Bad timing: Cory Booker contends with subpoena, bad press ahead of Senate election

New Jersey’s junior Senator and the former Democratic mayor of Newark, Cory Booker, will ask the state’s voters to send him back to the Senate next Tuesday to serve a full term. Booker was elected last year to fill the seat vacated by the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), and his aim was to keep his head down and make no waves as a new member of that august body.

Booker’s efforts to avoid being defined as a partisan political actor have not gone unnoticed, and the Garden State golden boy – the subject of glowing profiles in the press and documentaries which portrayed his tenure in Newark as nothing short of transformative and heroic — suffered something last week with which he is largely unfamiliar: negative press.

In a rather scathing post by The Daily Beast’s Olivia Nuzzi published last week noted that Booker has done little to demonstrate that he is anything other than a “congressional seat-warmer.” She added that Booker has benefited by the fact that the New Jersey GOP has been only able to recruit unknown candidates like former presidential speechwriter Jeff Bell or gaffe-prone figures like former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan to challenge the junior senator.

Nuzzi noted, however, that it is becoming increasingly clear that New Jersey’s newest senator is not as squeaky clean as he is portrayed by his admirers in the nation’s newsrooms.

The alleged FBI and U.S. Attorney investigations into the Newark Watershed may have something to do with that. Months after he first entered the Senate, the New Jersey comptroller alleged that under Booker’s watch—or, more likely, because he was not watching—corruption ran rampant at a publicly funded water-treatment and reservoir-management agency, where Booker’s former law partner served as counsel. And speaking of his former law career: Despite having resigned from his law firm once entering the mayor’s office, Booker received annual payments until 2011, during which time the firm was profiting handsomely off of Brick City. That would be the Brick City that Booker professed to love with the fire of a thousand suns, but did little to fundamentally change. Murder, violent crime, unemployment, and taxes all rose dramatically under his stewardship.

[F]rom 2006 to 2011, Booker was still receiving annual payments, which totaled close to $700,000, from his former law firm—Trenk, DiPasquale, Webster—from which he had resigned once elected mayor to avoid “the appearance of impropriety.” Booker’s campaign spokeswoman, Silvia Alvarez, told me: “He was paid out by the firm as part of his separation agreement for work he performed before he became mayor.” OK, sure, but while Booker was profiting from the firm, they were profiting from Newark: over $2 million in work for Newark’s Housing Authority, the Watershed Conservation Development Corporation, and a wastewater agency. “That’s almost like Sharpe James-type shit,” one New Jersey Democratic operative offered.

She noted that the Newark Watershed Conservation Development Corporation, a publicly funded entity, allegedly doled out millions in contracts and legal work to Booker’s friends and partners. The appearance of impropriety at this institution was, Nuzzi added, reportedly being investigated by federal authorities and another shoe might just drop before the 2014 election.

On Monday, that shoe landed with a thud.

“Federal prosecutors are investigating allegations that thousands in taxpayer dollars were improperly used by a city-affiliated water agency during Mr. Booker’s administration, according to a subpoena and people who have been questioned in the probe,” The Wall Street Journal reported.

The water agency, known as the Newark Conservation and Development Corp., managed Newark’s sewer and water systems. According to its bylaws, its board is made up of some members of the Newark Municipal Council, up to eight mayoral appointees and the mayor, who doesn’t have a decision-making role.

When asked about the water agency during the debate Friday, Mr. Booker said his administration had turned over evidence to authorities “moments” after they discovered problems there. A campaign spokeswoman said Mr. Booker appointed some but not all of the board members, didn’t attend the meetings and didn’t have direct involvement in the organization’s affairs.

His administration dissolved the agency last year after the state comptroller opened a probe. That investigation found alleged abuse including $200,000 in checks written by its ex-director to herself and no-bid contracts awarded to her associates. Her lawyer said her decisions were authorized by her superiors.

The race for Senate in New Jersey is not competitive. With one exception, no polls in the field in October found Booker securing the support of less than the majority of Garden State voters. Booker is expected to be elected by a healthy margin next Tuesday, even in spite of these revelations. Booker’s quest to become the first Newark mayor in half a century to avoid being indicted, however, could be in jeopardy.

This post has been updated since its original publication.