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Two Years at the Helm;
Attorney General Peter Harvey has Reshaped His Department and Posted Solid Results On the Civil and Criminal Sides
By Tim O'Brien, New Jersey Law Journal/photos by Carmen Natale
used with permission of New Jersey Law Journal
Ever since his lengthy confirmation ordeal, it's been a rough two years for Attorney General Peter Harvey. He has faced critics who said he played politics with prosecutions in his previous job as director of the Division of Criminal Justice. The sniping continued when he became the state's chief law enforcement officer.

Lately, detractors are saying he has not lived up to his promise to root out public corruption. While U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie says he enjoys a good working relationship with Harvey, he has
nevertheless taken pot shots at him for not going after more public officials.

But the rough going hasn't slowed the ambitions of Harvey, who at 46 has aggressively reshaped the
divisions of criminal justice and law, made major policy shifts in the criminal justice system and posted solid results on the civil and criminal sides of his office.

In an interview he requested to review his first two years in office, Harvey says any comparison with
federal prosecutions is unfair, given the U.S. government's superior resources, particularly the FBI's.

He specifically points to what his office has accomplished in several areas without any real change in
budget or staffing.

And as for public corruption, while the state isn't snaring high-level politicians [it hasn't been for
decades] it has actually brought more cases than the U.S. attorney in the past three years, catching lowerlevel officials.

Harvey says he sees the mission of the attorney general as one of service to the average citizen.
"Government should protect the least among us so that people don't get run over by the powerful in life."

To that end, he cites his realignment of priorities toward areas that historically have not received much attention, such as insurance and consumer fraud, organized gang drug-dealing, domestic violence, securities fraud and his urban environmental initiative against waste-dumping and toxic contamination in cities.

The state's most controversial environmental push is the civil pursuit of large corporations for damaging rivers, woods and bays. That effort, dubbed the Natural Resources Damages program, is spearheaded by the Department of Environmental Protection but uses deputy attorneys general and outside counsel.

In for the Duration

Harvey, who makes clear his intention to remain until a newly elected governor takes office in 2006,
remains feisty if not defensive. Asked about a recent cartoon in The Star-Ledger tweaking him for going after Blockbuster Video for improper late fee charges while Christie's office was indicting major
political actors, Harvey says, "It's deceptive advertising. I don't apologize."

In fact, he points with pride to his Consumer Affairs Division's suits against Sears Auto Centers for
doing "all wheel alignments" on some cars built so that only two wheels can be aligned and against
Nissan for failing to warn buyers of Maxima models of the high risk that the blue Xenon headlights will be stolen.

The Star-Ledger cartoon ran the same week the newspaper compared the offices of the U.S. attorney and the state attorney general on the issue of public corruption prosecution. The article showed that while the number of federal and state prosecutors is close - 131 assistant U.S. attorneys to 133 criminal justice lawyers - Christie's office has 53.3 percent more investigators, 350 to 187, and twice as many lawyers working on public corruption, 15 to 7. Yet the state had 88 defendants charged or convicted from 2002 through 2004 while Christie's office had 76, state and federal figures showed.

Of course, the U.S. attorney has convicted or at least charged county executives in Essex and Hudson; past or current mayors of 13 municipalities, including Newark, Paterson, Asbury Park, Hoboken and Irvington; two freeholders; a trio of county party chairmen, and major fundraisers, including Charles Kushner and David Damiano, both with close ties to former Gov. James McGreevey.

State prosecutors have secured a guilty plea from Assemblyman Anthony Impreveduto, a mayor, a
police chief and a local judge, but most of the state cases involve non-elected state officials, police,
clerks, inspectors, local officials and party activists and businesses and executives.

As for jail time, more federal defendants go to prison and serve longer terms. But that in some measure is due to stricter federal statutes and sentencing guidelines. For instance, all third- and fourth-degree state crimes carry a presumption of a noncustodial term. That hasn't stopped some carping, however, as critics note that Impreveduto, for example, served no jail term.

Systemic Changes

Prosecutions and civil cases aside, if Harvey is building a legacy, it appears to be in the areas of policy and process. He has reshaped policy and the role of the office, and has spent a lot of capital on
tightening management. Many of his reforms are functional, utilitarian and structural. And even though court rulings or new law prompted some of these changes, they could have lasting impacts even though they don't grab headlines.

Here are some of the systemic changes and their early results:
  • The Division of Criminal Justice was reorganized, dividing the unit into violent and financial crime sections rather than an administrative side and an investigative side. Harvey also re-instituted vertical prosecution, by which the same lawyers handle a case from investigation to grand jury presentation and to trial or plea. "All units are trial units," says Harvey, who says fewer cases are tried now because of better charging that leads to more pleas.

    As a result, indictments and accusations have climbed dramatically, as has the number of defendants, according to Harvey's numbers. Moreover, the rate of conviction or plea is about 99 percent, though that includes many cases diverted into pre-trial intervention.
  • The major narcotics task force was turned into Harvey's "gangs, guns and drug" initiative, training resources on the Bloods and Crips who have become the lead distributors of cocaine and heroin in most cities. In late 2002, 47 alleged members of the Latin Kings were charged with a host of crimes. About half have pleaded. In March 2004, 10 gang members were arrested in Atlantic City on drugs, weapons and other charges while another 17 Bloods were arrested for allegedly running a heroin cartel out of several counties.

