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The Record (Bergen County, NJ) June 19, 2000, MONDAY; ALL EDITIONS

Copyright 2000 North Jersey Media Group Inc., All Rights Reserved  
The Record (Bergen County, NJ)



LENGTH: 1536 words



New Jersey is home to about 65,000 lawyers, some of whom are quite
good at what they do. But if the state had a First Lawyer, or a Lawyer
Laureate, it just might be Michael Chertoff.

You want a resume? Chertoff's sparkles with a certain rarefied air:
Harvard Law Review, U.S. Supreme Court clerkship, former U.S. attorney,
U.S. Senate counsel during the 1996 Whitewater investigation.

You want big trial victories? Working for former U.S. Attorney Rudy
Giuliani, Chertoff proved the existence of the nefarious Mafia
commission in the 1980s. As the U.S. attorney in Newark from 1990 to
1994, Chertoff put away former Jersey City Mayor Gerald McCann and Sol
Wachtler, the former chief judge of New York's highest court, the Court
of Appeals.

Now in private practice, Chertoff earlier this year beat the
high-profile criminal case brought by the state Attorney General's
Office against Michael Francis, the former chairman of the Sports and
Exposition Authority.

How about the respect of his peers and adversaries? Consider this
from former Bergen County Prosecutor John J. Fahy, who worked for
Chertoff for two years in the U.S. Attorney's Office.

"He's a great lawyer,"said Fahy."He's the best lawyer I've ever

Or this from Anthony"Fat Tony"Salerno, the former boss of the
Genovese crime family who was among a number of crime bosses locked up
by Chertoff in the 1980s. When Salerno learned Chertoff crossed the
Hudson in 1990 to run the U.S. Attorney's Office in Newark, the reputed
crime boss reportedly told a New York police sergeant that Chertoff
"owes me a thank-you note"for his promotion.

It has been six years 1 since Chertoff left the U.S. Attorney's
Office in Newark, where his star was established with a string of
high-impact prosecutions that included mobsters and corrupt politicians.

Chertoff was 36 when he was named by former President George Bush in
1990 and was one of the youngest lawyers ever to be named U.S. attorney.

Chertoff, now 46, was credited with raising the profile of the
Newark office during his tenure, to the point where it rivaled the New
York office.

Chertoff's star, though, has not dimmed since his move into private
practice. His counsel is sought by public corporations, politicians,
government agencies, and high-profile defendants.

He spent much of 1996 as the U.S. Senate majority counsel in the
Whitewater hearings headed by former Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, R-N.Y. And in
his latest government work, Chertoff is heading an investigation ordered
by the state Senate Judiciary Committee into the release of convicted
rapist Raymond Alves from a South Jersey prison in March.

"It's been interesting to watch his reputation continue to grow,"
said Wally Timpone, one of Chertoff's assistants in the U.S. Attorney's
Office in Newark."He's brilliant. He's the guy you turn to on tough
cases to get the job done."

A picture of D'Amato and Chertoff together hangs in Chertoff's
Newark office, which features about as fine a view of the Passaic River
as can be had in Newark. Chertoff is a partner in the Los Angeles-based
firm of Latham & Watkins, where he has tackled an interesting array of

In his defense of Francis, Chertoff won a complete vindication for
the former chief fundraiser for Governor Whitman who was accused of
abusing his sports authority post to gain mall-cleaning contracts for
his private company. Francis had also been accused of concealing mob
ties during background checks by the state police.

But in a stinging rebuke for state investigators, a Superior Court
judge threw out all of the charges before jurors got a chance to decide
the case, noting there was not"one scintilla"of evidence against

"That was a very satisfying case,"Chertoff said Thursday in his
office."Of course, the most satisfying cases are where you avert
somebody being indicted. But I am convinced Francis was innocent of
any 1 criminal behavior. To the extent that it's possible to go through
this and have something approaching full vindication, he got it."

Chertoff was born in Elizabeth, the only son of a conservative
rabbi. He now lives in Union County with his wife and two children. His
interests include running and kayaking, and he admits to a weakness for
true-crime books, especially those written about cases he has been
involved in.

