This week’s news from New Jersey was, let’s be honest, probably no surprise to any veteran of Garden State politics. Some 19 months after the infamous Bridgegate scandal broke, three one-time Chris Christie allies were either indicted or pleaded guilty to a variety of conspiracy charges regarding their behavior in the matter. Just a month earlier, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) was indicted on corruption charges for allegedly exchanging favors for gifts and campaign contributions.
The two recent cases are but the latest in a long string of New Jersey scandals that have given the state a uniquely sleazy image in American politics. Abscam. The troubled, if brief, reign of Gov. James E. McGreevey. The 2009 conviction of the newly elected mayor of Hoboken, part of a corruption case that included a motley outfit of small-town executives, state lawmakers, building inspectors, even rabbis. The Garden State is utterly corrupt, a national joke, the storyline reads. And there’s no hope.
But a closer look reveals a more complicated reality. Until Bridgegate, the past decade had seen few corruption charges against state-level officials in New Jersey, and that may be no coincidence; the shame of the McGreevey scandals actually led the Garden State to pass some of the nation’s strongest ethics and transparency laws in 2005. Those reforms even helped New Jersey earn the top rank, a B+, in the 2012 State Integrity Investigation, a national ranking of state government transparency and accountability by the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International.
Reformers say Bridgegate is a symptom of backsliding in Trenton in recent years, some of it tied to Gov. Christie’s presidential ambitions. Perhaps. Bridgegate notwithstanding, however, New Jersey’s recent history may offer lessons for the growing inventory of other shamed state capitals where old-fashioned graft and cash-in-a-bag bribery cases are actually making headlines more often. Like that state capital over the river and up the Thruway in New York, for instance.
Seeing New Jersey as a beacon of reform, of course, means challenging not just historical record, but popular culture too. Hollywood and HBO have done the state no favors, going all the way back to “On the Waterfront.” “Boardwalk Empire” depicted the roots of the special relationship between mobsters and politicians, while “The Sopranos” brought us up to date. Just in case America was beginning to forget, “American Hustle” jogged our memories of Abscam, the FBI investigation from the late 1970s and early ’80s that started with fictitious Arab sheiks targeting swindlers and forgers but metastasized to engulf the mayor of Camden and seven members of Congress, including two from New Jersey.
Yes, that really happened. And there was more: Under the McGreevey administration, the governor, several staff members and the heads of various state boards and authorities were accused of self-dealing, nepotism, misuse of state funds and other abuses. In 2004, the Star-Ledger found, the state saw one “corruption-related event” for every three days, though many of those occurred at the local level. (Many were also prosecuted by Christie’s office when he was U.S. Attorney; Christie later became governor in part by campaigning as an anti-corruption reformer.) The “Bid Rig” scandal of 2009 rivaled Abscam in both reach and color: once again, an investigation into white-collar crime sprawled into a corruption case that netted more than a dozen public officials and political operatives, again, nearly all at the local level.
Much was the shock, then — to its authors as much as anyone — when the Center for Public Integrity ranked New Jersey best in the nation in 2012. “Did you hear the latest joke about New Jersey?” one Hoboken-based Bloomberg columnist wrote about the state’s top rank when the Center released the report. “How did that happen? Easy. We bribed them.”
In truth, the explanation is a bit more subtle. Importantly, the report was not a measure of corruption itself, but rather of the systems meant to prevent abuse of power and encourage transparency and accountability. To do so, the project examined not just the laws, but also whether they were effectively implemented and enforced.
What’s more, as its name suggests, the Center’s report focused only on state government, and not on local governments, which wield great power in New Jersey, are subject to a separate, more forgiving set of laws and may still provide a nutritious agar for the petri dish of corruption. Political analysts say the state harbors an unhealthy mix of fragmented local governments, high-priced real estate and a history of transactional politics that has contributed to an attitude of entitlement and unenlightened self-interest among some office holders. And there lie the murkier cultural roots of corruption, in a form that is likely impossible to measure.
“It’s a small state, it has a lot of valuable real estate, and local governments have very broad authority to declare parcels of land redevelopment areas,” said Brian Murphy, an assistant professor of history at Baruch College who is working on a history of political corruption in the United States. “A lot of people go into Jersey politics to get rich.”
