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Murphy will stay clear of Christie-Pecker controversy

Governor says he won’t get involved in picking state investments

By Nikita Biryukov, August 31 2018 11:21 pm

ATCO – Twice in former Gov. Chris Christie’s tenure as the state’s chief executive, once in 2013 and once roughly three months before the end of his second term, the State Investment Council poured hundreds of millions of dollars into a Chatham-based investment firm that bought out the media company headed by David Pecker, the CEO of American Media Inc. who was given witness immunity by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

Pecker, who reportedly received immunity in exchange for his testimony about President Donald Trump’s knowledge of a catch-and-kill operation undertaken by the Nation Enquirer – of which Pecker is publisher – to squash negative stories about Trump, has a history of ties to both Trump and Christie, and he served as part of Christie’s New Jersey finance leadership team for the former governor’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Gov. Phil Murphy said on Friday that he would likely not seek to direct the council to divest the $500 million invested in Chatham Asset Management, which bought AMI in 2014, paying a relatively small amount of cash for the media company, which owed creditors more than $500 million at the time.

“I think that’s a decision that gets made by the investment council, so this is not something that I would normally be – nor do I expect to ever be – picking up the phone and saying you’ve got to do this or do that. They’re there for a reason,” Murphy said. “I don’t know enough to make that call. We’ve put forward a very highly qualified group of folks for a reason. I don’t view myself as a stock picker as the governor.”

Christie didn’t share those same hangups. In 2013, through a Department of Investment memorandum, Christie’s administration recommended the council invest $300 million in the Chatham-based firm. Then, in Sept. 29, 2017, the former governor’s administration recommended an additional investment of up to $200 million to the investment firm through another memo.

The story of the Christie administration’s assistance to Chatham Asset Management was first reported by Capital & Main, a non-profit news site.

The latter investment, which came after the firm’s buyout of AMI, was preceded by a $10,000 donation by the media company to America Leads, a super PAC formed by former Republican Governors Association executive director Phil Cox to support Christie’s 2016 presidential campaign.

During that campaign, the Enquirer lavished praise on Christie before he eventually dropped out of the race.

Murphy, whose administration had no hand in the investment, pointed out that while the council invested $500 million into Chatham Asset Management, pointed out that money was not directly invested into AMI, and given that the firm paid only $2 million when it took ownership of AMI in 2014, it’s not clear how much difference the state’s investment actually made in the purchase of the latter company.

He also said he did not know if the investments were politically motivated.

“No idea. Wasn’t there,” Murphy said.

But, the company is in dire straits over Pecker’s recent run-ins with Mueller’s investigation, and with Senate President Steve Sweeney holding up the confirmations of all eight of Murphy’s nominees to the state investment council, which oversees the investment of New Jersey’s pension funds, the council may be slow in acting.

It’s not clear how much latitude the council has to act in the wake of those delays. The council cancelled its July meeting, and it isn’t scheduled to meet again until Sept. 27.

Regardless of how the state’s stake in AMI plays out, Murphy doesn’t see himself reading tabloids.

“I don’t read the National Enquirer, by the way, and I never have and don’t intend to,” Murphy said.

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