New Jersey National Guard misconduct allegations getting national notice

 New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (left) and Adjutant Gen. Michael Cunniff (Julio Cortez/AP Photo and Phil Gregory/WHYY)

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (left) and Adjutant Gen. Michael Cunniff (Julio Cortez/AP Photo and Phil Gregory/WHYY)

A story in the Washington Post this week resurrected and expounded on allegations of misconduct and cronyism in the New Jersey National Guard, some of which had been reported by the Newark Star-Ledger earlier this year.

The charges resurfaced as the Republican presidential campaign of Gov. Chris Christie, who oversees the state National Guard, flounders amid stagnant poll numbers.

“If this were just an isolated incident where the governor could kind of say, ‘These were my subordinates, and I didn’t have a large role here,’ I think that many people might be willing to give him a pass,” said Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University.

“But the problem for Gov. Christie is that we see this pattern of behavior, where there are multiple allegations of scandal and multiple examples of cronyism and abuse of authority.”

The article chronicles the misconduct of two Christie appointees at the state National Guard, alleged racial discrimination in the promotion process, and a workplace culture where cronyism and retribution are commonplace.

It also noted that the current head of the state National Guard, Adjutant Gen. Michael Cunniff, had failed and repeatedly put off retaking a routine physical fitness exam.

Cunniff, who declined an interview, said in a statement, “I have struggled with weight control my entire adult life. However, I do recognize that military members and leaders, like myself, are held to a higher standard. I take this matter seriously and am taking the necessary steps to remedy this issue by being involved in a rigorous physical fitness training program and have sought the assistance of a nutritionist.”

The Pentagon reprimanded Cunniff for failing to meet physical fitness standards, but Cunniff never reported the reprimand to Christie, his boss.

In a statement, Christie said Cunniff’s failure to disclose the reprimand was “both unacceptable and disappointing.” Christie is giving Cunniff 90 days to meet the physical fitness requirements, which include cardiovascular exercise, muscle fitness exercises, and a waistline measurement.

The Christie administration also declined an interview request.

Political analysts said renewed attention on the allegations could be the nail in the coffin of the Christie campaign, which has struggled to become a contender in the crowded GOP field.

“I think it’s just one more bit of evidence that the Christie campaign is doomed,” said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University.

“I think that so long as it was in the Star-Ledger, it was manageable. But once it hits the Washington Post — all the big contributors read the Washington Post — I think it’s going to dry up his money. I think the Christie campaign, at this point, is a very bad investment for a political donor.”

Papal repercussions

The article comes just days after Christie declared a state of emergency in New Jersey ahead of this week’s visit by Pope Francis, whose trips to Philadelphia and New York could cause traffic and transit woes across the Garden State.

The state of emergency also gives Christie the option to call up the state National Guard, which is in “discord,” according to the Washington Post article.

But despite the allegations of leadership abuse, there have been no such accusations that the state National Guard is not doing its job, said Harrison.

“While their presence may highlight the difficulties that the National Guard is facing under the Christie administration, I don’t think that there’s any real risk that something could go wrong in that regard,” she said.

On the other hand, said Baker, dysfunction in the ranks may signal that the militia is no longer up to the task, nearly three years after it was applauded for its response to Hurricane Sandy.

“If you let your National Guard — state National Guard — go to rack and ruin …  If you consistently have a command structure that’s full of people who are doing the wrong thing, you simply do not have a unit that’s in a high state of readiness.”

A spokesman for Christie said the story would have “no impact” on the state’s handling of the papal visit.

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