WASHINGTON - The top federal prosecutor in New Jersey is facing an internal ethics investigation over public comments that may have helped his ex-boss' campaign for governor, law enforcement officials told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
The probe marks a particularly embarrassing turn for federal authorities charged with weeding out corruption in scandal-scarred New Jersey: An internal affairs investigation has been launched into their handling of a major corruption case just days after they filed charges in the case.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the probe, told the AP the Justice Department was examining whether acting U.S. Attorney Ralph Marra made inappropriate public comments that boosted Republican Chris Christie's political challenge to incumbent Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine. Before running for office, Christie was the U.S. attorney for New Jersey, and Marra was his top deputy.
Marra made the comments last month while announcing the corruption case against dozens of suspects.
Since the arrests, public corruption has become the dominant issue in the race for governor.
Greg Reinert, a spokesman for Marra's office, said they were unaware of such an investigation and declined to comment. Officials with the Corzine and Christie campaigns also had no comment.
The investigation by the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility is another potential embarrassment for the department, which already has acknowledged mishandling other high-profile public corruption cases, particularly the botched prosecution of former Sen. Ted Stevens.
Such internal investigations are rarely acknowledged publicly, and the results are usually unknown. Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler declined to comment or even confirm the existence of the probe in New Jersey.
At issue are comments Marra made at a news conference last month announcing the arrests of 44 people as part of a sweeping federal corruption probe. Of those arrested, 29 were elected or public officials - a high count even in a state with a reputation for official misdeeds.
Asked about the issue of corruption in the state, Marra said: "There are easily reforms that could be made within this state that would make our job easier, or even take some of the load off our job. There are too many people that profit off the system the way it is and so they have no incentive to change it. The few people that want to change it seem to get shouted down. So how long that cycle's going to continue I just don't know."
Justice Department guidelines say a prosecutor "shall refrain from making extrajudicial comments that pose a serious and imminent threat of heightening public condemnation of the accused."