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Larry Benjamin's blog

Friday, December 29, 2006

Friends in high places

State Transportation Commissioner Kris Kolluri was acting governor Thursday because all four people ahead of him in the line of succession were out of state. How could that be? Well, the first Texas Bowl football game in Houston featured dear old Rutgers, our state university, and all four wound up there. Wonder how they copped tickets? It wasn't from their loyalty as alums. Of the four - Gov. Corzine, Senate President Richard J. Codey, Assembly Speaker Joseph J. Roberts Jr., and Attorney General Stuart Rabner - only Roberts holds a degree from RU, a sad commentary on the political influence of our State U.

Kolluri made history for the day by becoming the first Indian-American to serve as acting governor. He didn't make waves, but did have some family photos taken at the governor's mansion. Kolluri brought some refreshing candor in thinking about his day at the top: "At best, my family will call me governor. At worst, I'm a 'Jeopardy!' question.'' Let's hear that kind of humor from Corzine & Co.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

A 911 for 911

For people out there looking for a challenge, the sheriff departments in Monmouth and Ocean counties have a job for you: 911 operator. Each county has five positions open for call takers and dispatchers. Yes, it's a stressful job often dealing with life-threatening situations. And yes, it's undoubtedly undervalued with the starting salary of $30,000 in Monmouth and $27,500 in Ocean. And you even have to pay for a textbook for the six weeks of classroom training and another six weeks of on-the-job training.

But consider the benefits. You'd be accredited to do the job anywhere. If you spend any time at the job, you'd have a strong line on your resume that proves you can work under pressure. Most importantly, you'd be making a difference in the community. Not every job can offer that.

Read the full story at

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The glare of publicity

It never ceases to amaze how public figures curry favor with the media when it suits their fancy, but when the news isn't so good, they make like those some media folk don't exist or, worse yet, attack them for invading their privacy. Some recent examples:

Brick Mayor Joseph Scarpelli resigned earlier this month, with no reason given. He's been an accessible figure in local politics for decades, but when it came to bowing out, he couldn't find time for the media. His silence enhances rumors that he's involved in a federal corruption investigation involving his administration.

First lady Laura Bush can't deny that she's a public figure. Yet she didn't see any reason to tell us about her skin cancer treatment in November. "Actually it never occurred to me to make it public,'' she said the other day. That says something about the secrecy of the Bush administration.

Baseball star Ken Griffey broke his hand at home, his team reported last week. That could deal a serious blow to his Cincinnati Reds. But the family won't reveal the circumstances. That opens up all kinds of theories -- undoubtedly negative -- about what really happened.

These and so many other public figures just can't have it both ways. If you're in the public eye, privacy takes a back seat. If you don't like that, then step aside.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The slammer for Lynch

So former Democratic power broker John A. Lynch Jr. is going off to prison for mail fraud and income tax evasion. He was sentenced to 39 months Tuesday. But he will get to spend the holidays with his family before reporting to the federal prison system Jan. 15 and, with good behavior, could be freed in 33 months. And he might even serve his time in a federal prison in South Jersey.

That all might sound like coddling, but the important thing is that the former state Senate president is going to prison for corrupting his office and cheating the IRS . His downfall shows, as U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie said afterward, "There is no one above the law.''

Lynch was nabbed for one incident of using his influence by using the mails - something Lynch admits was "a horrible mistake in judgment.'' All for $38,000. But it's too easy to wonder whether this was an isolated incident. Somehow the 171 letter writers who asked the judge to grant Lynch clemency seem to think so. I don't believe it, in Lynch's case and regarding so many other public officials convicted of corruption. They do think they are above the law. Christie is one law enforcement officer who's proving them wrong.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Displays of the season

A letter writer from Middletown wondered whether all those houses and lawns bedecked with hundreds, if not thousands, of lights are wasting electrical energy and money. We're all supposed to have caught the spirit of the season the week before Christmas, but he raises an interesting point. All those lights have to boost the homeowner's electricity bill. And are house displays what Christmas is really about?

