Dressing up Disclosures of Corruption

New Jersey Gov. James E. McGreevey tried his hardest to stay in the closet. After divorcing his first wife, he reassured voters who wanted him to be a family man by marrying a second time shortly before his second, and successful run for governor in 2001. Tourist ads this summer showed McGreevey and his wife on the Jersey shore.

Still, there was widespread suspicion that he was gay.

The press seldom broached the rumors directly, but, perhaps frustrated at their inability to tell the full story, reported tidbits such as the fact that McGreevey’s state police detail resisted his frequent requests to allow him to wander off alone. He moved the state police out of the governor’s mansion into a garage next door claiming he wanted them to have better accommodations—improvements they never asked for, but that made it harder to keep track of who was visiting the mansion.

The resignation story is actually two stories—McGreevey’s coming out that is almost comic, and the underlying corruption scandal that has been developing for months. McGreevey’s situation is not so different than that of former Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland who resigned in June rather than testify at an impeachment hearing.

The impatience of the governor’s own party is what has made James McGreevey’s situation precarious. New Jersey Democrats are not willing to wait as long as the Republicans did in Connecticut to resolve this scandal. The New York Times reports that “Mr. McGreevey’s spotty performance and the lingering scandals around his associates led some party leaders [months ago] to lobby for [Senator John] Corzine to get the party nomination for governor next year.”

The story of Golan Cipel, McGreevey’s alleged paramour, is just one of the many stories marking McGreevey’s “spotty performance.” The two men met in Israel three weeks after the governor proposed to his second wife, Dina Matos. A close McGreevey associate, Charles Kushner, pled guilty on August 18 to witness tampering in a corruption investigation, helped Cipel get his work visa in order to enter the United States. Shortly after the governor took office, Cipel was given an appointment that paid $110,000, the fifth highest salary in the administration.

With the incredibly bad judgment that made colleagues distrust the governor, McGreevey gave Mr. Cipel a highly visible anti-terrorism advisory role. A scandal quickly erupted. As a foreign national, Cipel would be denied a security clearance and be unable to work with federal authorities.

Democrats cringed while the Republicans and newspapers had a field day.

Asked if he and Cipel were lovers, the governor replied, “Don’t be ridiculous.” Cipel never gave a press conference. Hired in January, he left in August, 2002, after eight unhappy months on the state payroll.

While Golan Cipel became yesterday’s news, political corruption remained Gov. McGreevey’s major concern. The governor did not get into major trouble because of Cipel, but because of corruption.

The corruption investigations became pressing during this year. At their center was fund-raising, the nexus of money and politics that is often called the gravest problem facing government in the United States. In 1999, New Jersey Democrats raised $5 million for the state party. By 2003, the amount had jumped to $22.5 million. A suspicion that illegal methods were used to raise this much money did not seem implausible. New Jersey laws, the Asbury Park Press reports, make some of the boodle legal. Elected officials are allowed to grant no-bid contracts to contributors. Many observers denounced the ethics of this pay-to-play system. In July, around the time that Cipel told McGreevey he would sue for sexual harassment, federal law enforcement authorities announced two indictments and one named the governor as a so-far un-indicted member of a conspiracy, the so-called Machiavelli case, in which the FBI had recorded McGreevey’s conversations. It would take a good deal of optimism to conclude that McGreevey would escape such scrutiny unscathed.

Kushner’s guilty plea in connection with trying to block his brother-in-law from cooperating in federal investigations of fundraising practices signals his intention to cooperate in the ongoing probe.

A story like this becomes really bad news around election time. Democrats and Republicans were already talking about a McGreevey resignation or a decision to not seek a second term. The governor’s approval ratings have dropped below 40 percent.

McGreevey’s need to acknowledge that he had an extra-marital affair with a man he appointed to a well-paying state job became the straw that broke the camel’s back. It was fitting that some of this tale is opera bouffe. It probably didn’t begin with Cipel going to a law office and seeing a lawyer. The opening scene was more likely an elevator in a Manhattan apartment building. We can only imagine how Golan Cipel and Allen M. Lowy met, but they live in the same building near Columbus Circle. Possibly the two of them have moved from friendship to a professional relationship or as the governor’s lawyers believe, conspirators in an extortion scheme.

