Democrats Drop Suit Over N.J. Campaign : Politics: Party officials see no evidence of a plot to suppress black vote. Federal probe of Rollins' initial claims continues.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Democratic Party officials Monday announced a decision to drop their lawsuit seeking to bar Christine Todd Whitman from taking office as governor of New Jersey.

The party had said earlier that it would either drop the lawsuit or simply amend it to seek lesser remedies than overturning the election.

After taking depositions from Whitman's campaign manager, Edward J. Rollins, and her brother, Webster B. Todd Jr., Democratic officials charged that their testimony "strains credulity," but said it does not provide evidence to prove a systematic or widespread Republican scheme to suppress the black vote.

A Justice Department criminal investigation is continuing into Rollins' initial claim--which he later retracted--that Republicans paid Democratic party workers to stay home and not to help Gov. James J. Florio on Election Day. Democrats reserved the right to refile their suit if new evidence is found.

"As is now well-known, Whitman's campaign manager Ed Rollins has now insisted under oath that his prior statements were a deliberate lie cynically contrived to enhance his own professional reputation and career," Democratic National Committee Chairman David C. Wilhelm and New Jersey State Chairman Raymond Lesniak said in a joint statement.

"Webster Todd Jr. has similarly denied under oath that his statements about 'keeping the vote light' reflected any program to suppress African American votes on the part of the Whitman campaign."

" . . . In these circumstances, we do not believe that . . . continuing our own civil action--which would require court permission for further extensive and time-consuming discovery to complete the record--would serve the best interests of the people of New Jersey.

"We are dismissing our lawsuit, without prejudice to our legal ability to refile it in the event that additional evidence, developed in any of the continuing proceedings or otherwise, should warrant that course of action."

Rollins started a political firestorm in New Jersey when he told a group of Washington reporters that Whitman's campaign approached black ministers who had endorsed Florio and offered contributions to their favorite projects in return for not preaching support for the governor just before the election.

Rollins also said that Whitman's campaign workers had approached black mayors who were disenchanted with the governor and offered them money to stay home on Election Day.

But in testimony both before a federal grand jury and in a civil deposition taken by Democratic Party lawyers, Rollins recanted his initial remarks and insisted that Whitman's campaign did not sponsor, fund or sanction any efforts to suppress votes.

On Friday, the Democratic lawyers finished questioning Todd, who also denied paying anyone to suppress the vote. Florio lost by about 27,000 votes in one of the closest elections in the state's history.

Todd served as his sister's campaign manager until he was replaced by Rollins. But he remained a close adviser.

"I have no knowledge of any monies being dispensed by anyone to discourage voters," Todd said during his seven hours of questioning.

Whitman is scheduled to begin her term as governor on Jan. 18.

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