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FR&A Analysis: State GOP Stretches Truth In Flier Boosting Provenzano, Bashing Russo In County Sheriff’s Race

Unanswered Questions About Flier’s Funding

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Analysis/Opinion


A campaign flier supporting the re-election of Somerset County Sheriff Frank Provenzano stretches the truth in claims made about Provenzano’s Democratic opponent, and in the Sheriff’s Office’s role in influencing the county’s crime rate, an FR&A analysis shows.

The flier incorrectly claims that actions taken by Provenzano’s opponent – retired township police Lt. Darrin Russo – in a robbery investigation led to the wrongful incarceration of a man in 1995.

In addition, the flier credits Provenzano for supposed reductions in Somerset County’s crime rate, but gives no reason why the county sheriff should be credited for a county-wide crime statistic. It also seems to misstate the violent crime rate statistic for 2014.

The flier labels Russo a “dishonest detective,” a swipe at the decorated 30-year police veteran’s record.

The flier was sent out by “Choice for Change,” identified as “an account of the New Jersey Republican State Committee.” Political committees often establish separate accounts for programs under the umbrella of the party.

There are also unanswered questions about several contributions made by Provenzano’s campaign to “Choice for Change” just days before the state Republicans made an early October “in-kind” contribution of a similar amount for “postage and consultation” to Provenzano’s campaign.  The flier, which began arriving in homes shortly after that date, asserts that it was “not authorized by any candidate or candidate committee.”

An analysis of the flier and the facts behind the appellate case it cites shows that while Russo was criticized by a three-judge panel of the federal  Third Circuit Court of Appeals for some actions taken during the investigation of that case, the judges found that those actions played no role in the man’s arrest and incarceration, contrary to the claim made in the flier.

The case revolves around the arrest of Franklin Wilson, who was charged in 1995 for allegedly robbing a township florist. Russo picked the case up from another township detective who had taken ill during the investigation. Russo and a county prosecutor were able to secure an arrest warrant for Wilson, based on the identification of Wilson in a photo array by one store employee and information by another witness who said she saw Wilson near the store at about the time of the robbery.

According to the appellate decision, Russo did not tell the judge who issued the arrest warrant that a second store employee did not identify Wilson in the photo array, nor did he tell the judge that the robber was identified as being more than 6 feet tall, while Wilson was under 6 feet in height.

As a result of the arrest, Wilson spent a month in jail before being freed when a Grand Jury failed to return an indictment against him.

The flier asserts that Russo was cited by the panel of three federal judges in May, 2000 as acting “in reckless disregard for the truth” in the case for not disclosing all of that information.

The result of Russo’s actions, the flier says, was “an innocent man spending a month in jail for a crime he did not commit.”

“If that’s how Detective Russo acted as a police officer … why would we ever elect him as sheriff?” the flier asks.

But an FR&A review of the decision – Wilson vs. Russo – shows that the Republicans cherrypicked information from the decision, creating the false impression that the judges ruled that Wilson was incarcerated for a month as a result of Russo’s actions.

In actuality, the judges said that while some – but not all – of the actions Russo took during the investigation and request for an arrest warrant were in “reckless disregard for the truth,” none of those actions “were material, in that the warrant would have established probable cause even if Russo had not made them,” and the arrest warrant would have been issued anyway.

“(W)e conclude that Wilson’s right to be free from arrest without probable cause was not violated,” the ruling stated.

The actions criticized by the judges were the robber’s description, the fact that one of the two store employees did not pick Wilson’s picture out of a photo array and that another witness allegedly saw Wilson in the parking lot at the time the robbery was taking place.

“But these exculpatory facts, when weighed against the inculpatory facts, are not strong enough to undermine a finding of probable cause,” for the arrest warrant, wrote then-Chief Judge Edward Becker for the panel. “Thus, we conclude that the District Court correctly found that no reasonable jury could find facts that would lead to the conclusion that Wilson’s ‘corrected’ warrant lacked probable cause.”

The truth-stretching about the case was furthered in an Oct. 12 press release from the Somerset County Republican Executive Committee.

In that release, executive committee chairman Al Gaburo echoed the flier’s statement, saying that, “… Darrin Russo, is the only candidate in this race who was found by a panel of three federal judges to have ‘acted in reckless disregard for the truth’ resulting in an innocent man spending a month in jail for a crime he did not commit.’”

“If that’s the way Russo acted as a detective, we want to know what else resides in his personnel file,” Gaburo said in the release.

The flier also seems to give Provenzano credit for the county’s crime rate, a curious claim not only because of the Sheriff’s Office’s limited role in crime fighting, but because it also seemingly ignores the contributions made by municipal police departments and the Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office.

The flier states that the 2014 FBI Uniform Crime Report shows that Somerset County’s violent crime rate decreased 15 percent from the previous year. An FR&A review of that report could find no such statistic. A review of the New Jersey State Police Uniform Crime report for 2014 showed that violent crime in the county actually increased 7 percent.

Who paid for the fliers?

The flier states that it was “not authorized by any candidate or candidate committee,” but the Provenzano campaign’s 29 day pre-election report, received by ELEC on Oct. 11, raises questions about that claim, questions that no one connected with the flier seems to want to answer.

The campaign raised $32,000 in new contributions between July and August, and transferred $37,500 from Provenzano’s last campaign, according to the report.

The report shows that on Sept. 29, the Provenzano campaign contributed $5,000 to “Choice for Change,” and followed that with a $20,000 contribution on Oct. 3, for a total contribution of $25,000.

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Also on Oct. 3, according to the report, the Provenzano campaign received an “in-kind” contribution of $3,763.58 from the state Republican committee, followed by “in-kind” contributions of $16,549.69 and $7,527.15 on Oct. 5, for a total contribution of $27,840.42. The stated purpose of those contributions was “postage and consulting services.”

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The flier started arriving in residents’ mailboxes the following week.

Was the timing of those cross-contributions and the appearance of the flier coincidental? No one is saying.

Brittany Wheeler, the Provenzano campaign’s spokeswoman, referred all questions about the flier’s content and funding to the state Republican committee.

State Republican committee spokesman Rick Rosenberg Jr. did not respond to repeated requests for comment about the claims made in the flier, and about the money contributed to the state Republicans and the “in-kind” donations to Provenzano’s campaign.

 

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