The writer is not against celebrating Christmas. He suggests reasonable indoor tree lighting. And all that money for outdoor displays should be redirected to charitable and relief organizations. Is he on to something, or is it "Bah, Humbug!''?

Thursday, December 14, 2006

May the best blood type win

For all college students, young professionals, even athletes in the U.S. hoping that their qualifications will lead to that dream job, be thankful you don't live in Japan. There, your blood type can make all the difference. Employers use it when it comes to hiring or promotions. Dating services use it in making matches.

This piece of esoterica is the focus of a New York Times sports story today about Daisuke Matsuzaka, the star Japanese pitcher who just signed a contract to play for the Boston Red Sox. Of the four blood types - O, A, B and AB - the most preferred in Japan is O, the so-called warrior. People with O are deemed outgoing, self-confident, ambitious, passionate and goal-oriented. They make the best bankers, politicians and, yes, baseball players. Needless to say, Matsuzaka is an O. Yankees fans can bask in knowing their star outfielder, Hideki Matsui, is an O, too.

So pervasive is blood typology that 90 percent of the Japanese know their blood type. You can bet the American percentage doesn't come close. Do you know yours?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Goldman Sachs jackpot

People in the private sector who maintain they're not doing as well financially as those in the public sector obviously don't work for Goldman Sachs, the investment banker. Employees there are doing very well. Its fourth-quarter earnings report notes it will be paying an average of $622,000 in salaries, bonuses and benefits to its 26,467 employees worldwide. The payments, up 40 percent from last year, reflect the rising stock and commodities markets and record share sales and takeovers.

Not every employee will be rolling in dough, as that $622,000 is skewed by the highest earners. The payouts are based on how much the employee brings in. Star bankers and traders could see bonuses worth $25 million and beyond. But even newcomers can expect to see six-figure Christmas presents.

All that money has to go somewhere. You can bet real estate agents, car dealers and boat salesmen can't wait to show their top-of-the-line wares to these folk, who can well afford it. But really, how much money does anyone need?

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Kiddie rides going plastic

Technology is overcoming yet another childhood memory: paper tickets to go on amusement park rides. At least in Wildwood. The concessionaire at the parks there is scrapping paper for plastic starting next summer.

The ticket cards are so 21st century. They will be swiped through a machine much like a credit or debit card. They can be purchased online and reloaded from home computers. If registered, they can be replaced if lost. Each member of a family can have one. Each swipe will record how many rides are left on the ticket and which ride was used last. It'll provide a more accurate measure of how many people use the rides.

Sure, going plastic will cut down on paper waste, but plastic isn't very environmentally friendly either. And will it become a cherished memento of a vacation stay? Somehow, a paper ticket says so much more about the Shore than yet another plastic card. Imagine how many amusement-ride tickets or skeeball winnings are sitting in family scrapbooks. Let's hope Point Pleasant Beach, Seaside Heights and points north opt for nostalgia over high tech when the card maker comes calling.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Don't (E-Z)Pass Go!

You don't know what you've got until you lose it. And when it comes to your E-ZPass access, you won't know until you lose it.

Driving through the Union toll plaza on the Garden State Parkway Sunday, I could swear the friendly green light read: "Toll unpaid.'' Maybe the signal malfunctioned. So we tried again at the Bergen plaza -- with the same result. A quick call to the 800 number on the transponder was fruitless: "Call during regular business hours, Monday through Saturday.'' So we dug into our wallets and pockets for dollars and coins the rest of the trip to Westchester County and back, trying to forget how much it would cost us for being a scofflaw at those two parkway toll plazas.

Fumbling for all that currency reminded us of why we like the speed and convenience of E-ZPass. So why didn't ours work? A 7:05 a.m. call to the E-ZPass folks Monday brought somewhat assuring news: The transponder battery had worn out after 6 1/2 years. E-ZPass would send me a new one, for free, and an envelope to return the useless one. All within three to five days. And those unpaid tolls? The clerk said they usually note a transponder failure and forgo a citation, but if I do get one (or two) in the mail, just call the toll-free number and they'll credit us.

