The man who toppled a governor

(This story, by Josh Margolin and Mark Mueller, was part of The Star-Ledger’s coverage awarded the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news in 2005. It was published Aug. 13, 2004. The story can be found on the Pulitzer Prize website here.)

The seeds for Gov. James E. McGreevey’s stunning announcement yesterday that he is gay and that he will resign in November were planted four years ago at an elegant political reception in Israel.

It was at a performing arts center in Rishon Lezion, a middle-class enclave outside Tel Aviv, that McGreevey was introduced to Golan Cipel, a spokesman for the local mayor and a former information officer for the Israeli consulate in New York.

Golan Cipel Kurdzuk Cropped
Golan Cipel, a former aide to Gov. James E. McGreevey, was identified as the governor’s lover. (Tony Kurdzuk/The Star-Ledger)

Six months after that chance encounter in March 2000, Cipel left for New Jersey to work on the Woodbridge mayor’s campaign for governor. McGreevey helped him find a car, a job and an apartment a tenth of a mile from the Woodbridge townhouse he shared with his wife.

The Israeli national would go on to play a controversial role in McGreevey’s political life over the next two years, first as the newly elected governor’s homeland security adviser, drawing widespread criticism for his inexperience, and then as a “special counsel” with ill-defined responsibilities and a $110,000 annual salary.

Republicans and Democrats alike, including some members of McGreevey’s inner circle, were mystified by Cipel’s role in the administration and by the governor’s allegiance to him.

Cipel, 35, left state government two years ago this month, an enigma to the public and to the many reporters who sought to define him.

Yesterday, several ranking members of the McGreevey administration, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was Cipel the governor was referring to when he acknowledged in his dramatic afternoon news conference that he had engaged in an extramarital affair with a man.

Separately, a public relations specialist hired by the 47-year-old governor said Cipel attempted to extort money from McGreevey, threatening to file a lawsuit against him if he was not paid millions of dollars. That lawsuit was expected to be filed in Mercer County today.

Gov. James E. McGreevey announces his resignation after declaring himself a “gay American.” (Matt Rainey/The Star-Ledger)

Cipel could not be reached for comment yesterday, and McGreevey, during his nationally televised news conference, did not mention him by name.

But the two men are now inextricably linked in one of the more extraordinary political stories in history.

One of three children, Cipel was raised in Rishon Lezion, Israel’s fourth-largest community. According to interviews with family members and friends in 2002, he was a bright student and an accomplished poet by age 18. A book of Cipel’s poetry, “The Road of Thorns,” received an award from the Israeli Institute of Art in 1987.

After serving five years in the Israeli Navy, rising to the rank of first lieutenant, Cipel served as a legislative aide for a member of the Labor Party in the Israeli parliament. Acquaintances called him a politically ambitious man who talked of one day running for office.

But he would first require an education. In 1995, that quest brought him to New York, where he studied communications at the New York Institute of Technology and found a job in the public information office of the Israeli consulate. He eventually worked his way up to the post of chief information officer at the consulate.

“He knew English and he was qualified, and he did PR work and he did it pretty well,” former Consul General Colette Avital, a member of the Israeli parliament, told The Star-Ledger in 2002.

Cipel later returned to Israel, earning a position as spokesman for Meir Nitzan, the mayor of Rishon Lezion. Last night, Nitzan was stunned when informed of Cipel’s romantic link to McGreevey and of the governor’s decision to resign.

“He was a positive person,” Nitzan said of his former employee. “Dedicated to his work. He had several girlfriends.”

It was 12 months into Cipel’s job with Nitzan that he met McGreevey, who was on a mission to Israel with several other prominent politicians, among them Donald DiFrancesco, then president of the state Senate, and U.S. Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.), then a candidate for office.

The group had gathered at Rishon Lezion’s performing arts center for a “wine-and-dine” reception organized by the local mayor.

“I introduced (Cipel) to Jim and mentioned that this is the Democratic candidate or something like that, and I guess they started talking,” David Mallach, assistant executive director of New Jersey’s United Jewish Federation of MetroWest, told The Star-Ledger in 2002. Mallach’s group co-sponsored the trip.

Six months later, McGreevey asked Cipel to move to New Jersey to work on his campaign. McGreevey would later call Cipel “bright and tough, not a yes man.”

Paid $30,000 by the Democratic State Committee, Cipel worked on McGreevey’s behalf as an outreach coordinator for the state’s Jewish community. At the same time, McGreevey helped him land a second job, also paying $30,000, with developer Charles Kushner, the governor’s top campaign contributor.

McGreevey helped Cipel in other ways as well. He instructed a subordinate at Woodbridge town hall to find a car and an apartment for Cipel. In short order, Cipel was living a block from McGreevey’s townhouse.

McGreevey’s election as governor would place Cipel squarely in the public eye. Shortly after his inauguration in January 2002, the governor appointed the public relations man to a $110,000-a-year job as his homeland security adviser despite his inexperience handling such matters.

The appointment, made without public announcement or a State Police background check, riled legislators on both sides of the political aisle. McGreevey ardently defended Cipel, pointing to his military service and his experience with the Israeli parliament.

“Golan is smart, incisive, hard-working and trustworthy, and he has brought a unique point of view to the work he does,” McGreevey said.

Cipel’s position was further undermined when The Star-Ledger reported that the Secret Service and the FBI would not share sensitive information with him because he was a foreigner who did not have top security clearance.

The controversy came to a head in February 2002, when state Sen. William Gormley (R-Atlantic) threatened to block McGreevey’s appointments in the Legislature if Cipel did not appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee for questioning about his qualifications.

McGreevey refused to allow the appearance, at the same time ordering Cipel to refrain from interviews with the media.

“I would love to speak, but I can’t,” Cipel said on Feb. 28, 2002. That short statement would mark the most expansive comments of his government tenure.

By early March, McGreevey relented to lawmakers’ demands, transferring Cipel to a post without security responsibilities. His title remained “special counsel.” His pay stayed $110,000, the administration’s fifth- highest salary.

McGreevey repeatedly declined to explain Cipel’s new duties, and the governor’s aides were unable to provide information, fumbling about for explanations. Amid continued media inquiries, Cipel resigned in August 2002. A month later, McGreevey was asked repeatedly during a radio interview about his relationship with Cipel.

“Good friend,” McGreevey said. “Very good friend.”

Over the next year, he would continue to support his friend, helping him obtain a job with a politically connected public relations firm, the MWW Group, in Bergen County. Cipel later left MWW in a dispute over how much time he was expected to put into the job.

He next landed at State Street Partners, where he was recruited by Rahway Mayor Jim Kennedy, a partner in the firm and McGreevey’s best friend. The firm eventually fired Cipel.

That McGreevey continued to come to Cipel’s aid troubled some of the governor’s advisers. One, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Star-Ledger in October 2002: “This is a joke, right? It never seems to stop. You’ve got to just cut your losses and that’s it. He just keeps an issue alive that shouldn’t be alive.”

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