WASHINGTON -- Federal and state prosecutors launched investigations yesterday into Republican consultant Edward J. Rollins' boast, since recanted, that $500,000 in "walking-around money" was paid to keep down the wblack vote in the New Jersey gubernatorial election.
U.S. Attorney Michael Chertoff and James Esposito, head of the FBI office in Newark, said the investigation would explore whether any federal laws were broken. Meanwhile, acting New Jersey Attorney General Fred DeVesa named a special counsel to investigate "potential violations of state law, including statutes concerning the inducing of voters, bribery, and wrongful expenditure of public campaign funds."
Gov.-elect Christine Todd Whitman, who defeated Democratic Gov. Jim Florio by only 28,000 votes, said she welcomed the investigation as "the only way to send a message completely and thoroughly that this did not occur."
But Democrats are seizing on her campaign manager's comments to attack the validity of the entire election.
Mr. Florio's campaign manager, James Carville, chief strategist of last year's Clinton presidential campaign, labeled Ms. Whitman "an illegally elected governor," telling the Associated Press that "the only thing that will change my mind is a full-scale investigation."
The Democratic National Committee announced it had filed ZZTC lawsuit against Mr. Rollins, the state GOP and the Whitman campaign, alleging violations of the Voting Rights Act and the Constitution.
Ray Lesniak, the New Jersey Democratic Party chairman, said that if it turned out Republican actions had cost Mr. Florio the election, "we'll go to court to seek a new election."
Justice officials also are looking into allegations that efforts were made in the New York mayoral election, in which Democratic incumbent David N. Dinkins was defeated by Republican Rudolph W. Giuliani, to suppress the Hispanic vote by posting signs warning that "federal authorities and immigration officials will be at all election sites."
Civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, are arguing that the rights of blacks in New Jersey were violated by GOP efforts to suppress their votes.
The charge is particularly sensitive to a party that has insisted it wants to attract black voters but has on several occasions worked to discourage them from voting.
A considerable irony in the latest fiasco is the fact that Mr. Florio was also the Democratic target in 1981 when Republicans put "ballot security" guards with armbands at polling places in black communities, a practice the Republican National Committee later agreed in court not to repeat. Mr. Florio lost that election to Republican Thomas H. Kean by less than 1,800 votes. This time, he lost to Ms. Whitman by about 28,000 votes, with black turnout at 8 percent, below the usual level.
Mr. Rollins, who ran Ms. Whitman's campaign, first boasted after Ms. Whitman's victory that the "walking-around money" had been distributed in return for an agreement by black ministers not to tout Mr. Florio's candidacy from their pulpits and for Democratic precinct workers to stay home on election day. But when Democrats expressed outrage and Ms. Whitman angrily denied that such payments had been made, Mr. Rollins said he had "gone too far" in a breakfast discussion with reporters and what he had said about suppressing the black vote "did not occur."
Yesterday, however, the Newark Star-Ledger quoted Ms. Whitman's brother, Webster Todd Jr., making a similar comment at a post-election discussion at Princeton University. He said a lot of her "shoe-leather campaign" went into "getting out the vote on one side and voter supp-- and keeping the vote light in other areas." The newspaper said Mr. Todd had interrupted himself, apparently in the process of saying "suppression."
At the same time, a black minister in Camden reported having been told that some other black ministers "had been approached by the GOP," but his source later disclaimed having said so.
"Walking-around money" has had a long and checkered history in U.S. politics, though not in the way Mr. Rollins said it was used in the New Jersey race. It's usually dispensed to turn out the vote for a candidate, often in inner cities, not to suppress it.
The dispensing of "walking around money" is illegal in Maryland and some other states, but that fact has not notably inhibited its payment over the years.
In Maryland, it is only illegal on Election Day -- a loophole through which you could drive a campaign motorcade.
"It's illegal to give it out on Election Day," says Bruce Frame, a longtime aide to Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, D-Md., "so they give it out the day before."
The law also makes certain exceptions, such as payment for "meals, beverages or refreshments served to campaign workers" and the "cost of phoning voters or transporting voters to and from polling places." Says Mr. Frame: "Some very expensive sandwiches are bought on Election Day."
The handing out of "walking-around money" has fallen off, some consultants say, as appeals by direct mail, radio and television have increased. In the past, it has not been restricted to local or state elections. It has been used, or rumored to have been used, in presidential campaigns as well, notably in the West Virginia presidential primary of 1960 by supporters of John F. Kennedy against Hubert H. Humphrey. In Chicago, Democrats tell the story that Franklin D. Roosevelt used to say that when he died he wanted to be buried in the Windy City so that he could keep on voting -- and be paid for it.
Until Mr. Rollins volunteered his account of suppressing the black vote, he was considered to have brought himself back from political oblivion with the New Jersey victory. Many Republicans wrote him out of the GOP last year when he went to work for independent candidate Ross Perot against incumbent Republican President George Bush.
Widely regarded as a loose cannon in his own party, Mr. Rollins got in trouble with Mr. Bush in 1988 by telling all comers at the Republican National Convention that the vice-presidential choice of Sen. Dan Quayle was a disaster. In 1990, after Mr. Bush broke his "no new taxes" pledge, Mr. Rollins advised GOP congressional candidates to distance themselves from him. That didn't endear the GOP consultant to Mr. Bush either.
Now, having thrown his party on the defensive with his reverse twist on "walking-around money," Mr. Rollins faces a personal task of political resurrection in his own party that may be harder to achieve than his past comebacks.