Lowy’s handling of Cipel’s case has raised eyebrows. The newspapers keep mentioning that Lowy does not practice employment law where most sexual harassment cases originate, but he has practiced patent and entertainment law. Entertainment lawyers, of course, know about closeted gays and the palimony suits brought by former lovers. In any case, lawyers who talk of suing should be prepared to file a suit in a court. Lawyers for Cipel and McGreevey held as many as six meetings.

Thus far, no lawsuit has been filed, and this hurts Cipel’s case. Cipel has returned to Israel suggesting he won’t sue. It also suggests that a criminal investigation of the threat of a lawsuit may become serious.

When McGreevey bit the bullet and announced his resignation, admitting that he was gay, it apparently took Cipel by surprise. It appears that Cipel and his attorney never expected the case to become public even though they threatened to expose the governor. While McGreevey came out of the closet, Cipel dove right back in, denying he was gay.

The time line isn’t too favorable to Cipel’s claim that he spurned McGreevey’s advance. He left Israel and came to the United States in 2000. In 2001, he worked on the McGreevey campaign, and then took the state job in 2002. He waited nearly two years before complaining about sexual harassment and there is no indication that he chose a lawyer who specializes in these complaints. Moreover, from the accounts of many, he accepted high-paying jobs and then failed to show up—supporting a “gold-digger theory.”

It is highly unusual for newspapers to publicize the claim of a lawyer’s who doesn’t file papers in court. Most newspapers made Cipel’s lawyer’s statements a one-day story except for the Daily News and the New York Post. The Post headline said “Predator.” These articles were filled with homophobia, telling the story as though recounting a high school scandal where one person says he is straight, but the other guy is queer. But a least one other gay partner of Cipel has come forward, according to the Daily News, a development which could case further doubt on his credibility.

A New Jersey Poll reveals that most people believe the governor resigned because of corruption. And that is most likely the case. As is by now reported, the sound bite “I am a gay American,” came from a Washington D.C. gay group, the Human Rights Campaign. The statement was calculated, rather than contrite. The announcement ended abruptly with the hardball tactic of accepting no questions from reporters.

So far, McGreevey is hanging tough on a departure date that would give the governorship to State Senate President David Codey, a Democrat, for the remainder of his term through 2005. Sen. John Corzine, who is reported to have his eye on the governor’s mansion but would find it inconvenient to give up his job as head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to run in a special election this year, might prefer to wait until next fall to signal his intention to leave Washington. McGreevey, whose net worth, according to his financial filings, is less than $500,000, could benefit from the help of some of Corzine’s wealthy friends.

This episode does not prove that gay politicians are being singled out for public exposure. Ever since presidential candidate Gary Hart tripped over his extra-marital affair in the run-up to the 1988 campaign, reporters have routinely investigated politicians’ sex lives. Republicans Rudy Giuliani and former Rep. Robert Livingston, a House speaker-designate in 1998, have needed to answer questions about adultery. Gay Democrats Gerry Studds and Barney Frank, two Massachusetts congressmen, both acknowledged they were gay just before negative stories were to set to appear and both were reelected numerous times afterward. And, of course, Pres. Bill Clinton stood firm and the Congress affirmed that an adulterous affair was not a high crime or misdemeanor.

Even before he said he was gay, McGreevey’s job performance numbers showed he would have had trouble being reelected.

We are entering a new era of examining private lives honestly. The McGreevey affair is a warning for closeted gay politicians, that they too will have trouble concealing their affairs, especially if they impinge on their official duties.

We should not fall into trap of saying that McGreevey lived a lie and his whole life was corrupt. Roseanne Scotti, the director of the Drug Policy Alliance in New Jersey, reminds us that the governor faced a common human problem that is not exclusive to gay people. Like “millions of Americans, he has to pretend he is something he is not for fear of not being accepted for who he is.”

At 47, James McGreevey has joined the gay community. Let us hope that he can make valuable contributions. New Jersey activists could benefit from his experience and support.

We also publish:

More from Around NYC