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Larry Benjamin's blog

Friday, March 30, 2007

Blind to corruption

It never ceases to amaze me how when a public official is charged with a crime, his colleagues rush to recount his good deeds. The latest is Assembly Majority Leader Joseph J. Roberts Jr., D-Camden, gushing about Sen. Wayne R. Bryant, D-Camden, after Bryant was charged Thursday with public corruption. After praising Bryant for his welfare reform, urban renewal and other legislative measures, Roberts concluded, "Today's news threatens to overshadow all of those worthy achievements.'' Threatens?

Bryant's actions, as charged by U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie, are particularly offensive because they involve public money - defrauding the state's pension system by glomming no-show jobs at three public institutions. And who paid for his misbegotten salaries and will pay for the pension boost he gained as a result? The constituents that Roberts said Bryant served so well. They should be irate at how Bryant used them and demand that he resign from the Senate.

A crook is a crook, once verified by the court system, who must pay for his crime. Even one corrupt deed erases any good he may have done. His payment should include loss of all pension benefits. Alas, New Jersey's new law barring pension benefits from corrupt public officials covers only crimes committed after its April 14 effective date. So Bryant is grandfathered from the law and could get his $81,269 pension - yet another abuse of the state's taxpayers.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Rutgers contradiction

As a Rutgers alum and a New Jersey resident upset about state spending, it's tough being a Scarlet Knights sports fan these days. You never want to see any Rutgers team lose. Last fall, the football team rarely disappointed in rolling to an 11-2 mark and a Texas Bowl victory. This week, the woman's basketball team - a young group of overachievers - is going to the Final Four. Rutgers is on the national sports map again.

But that court success comes at a price. As detailed in the Press' DataUniverse listing of Rutgers University employees' salaries ( taxpayers are paying the Lady Knights' coaches and staff very well: a total of $639,852. Head coach C. Vivian Stringer is proving yet again that she's among the best in her profession. She is paid handsomely for that distinction with a 2006 base salary of $207,335 that with extras came to $485,288. (New men's head basketball coach Fred Hill Jr. grossed quite a bit less at $358,000, but the salaries for his staff top $670,000 - and his team won only 10 of 29 games.)

Stringer's team's success has already brought her $115,403 in bonuses for winning the Big East Conference tournament, making the NCAA tournament and progressing to the Elite Eight and now the Final Four. Another $35,403 awaits if her team wins the national championship.

But all this largess comes just months after Rutgers laid off staffers, cut part-timers and canceled hundreds of course sections in response to state funding cutbacks. It's not too soon for university officials to explain to taxpayers how all this athletic success makes Rutgers a better university for its students and the state it serves.

Friday, March 23, 2007

LaSane gets his, at last

Judges are always subject to second-guessing come sentencing day. But when a judge gets it right, he deserves unqualified praise. And Superior Court Judge James N. Citta got it right Friday in Toms River when he sentenced Michael LaSane of Berkeley to life plus 60 years in prison for the carjack-killing of Middletown teacher Kathleen Stanfield Weinstein 11 years ago. That carries twice as long for parole eligibility as LaSane received after pleading guilty to felony murder in 1997, a plea he was allowed to retract.

Citta put on the public record what so many observing this unnecessarily prolonged process have said among themselves: "I believe he exhibited sociopathic tendencies that lead me to the conclusion he has no conscience.''

Weinstein's 46-minute secret tape recording of her pleas to her abductor to spare her life, even offering to help him, made it clear that her abductor had no conscience. And trial testimony proved that abductor was LaSane, with the jury easily dismissing his far-fetched defense that his half-brother did it. That he pursued this trial, putting Weinstein's family and her legion of friends through her final agonizing moments again, showed he had not a shred of decency. And he didn't even apologize in court Friday.

LaSane rolled the dice on the retrial and lost. He's just 28, but with at least 49 years to spend in prison (he gets credit for time already served), it's doubtful he'll ever be a free man. That's justice, I suppose. But at least he's alive. He never gave Weinstein that chance -- all because he wanted her car.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Tough talk on chemical plants

Chemical plants are particularly vulnerable to causing widespread devastation if targeted by terrorists. So you'd think that allowing states to impose the strictest rules possible for chemical plant security would be a no-brainer in the post-9/11 world. Not for the Bush administration and congressional representatives who are far too close to the chemical industry, which claims its scientists know best and these rules are too expensive to follow. And this being Washington, let's not forget the chemical companies' contributions to political campaigns.

It's ironic that an administration that generally wants less federal government intrusion is trying to pre-empt states such as New Jersey from imposing stronger rules on chemical plant safety than the feds are willing to make. Advocates of these tougher measures have inserted a ban on such pre-emption into the spending bill to support our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. A vote on that bill is scheduled today, but the president promises to veto it because it also sets a deadline for troop withdrawal from Iraq. Read our editorial on the issue today at

How far to go in ensuring chemical plant safety is too important to be part of an unrelated spending bill. The subject deserves its own law, fully vetted in Congress. Rep. Christopher H. Smith, R-N.J., has introduced a bill that would block pre-emption. Backers of states' rights on this issue should take advantage of the present renewed focus to get it done at last.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The lost art of face-to-face

It isn't often that a comic strip is worth blogging about, but Steve Breen's Grand Avenue last Sunday struck a nerve. He depicts 6-year-old Gabby boasting about her expertise with e-mail, instant messaging, posting on Internet bulletin boards or chat rooms and posting comments on a Web site. But when it comes to face-to-face conversation, it's "Uh ... Ima, Ima, Ima, Ima, Ima, uh ... Ima ...''

