The attorney who was Chris Christie’s chief counsel just as the George Washington Bridge scandal exploded is now the state attorney general, the first to be confirmed in three years and by a unanimous vote of the state Senate. Christopher Porrino has had the job for weeks. Now he has the title. And with it goes extraordinary responsibility. One who knows is former state Attorney General and state Supreme Court Justice Peter Verniero. He spoke with NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams.
Williams: Thank you for being with us. You have already said Chris Porrino was a “superb choice”. Why?
Verniero: He’s a superb choice. He’s very respected as a lawyer, he’s smart, he has a reputation for absolute integrity. And he’s experienced in the job. He worked in the attorney general’s office in a lesser position and already has the respect of those he will lead as attorney general.
Williams: What’s the significance of moving from acting AG to the full title?
Verniero: Well there’s no specific change in authority. He had full authority as acting. But without the acting title, he now has a tenured position. The attorney general is one of only two cabinet officers that has tenure under the state constitution, does not serve at the pleasure of the governor, so that’s a difference there.
Williams: So he’s AG in perpetuity? Until he wants to quit?
Verniero: No, he’s AG as long as the current governor’s term is in effect. And that’s the tenure system that the founders built into the Constitution.
Williams: What powers do this state’s attorney generals that are different from virtually every other state in the nation?
Verniero: This is one of the biggest, if not the largest, state AG offices of its kind in the country because of the wide jurisdiction — civil rights, criminal justice, civil law, State Police, highway traffic safety, gaming, consumer affairs, racing, the racing commission, the athletic control board. That all is within the jurisdiction of the state attorney general. And that’s just unheard of in other states.
Williams: It sounds like a very fractured jurisdiction where it would be difficult to keep your focus in all those places.
Verniero: Well I would say it’s multifaceted as opposed to fractured. It actually tries to be very integrated. And that’s really the purpose behind the jurisdiction. To have one person — the attorney general — be responsible for basically all the law enforcement functions and the regulatory law enforcement functions in the state. The attorney general of New Jersey supervises all 21 county prosecutors, as another example. Now that’s just unheard of in other states where you have elected DAs.
Williams: You’ve called this the envy of every other state.
Verniero: It is. When I would go to AG conferences and speak to my colleagues from other states, they would be very jealous for two reasons. One is that we’re appointed in New Jersey, not elected. Most AGs — over 40 of them, state AGs — are elected. And I just can’t imagine having to stand for election for a law enforcement position. But, New Jersey, it’s appointed. And secondly, because of the wide jurisdiction.
Williams: You were AG from 1996 to ’99 and famously defended Megan’s Law, the sex abuse registry. What does that law mean long-term?
Verniero: Well that was our sexual offense notification laws, sexual offender notification law. And of course it’s based on the tragic death of Megan Kanka. And I was actually in the governor’s office when that tragedy occurred and helped work on the legislation that the Legislature passed. And then when I became attorney general, I had to defend it in federal court. And I did that. And at the time, we take it for granted now that it’s been upheld, but at the time, the federal court decisions in New Jersey were the first federal appeals courts in the country that upheld Megan’s Law so that was a big issue I dealt with.
Williams: Chris Porrino, pivoting back to the George Washington Bridge lane closing scandal, Chris was in the governor’s office during that time working as chief counsel to the governor. Sen. Nia Gill, during the confirmation hearing, suggested there might be a conflict of interest and maybe they should put off confirming him until after the George Washington Bridge trials are done. Do you see a conflict of interest?
Verniero: Well I didn’t actually see that part of the confirmation and I’ve not reviewed those conflict statutes, but Chris Porrino’s a person of absolute integrity and the fact that he was in the attorney general’s office now as opposed to when he was in the counsel’s office, I don’t think that’s going to hamper his ability to do the job. Actually I have every confidence he will do the job very well. And that whole issue was obviously a very important issue and it was a very rapid fire type of issue. That’s a little bit about what it’s like to be attorney general, to be able to deal with those big litigation issues that come at you very fast and very hard. So he actually has experience in that respect.
Williams: What are the big issues do you expect coming in in the next two or three years?
Verniero: Well that’s hard to say. It will be up to the new AG to kind of set the law enforcement priorities to the extent that he has that discretion. And then he’ll have to obviously react to problems and issues that maybe no one’s even foreseen. And that’s kind of the exhilarating part of the job. You have to adapt and you have to make a lot of decisions in a very quick period of time based on finite information. That’s the challenge of the job.
Williams: If he were to seek your advice, has he sought your advice? What would you advise him? What are the most important things he has to know?
Verniero: Frankly, I don’t think I have much to advise him on in terms of what’s important. I think he probably already knows that. I think one of the changes that he will find is the administrative aspect of the job. There are over 6,000 employees when I was AG. And I think now there’s actually more employees. So he’s probably going to find that a big part of the job is administrative, dealing with personnel. And that’s a little different than when you’re division of law director as he was or in the governor’s office. So that’s probably a change he will have to deal with. He’ll need to adapt to very good management style, which I’m sure he will.
Williams: You don’t have to know everything. You have to know who knows. And there are a lot of people in the office who already know.
Verniero: Yes, you have to surround yourself with good people and I think he’s done that. And you have to be a good listener. You have to have good instincts and you have to be a good lawyer. And he’s certainly a very good lawyer and I think he has good instincts.
Williams: Peter Verniero. Thanks your honor.
Verniero: Thank you.