Federal and state prosecutors are dropping their probes into explosive comments that Democrats and black clergy were paid to keep minorities away from the polls in this state's gubernatorial election.
U.S. Atty. Michael Chertoff said Wednesday that a two-month investigation turned up no evidence to support comments made, then retracted, by Edward J. Rollins, the former campaign manager for Republican Gov.-elect Christine Todd Whitman.
State and federal teams shared information but reached independent conclusions, Chertoff said.
"There wasn't anybody that said . . . (he) had been offered those funds," said George Kugler, one of two former state attorneys general appointed as special counsels in the state probe.
Whitman, who had branded Rollins a liar, said she was relieved that the investigation is over.
"Since I knew it never happened . . . this was the inevitable outcome," she said.
Whitman will succeed Gov. James J. Florio, a Democrat, on Tuesday. She defeated Florio by 26,093 votes out of more than 2.5 million cast, the second-closest margin in state history.
Rollins issued a statement from his Washington office Wednesday, apologizing to Whitman, the black community and the clergy.
A week after the Nov. 2 election, Rollins told reporters at a Washington breakfast that $500,000 was distributed to black ministers and Democratic workers to discourage blacks from voting. On Nov. 19, he said he fabricated the story.
The state Democratic Party sued to obtain a new election, then withdrew its lawsuit after its own probe failed to uncover sufficient evidence of wrongdoing.
In sworn testimony to lawyers for the Democrats, Rollins conceded that he advised Lonna Hooks, the Whitman campaign liaison to the black community, to tell black ministers disenchanted with Florio that "as far as we're concerned we want to help them. Whatever their favorite charity may be, there are other ways of helping them besides state funding."
Rollins testified that he did not authorize Hooks to commit money to the effort but said: "Tell them, if they don't go up to the pulpit and preach against us on Sunday, we'd be way ahead of the game."
Hooks, nominated by Whitman to become secretary of state, has said no such conversation ever took place.
The furor caused by Rollins' remarks prompted a new state law requiring that Election Day campaign workers be paid by check, not cash "walking around money."
The state Election Law Enforcement Commission is still looking at the way public funds were spent during the campaign.