So that's how you learn that your friendly E-ZPass transponder has died. And they don't even send an obituary notice.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Another chance for LaSane

Justice may finally be served in Michael LaSane's long-running attempt to avoid the long prison stay he deserves for the strangulation of a Middletown teacher after a carjacking in 1996. Superior Court Judge James N. Citta tossed out defense motions for LaSane to be tried as a juvenile (he was 17 at the time of his fatal encounter with Kathleen Stanfield Weinstein), to dismiss kidnapping, carjacking and robbery charges because too much time has elapsed to bring them and to move the trial from Ocean County.

Citta indicated he has little patience for the LaSane motions, which is little wonder. LaSane is milking the system in hopes of a shorter term - a maximum 20 years in a reformatory, if convicted - that would see him out on the streets in less than 10 years after being credited for time already served. By being tried as an adult and convicted of all charges, he faces a life sentence plus 60 years, with no chance for parole before serving 60 years. That's more appropriate for this heinous crime, which gained national attention because of the 46-minute tape recording Weinstein secretly made of the pleas to her abductor to spare her life.

But before justice is finally served, LaSane must stand trial, which means Weinstein's family and friends must relive their loved one's agony again. As we've said numerous times in Press editorials, if LaSane had a shred of decency, he would avoid the trial by pleading guilty, spare this family further heartache and bring closure to this awful episode.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

E.coli outbreak tests intestinal fortitude of flacks

Think you have a tough job. How would you like to be the marketing director of Taco Bell? Each day, more people claim to have been sickened after eating at one of your fast-food restaurants. It's the E. coli bacterium and it's been traced to scallions from a Burlington County distributor that's used in Taco Bell's fare. This is one case when the old saw "Any publicity is good publicity'' does not apply.

So far, Taco Bell hasn't embarrassed itself by trying to put a positive spin on a clearly negative story. But at some point, it has to assure patrons that its food is save to eat. Merely reopening restaurants as if nothing happened is not enough. Johnson & Johnson was upfront and won back customers after the tainted Tylenol deaths in 1982. Taco Bell's marketing and public relations staffs should study how J&J did it. Then they can share what they've learned with the PR folks promoting scallions.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Freed before his time

The Rev. Joseph W. Hughes, who ripped off millions from his parishioners at Holy Cross Roman Catholic Church in Rumson, is a free man. In June, he was sentenced to five years in prison after pleading guilty to stealing more than $75,000 from the church from 1997 through 2004. He's been paroled after serving only six months. Guess it's a perk of participating in the state's Intensive Supervision Program, designed to help nonviolent defenders change their lives.

That $75,000 figure was a legal threshold for what Hughes took from the church treasury to fund a lifestyle unbefitting a parish priest: fancy cars, a boat, a home, vacations. The slightly more than $2 million he agreed to reimburse the church gives you an idea of how much he stole. Where he'll get the money to repay is another matter.

Six months in jail for that size theft doesn't seem right, especially for a person who misappropriated money from church members who trusted him. The public's faith in the justice system is diminished whenever the sentence actually served does not fit the crime. It surely didn't in Hughes' case.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Automated phone menus serve up heartburn

Why do companies' automatic phone answering machines make you long for a busy signal? Last week, I made a motel reservation with a national chain and was told by the clerk that my rewards card didn't have my full name. It seems Lawrence and Benjamin were just too long, so my last name became Benjam. However, it didn't interfere with my reservations or delay charging my credit card. Could the clerk change it? Of course not, but she gave me the rewards line number.

So off to phone menuland I went. As with seemingly all 800 numbers, the menu has changed. (Would anyone remember what it used to be?) The sugary voice offered several options, but nothing about the name on the account. Talking to a person wasn't among the options, but there was an "other'' button to push - which landed me back to the menu-has-changed voice. So I started all over again and had to make up a reason: changing my address. Somehow, lying did the trick and a live voice came on the line to add the last syllable of my last name to my account.

Estimated time to make one simple request: 10 minutes. Anyone in the blogosphere have any automated phone answering tales to share?