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New Jersey Government Ethics Questioned in ‘Computergate’ Case

September 14, 1990

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) _ New Jersey state government is reeling from what some are calling ″Computergate,″ the case of a Republican computer hacker who allegedly pilfered confidential Democratic files.

The files reportedly show the Democrats used state time for campaign work.

It is a case that leaders of both parties declared closed in May, when the Legislature’s joint ethical committee dropped its investigation and refused to release its findings.

But the issue won’t go away.

Last week, Assembly Republican staff Executive Director John Kohler quit his $95,000-a-year job after admitting he knew former staffer Jeffrey Land had broken into Democratic computer files. Kohler had previously denied knowledge of the actions.

State leaders concede that Land, who resigned in March, gathered more than 1,000 Democratic documents over 18 months. Land reportedly handed the purloined documents over to his superiors. State Attorney General Robert Del Tufo has launched an investigation to determine if criminal charges will be filed.

But the legislative committee’s report, leaked to The Record of Hackensack, also raised questions about the actions of the Democrats.

The pilfered documents show staff members of top Democrats used state time and state computers to plot political campaign strategy. The documents reportedly include lists of campaign contributors.

Critics charge that the Legislature’s decision to probe the case in private smacked of a coverup.

″This is playing out with many of the same sordid aspects of the Watergate scandal,″ said Edward McCool, executive director of New Jersey Common Cause, a government watchdog group. ″There is denial, coverup, secret meetings to decide what to do next. And there is the question of how far up it went. It seems the Legislature thinks it is above accountability.″

McCool said the computer breach ″was a break-in involving state equipment by one partisan staff of another partisan staff. Just because technology is involved makes it no less a violation. It’s the same as if a door was jimmied or a window broken.″

″Why didn’t the Democrats prosecute?″ McCool said. ″Reasonably minded people can only speculate that it had to do with the nature of the information that was stolen.″

Legislative leaders deny a coverup. They initially called the ethics panel probe an internal personnel matter and said it was protected by the doctrine of separation of powers between the branches of government.

Leaders from both parties have subsequently said they would cooperate with the attorney general’s investigation. But Albert Porroni, executive director of the non-partisan Office of Legislative Services, told reporters that the Legislature can withhold documents having to do with legislative activity on pending bills.

Democratic Assembly Speaker Joseph Doria on Monday said he was ″saddened″ by the revelations and that he is ″upset it would have to get to that level.″

But Doria also said he hadn’t seen any of the stolen documents and said he doesn’t have ″the time or inclination to look through 1,000 documents.″

Doria and other leaders refused further comment about what documents should be turned over to the attorney general’s office.

Assembly Republican Minority Leader Chuck Haytaian, who announced Kohler’s resignation, said ″such conduct cannot under any circumstances be tolerated.″

Haytaian, who became minority leader in January, said in a statement: ″I remain convinced that no legislator had any such involvement or knowledge.″

On Thursday, the ethics committee reopened its investigation and announced it will call Land and Kohler to testify about their roles in the incident. Land told reporters earlier in the week that he will cooperate with the investigations. He has since refused to comment publicly on the case. Kohler said Thursday he planned to meet with the committee.

Haytaian said he will call for ″clear guidelines″ to determine the responsibilities and obligations of partisan staff members.

However, McCool said revamping the system ″can’t be solved in the dark. This can only be solved if there is a full and public hearing of what happened.″

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