Steve, a former colleague at the Press, makes a powerful point. We're creating a generation of whizzes on computers, but when it comes to personal contact, they're lost. Public speaking is a lost art. The impact of eye contact is lost, too. And they don't know about reading facial expressions or body language.

When any of us sends an online message or e-mail, we assume we're communicating. But who knows if anyone is there - or cares? Or worse yet, is so anguished or anxious that the message is misinterpreted, aggravates an already tense situation or breeds unintended consequences? And you can't withdraw a sent message.

It remains to be seen how these new forms of communicating translate to workplace relationships and efficiency. We can only imagine the flood of master's or doctoral theses on the phenomenon to come.

Monday, March 19, 2007

CBS' Sunday turnoff

They've done it again, our friends at CBS-TV. Their sports programming on Sunday afternoon runs late, wreaking havoc with the evening viewing schedule. This weekend, it was NCAA basketball. Earlier this year, there was football and golf. Whether you've organized your evening to catch your favorite shows or set your DVR to record them for later viewing, it just doesn't seem fair.

Everything was set back 45 minutes Sunday, at least on the East Coast. "60 Minutes'' starting at 7:45 p.m. wasn't so bad and catching "Cold Case'' from 9:45-10:45 was tolerable. But "Without a Trace'' was without a chance from its 10:45-11:45 time slot. And what if you wanted to catch the news they were hyping all evening? At 11:45? Are you kidding?

How can CBS execs expect to achieve high ratings if they sacrifice their Sunday lineup - all new episodes, no less - for overly long sports shows? Maybe it's their way of telling East Coast viewers to move to the West Coast.

Friday, March 09, 2007

The Walter Reed fiasco

For those wondering when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will finally hit home for Americans, the published stories and congressional testimony about the shoddy care returning military personnel and veterans receive at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington should strike a chord. But as Congressman Chris Smith, R-N.J., notes in a commentary on the Press op-ed page Sunday, it's not surprising. Congress and the executive branch under both parties have shortchanged veterans' health care at facilities nationwide for years.

Maybe the Department of Veterans Affairs budget has increased, but so has the demand for services - demand that will only increase as the war in Iraq drags on. And it's not just for acute care, which most injured service people concede is top-notch at Walter Reed. It's the treatment for less severe physical and psychological scars and outpatient services that leaves these new veterans wondering about the military's promised health care for life. Then there's the red tape, which can be as painful as a physical wound.

The health care system for our military personel and veterans needs fixing - and fast. The Bush administration may have many priorities, but this one has to be near the top of the list.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

'Surge' talk not worth the time

Our legislators have found yet another unnecessary topic to waste precious Assembly time, this one with national implications. Along with a package of bills on veterans' issues up for debate in the Assembly Thursday is a resolution expressing "strong opposition'' to President Bush's surge of troops in Iraq.

Yes, New Jersey National Guardsmen have been deployed for too long to Iraq, and families and businesses have had to adjust, so the war is a state issue. But a legislative resolution is not going to impress the White House or the Pentagon to change how the war is fought one bit. It's yet another issue that shows how partisan Trenton has become, with critical Democrats on one side - even though they say it's in support of the troops - and defensive Republicans on the other.

The Assembly members should stick to the many pressing subjects that can improve the quality of living in New Jersey. Spending even a minute on a worthless Iraq resolution is too long.

Monday, March 05, 2007


Spelldown 2007, which starts its two-night run at Monmouth University tonight, is more than just a contest. It gives 97 of the region's top spellers - from grades 4 through 8 - a chance to show how well young people can perform under pressure. Standing up on the stage of a college theater before an audience of at least 200 and then spelling a word that's probably not in your daily vocabulary is not easy.

Detractors say spelling bees are just memorization competitions. After all, they prepare from study lists. Having judged the contests sponsored by the Press and Home News Tribune since 1989, I can assure critics the champion must do much more than that. We had one year when the cream rose to the top and the final spellers obviously had great memories. But when the next set of words came from the unabridged dictionary, the contest is quickly over. "That word wasn't in the study book,'' the soon-to-be runner-up said. Correct. The other speller combined his knowledge of language and how words are constructed and was crowned champion.

Composure, poise, discipline, intelligence. Call it whatever you like. These youngsters have it - and deserve credit for displaying it.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Presidential politics overload

In an editorial today, the Press calls on proponents of moving up New Jersey's presidential primary to February to find already allocated state money to pay county election boards the $8 million the extra voting will cost. ( They want to give New Jersey voters a better chance at making a difference in determining the candidates for the White House. That hasn't been the case for years, with the state holding its presidential primary in June.

But as Ingrid Reed of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers noted, that assumes the frontrunner will be clear long before June. The state's politicians are using the past to shape a future decision, she said. Who's to say that the party faithful of either major party will sort out their favorite from among the large crop of candidates who have already declared? Maybe New Jersey would be better off holding its last-in-the-nation primary after all.

All these candidate announcements almost a year before the first primaries or caucuses and 20 months before Election Day lead to another suggestion: shorter campaigns. This lifelong political junkie is already turned off by all the rhetoric. The eight weeks from Labor Day to Election Day 2008 seems about right.