He has no stated ambition beyond"the next six months" although
colleagues and associates say Chertoff's starry career could lead him
anywhere, to a federal judgeship, or, perhaps, even a stint as the U.S.
attorney general.

Chertoff's renowned acumen extends to the full range of lawyering,
colleagues say. His brief-writing is superb, his preparation is
unquestioned, and his withering cross-examinations are legendary.

All of that arsenal, and more , was brought to bear in the Francis
case, said Timpone, who has also moved on to private practice.

Chertoff was"offended by the indictment,"Timpone said."He just
took that case apart, paragraph by paragraph, inch by inch."

The state Senate Judiciary Committee retained Chertoff to review
the errors that led to the release of Alves earlier this year. Alves, a
convicted rapist who spent more than 20 years in prison, was suddenly
released from prison in March without any notice to authorities in
Bergen County.

Alves was considered to be a highly dangerous parolee, having once
thrown a victim off a 40-foot bridge. He also bragged of killing more
than a dozen people and was considered a suspect in a string of unsolved
killings of young girls in and around Bergen and Passaic counties in the
1960s and 1970s.

Upon his release, Alves gave authorities a phony address and became
the subject of an intense, 12-day manhunt that involved the FBI. He was
captured in Hunterdon County as he got off a train, having spent the
entire time on a series of bus trips across the country.

Chertoff, who said he followed the Alves saga in the papers, is now
preparing a list of questions to be sent to various prison officials,
county law-enforcement officials, and state authorities. He said he does
not anticipate a "protracted investigation."

"We want to 1 try to get a measure of how the system is working,"
Chertoff said."I don't know if this is a once-in-a-blue-moon occurrence or a pattern." The Alves matter, though, is hardly Chertoff's most important
current case. That distinction probably falls to his representation of
Columbia/HCA, the health-care consortium that is the ninth-largest
employer in the United States. Federal authorities say Columbia engaged
in the largest episode of Medicare fraud in the nation's history. At one
point, more than 700 FBI agents were assigned to the case.

As the lead attorney for Columbia, Chertoff negotiated a partial
settlement of the case in May for about $ 745 million, although the
amount could grow to more than $ 1 billion. A number of executives with
Columbia have been convicted of charges stemming from the investigation.

Chertoff directed a contingent of more than 20 lawyers who have
worked on behalf of Columbia since the investigation first became public
in 1997. In that sense, it is similar to his role running 1 the U.S.
Attorney's Office, Timpone said.

"He is running that case and calling the shots,"Timpone said.

Chertoff also represents Walsh Securities, the mortgage firm at the
center of the"land flip"scam involving hundreds of run-down,
overvalued properties in and around Asbury Park. The company maintains
it was victimized by the scam, and Chertoff has filed a civil
racketeering lawsuit on its behalf while the criminal case is pending.

Chertoff also represents Twin County Grocers, the parent company of
the Foodtown supermarket chain. Authorities say a former executive,
Alpine resident Martin Vitale, embezzled more than $ 14 million from the
company. As in the Walsh case, Chertoff has filed a civil racketeering
lawsuit for the company.

When he entered private practice, Chertoff said he would not
represent drug dealers and mobsters, preferring to work for"decent
people."He said he's been surprised by the number of big cases he has
handled where either a person, such as Francis, or a company, such as
Walsh, has been unfairly accused or suffered because of an association
with a criminal case.

"I don't seek them out,"he said,"but I have run across these
cases to a surprising degree."

Part of the problem, Chertoff says, lies with prosecutors who will
"name names"without committing to the"discipline of trying a case."

"It took Michael Francis years to vindicate himself,"Chertoff
said."Walsh has had an enormous amount of damage. They are no longer an
active company and the case destroyed a business opportunity for the
company to merge with a North Carolina bank.

"Some people will never get their day in court,"he continued.

"These days, I'm learning how easy it is to smear someone by innuendo."

Staff Writer Christopher Mumma's e-mail address is mumma(at)bergen.com