    Harvey says that during 12 months in 2002 and 2003, 533 gang members were arrested. More than 20 kilograms of heroin, 90 kilograms of cocaine, 5,000 pounds of marijuana, 8,000 Ecstasy pills and $900,000 in cash were seized. "We are now looking at gangs as organized crime, not just in the cities but ... into the suburbs," says Harvey, who adds that his office is targeting mid- to high-level gang leaders in the hope they will lead to suppliers.
  • The makeover of the Division of Law has split its 550 lawyers into a plaintiff side and a defense side. The plaintiff side prosecutes civil matters in the areas of insurance fraud, consumer protection, civil rights, securities fraud and the like, while the other side defends suits against the government. Harvey uses the plaintiff side to lure legal talent to the office, saying, "Our theme is, this is an office with a litigation environment, a real law practice where lawyers can and do handle statewide cases, sometimes with a national impact."
  • Investigations into financial fraud, especially insurance and securities matters, have been beefed up.

    The Office of the Insurance Fraud Prosecutor, created by statute, now has 273 employees, including 73 criminal investigators and 91 civil investigators. The office was reorganized from a north-central-south division into a subject-matter division, such as auto, property, Medicaid and health and hospital fraud. "Lawyers and investigators remain in the same unit and gain the needed expertise," says Harvey, who adds that Insurance Fraud Prosecutor Greta Gooden Brown works closely with the industry, which underwrites the office with a $26 million annual grant.

    The three-year period ending in December 2004 shows results dramatically above those of the prior three years, according to the office's statistics.

    The recent period produced 776 defendants, up by 132 percent, with the civil and criminal fines, penalties and restitution of $41.34 million, up 174 percent from the earlier period. Moreover, total jail time rose by 124 percent for the 535 defendants who were convicted or pleaded guilty during the period.
  • Last year, Harvey instituted guidelines that give prosecutors more flexibility in plea deals for drug defendants. The Brimage guidelines - named for the state Supreme Court's ruling in State v. Brimage, 153 N.J. 1 [1998] - lead to less mandatory minimum sentencing and allow prosecutors to make exceptions to prior plea mandates. Prosecutors now have the discretion to offer lower penalties to drug dealers selling within 1,000 feet of a school or day-care center.

    Harvey says the old rules came down harder on minorities dealing drugs in cities than on their white counterparts in rural and suburban areas.
  • The office established and is indexing a DNA database from convicted criminals so prosecutors can match prior offenders when solving new crimes. Harvey points to Virginia, which, he says, has solved 96 homicides by such matches.

    In January, a New Jersey judge ruled that the DNA data must be removed from the system once a defendant completes his term and probation or parole, but the state is appealing the ruling.

    Near the DNA lab is the state's relatively new computer forensic lab in Hamilton, which analyzes digital evidence and is training hundreds of law enforcement personnel.
  • Harvey has initiated the electronic recording of statements and confessions of suspects. He initially limited the taping to homicide suspects but recently extended it to all defendants charged with first- and second-degree crimes. The policy eventually will be expanded to fourth-degree crimes and juvenile suspects. Again, the move followed a high court ruling and the recommendation of a committee formed to analyze the constitutional issue.
  • Harvey also heads the state's homeland security task force. Separately, he is dealing with the state's obligation to improve the quality of elections, including new electronic machines in several counties, under the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002.

No Regrets

If Harvey regrets saying repeatedly in 2001 and 2002 that public corruption is among his top priorities,
along with gangs, financial fraud, domestic violence and homeland security, he does not show it. Rather, he says he's proud of the record compiled by the Division of Criminal Justice, which he says is better than his predecessors in indictments, convictions, pleas and prison time.

Criticism and controversy, of course, are not new to Harvey, who was chastised for subpoenaing a
senator who opposed his nomination as attorney general and for other actions.

He agreed to a consent order and paid a $1,500 fine for accepting free tickets to an Atlantic City boxing match, an activity under his watch. And he was the subject of two conflict-of-interest accusations - one in a criminal prosecution of three corporate executives and another in his office's handling of a large legal fee to a lawyer for convicted financier Robert Brennan in a civil bankruptcy case where New Jersey was a creditor.

Both accusations involved his relationship with a lawyer negotiating with his office who is a personal
friend. The state Committee on Ethical Standards found no violations in either case.

Though there have been hints that his relationship with acting Gov. Richard Codey is a cool one, Codey spokesman Sean Darcy issued a statement on Friday saying Harvey has "been instrumental in New Jersey's fight for adequate homeland security funding." The statement added that Harvey "has also played a key role in implementing Gov. Codey's initiative to improve security at every school in the state." It also said Harvey is "keeping our streets safe by reducing gang violence ... and working with the governor and Legislature to keep assault weapons out of New Jersey."

It may not be a ringing endorsement, but Harvey says he's not worried about image, political backing or the judgment of others. "I have no intention of running for anything," he says, reiterating that he intends to return to private practice next year.


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