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In 'Little India' Neighborhood, Tactics of Ex-McGreevey Fund-Raiser Still Elicit Anger

Originally appeared in the New York Time on 08/21/03


By DAVID KOCIENIEWSKI

But a few hours later, when she received a visit from a fund-raiser for James E. McGreevey, who was then the mayor of Woodbridge, Ms. Pollepalli became alarmed.

The fund-raiser, Roger Chugh, said he had powerful contacts in the township government, Ms. Pollepalli said, and he offered to make her problems disappear in exchange for a $3,000 donation to Mr. McGreevey's campaign for governor.

"Of course I was intimidated," she said. "That's why I paid the money."

Ms. Pollepalli wrote a $2,100 check to the campaign on Dec. 20, 2000, and received a building permit within a week. She said in an interview today that she did not believe that the permit approval had anything to do with Mr. Chugh's offer to help her.

Still, their encounter has become one of a handful of cases now under investigation by the United States attorney's office and the state attorney general. Political leaders and business owners in the Little India neighborhood say Mr. Chugh spent years strong-arming merchants by demanding campaign donations and threatening to use his political connections to retaliate against those who refused him.

Several community leaders said they complained to Mr. McGreevey personally about the abrasive fund-raising tactics as early as 1997, but Mr. Chugh continued in his $10,000-a-month fund-raising position for the Democratic State Committee. After Mr. McGreevey was inaugurated in January 2002, Mr. Chugh was appointed to an $85,000-a-year job in the secretary of state's office.

Mr. McGreevey insists that his campaign carefully vetted all contributions to ensure that they were in compliance with campaign finance law. And while Mr. McGreevey acknowledges that a few constituents made vague complaints about Mr. Chugh, he said it was "rubbish" to suggest that he was ever informed about specific allegations of campaign finance violations.

The governor has said he welcomes the investigations and is confident they will show that neither he, nor officials who worked for him in Woodbridge, had anything to do with Mr. Chugh's fund-raising efforts. But with closely contested legislative elections looming in November, and the State Senate evenly divided, Republicans have seized on the issue as the latest example of what they say are the administration's lax ethical standards. They are pushing for a special prosecutor to examine the matter.

"These serious allegations go far beyond the bad judgment and flawed decisions we have come to expect from the McGreevey administration," said Senator Joseph M. Kyrillos Jr., the state Republican chairman.

Mr. Chugh left the administration in June, after reporters raised questions about civil judgments and liens against travel businesses he had owned. But the allegations about his fund-raising techniques, which were first reported in The Record of Hackensack, are the first to raise questions about his dealings on behalf of Mr. McGreevey.

Some Indian-American business leaders say they have long been puzzled by Mr. McGreevey's willingness to associate with Mr. Chugh. Along Oak Tree Road — a busy commercial strip lined with sari shops, Indian restaurants, travel agencies and jewelry stores — many merchants had grown to resent his boasting about political access, said Pradip Kothari, head of the Indian American Business Association.

Mr. Kothari said he and five other merchants were so dismayed by Mr. Chugh's intimidation that in 1997 they met with Mr. McGreevey to discuss their grievances and subsequently switched their party affiliation to Republican. Prakash Shah, a businessman from Raritan who has been active in Democratic political circles for more than a decade, said he told Mr. McGreevey and other party leaders that he would not play a role in the 2001 campaign if Mr. Chugh was involved.

"I knew how he operated and I just didn't want to be any part of it," Mr. Shah said during an interview.

But officials in the McGreevey administration say that the merchants in Little India are so politically fractured — they have three separate business associations — that it is common for one faction to make unsubstantiated allegations against members of another faction.

Kathy Ellis, the governor's communication director, said the meeting with Mr. Kothari in 1997 focused on his intention to switch parties and never mentioned Mr. Chugh. Ms. Ellis said that for all the unspecified grousing about Mr. Chugh in Little India, no one ever filed a formal complaint against him with federal officials or the Middlesex prosecutor's office.

Marga Lefsky, director of planning and development in Woodbridge, said the township had reviewed Ms. Pollepalli's case and others that touched off the fund-raising controversy, and found that Mr. Chugh had not influenced any of the zoning or permit procedures. "The processes went along exactly the way they were supposed to," she said.

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