who were caught on tape did not explicitly state they were taking campaign donations in exchange for giving Dwek development help. Other people say the sting smacked of entrapment.
Manzo said it all along
Bent on exposing what he called a misuse of the justice system, Manzo isn’t jumping on any bandwagon, but has been out front of everyone else.
“I’ve been doing this since the day I was charged,” he said, noting that the public and media have finally come to realize that they were taken in by the Christie persona.
In many ways, Manzo is putting Christie and the U.S. Justice Department on trial, assembling documentation to prove his case beyond just his innocence, but to show that there may be legitimate misuse of power in bringing the case against him and many other defendants in Bid Rig III.
“Innocent people were prosecuted along with the guilty,” he said, noting it was only his financial resources and his determination that allowed him to win his case.
The book shows a step by step process in which Christie allegedly steered the system of justice to his own ends.
“What I wanted to do in this book was show readers that Bridgegate wasn’t something that just happened, but was foreshadowed by other things,” Manzo said. “This is what Christie’s whole life has been about.”
Manzo isn’t bitter at the American justice system; in fact, he believes the system saved him. He had a judge that listened, and saw the misuse that was allegedly being perpetrated.
“This was not something Washington knew anything about,” Manzo said. “Washington was told this was about corruption; no one ever told them that Bid Rig III was about Christie’s election.”
This is not the first book Manzo has written, nor will it be the last. He is already polishing up a novel, and hopes that he can transform his personal ordeal into success as a writer.
But his book on Christie may well be his best read, since it comes right in the middle of Bridgegate and other questions. Manzo’s book offers support to people such as Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer and Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, who have also raised concerns about the Christie administration.
“This book is about setting the record straight,” Manzo said. “I told people five years ago that there was a problem. Now other people are finally realizing there is.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org