The “Bid Rig” scandal provides a particularly vivid peek inside that world, thanks to one Solomon Dwek, the son of a rabbi from a town called Deal — no joke — who was caught in 2006 depositing $50 million in fraudulent checks. In an effort to avoid a lengthy prison sentence, Dwek cooperated with federal officials, initially as part of an investigation into a money laundering operation run out of Deal and Brooklyn by a cabal of rabbis, one with the unlikely name of Mordchai Fish. The investigation expanded when one of the targets, a New Jersey developer, introduced Dwek to a building inspector in Jersey City who allegedly agreed to help grease the administrative wheels in exchange for payments. Dwek proved more able as an undercover agent than a fraudster, and he worked his way through a series of introductions that had him passing cash-filled envelopes to candidates, consultants and public officials from Hoboken to Trenton.
Joseph R. Marbach, a political scientist and provost at La Salle University in Philadelphia, said New Jersey politicians’ proclivity for corruption reaches back to colonial history, when Dutch influence in the Mid-Atlantic led to a mercantile system, in which government is just another cog in the larger capitalist system. “The private sector just has to deal with the public sector to get things done,” he said. (It’s no surprise then that just over the Hudson River, New York has snatched the sleaze mantle from New Jersey for sheer number of scandals in recent years.) In New England, by contrast, a moralist, puritan attitude prevailed, leading to a view of government work as an obligation, a temporary service for citizens to complete as part of a broader career, rather than a career in and of itself, Marbach said.
But the 2005 reforms in New Jersey appear to have had some success in reining in that “do what you gotta do” culture. After McGreevey’s resignation, acting Gov. Richard J. Codey pushed through one of the most comprehensive ethics regimes in the nation. “It was one of those post-crisis moments,” said Paula A. Franzese, a law professor at Seton Hall University who helped write recommendations for redrafting the state’s ethics laws at Codey’s request. The legislature passed nearly all of those recommendations, which included the creation of a more powerful ethics commission, mandatory ethics training, anti-nepotism laws and greater transparency in state contracts (efforts to reform local government laws have dead-ended).
New Jersey has seen a sharp drop in state-level officials charged since then. The state’s stringent pay-to-play laws, which restrict campaign contributions from state contractors, have been emulated by Connecticut and Illinois, two other historically corrupt states that scored surprisingly well in the Center’s report.
Just how lasting those reforms will be is unclear. Besides Bridgegate, Christie’s administration has raised doubts among ethics advocates on other fronts as well. An effort to reform the Port Authority, the agency at the center of the Bridgegate scandal, died when the state Senate failed to override a veto by Christie (New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo vetoed a parallel bill; each state must pass identical laws to reform the bi-state agency). Among other changes, the measure would have removed the two governors’ ability to each appoint an executive to the agency. Lawmakers are trying anew this year, with a bill introduced in March that will again attempt to reform the authority.
Christie has also drawn fire for his taste for expensive travel, paid for by friends and donors such as Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire conservative casino owner, and Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys football team. In February, Mother Jones reported that Christie’s administration was fighting in court against 23 open records requests. And, perhaps most troubling to Franzese and other advocates, the State Ethics Commission under Christie has appointed an ally of the governor as its executive director, a post that has traditionally gone to more independent figures. “Over time,” Franzese said of the commission she once chaired, “it’s only as good as its custodians.”
Kevin Roberts, a Christie spokesman, rejected claims that the governor exerted undue influence on the ethics director appointments, noting that the commission unanimously approved the current executive director. He also said there was nothing inappropriate or illegal about the travel gifts Christie has received.
All of that may affect New Jersey’s score in the update to the State Integrity Investigation, on which reporters are hard at work in every state and which will be published later this year.
But a glance around the country reveals a host of states that still look worse than New Jersey. The last two years have seen corruption-related arrests or convictions of the house or assembly speakers of Alabama, Rhode Island, South Carolina and New York. The former governor of Virginia was convicted. The governor of Oregon resigned. The former head of Mississippi’s prison system and a former state lawmaker pleaded guilty. Five current and former Pennsylvania lawmakers were arrested. As were three in California. Announcements of corruption charges no longer surprise in New York, where at least 12 sitting or former state lawmakers have been arrested, convicted, sanctioned or resigned after a host of ethical transgressions in the past two years alone.
New Jersey still provides a glimmer of hope that states with a troubled history can reduce corruption, even if they can’t eliminate it, by passing aggressive ethics laws with strong oversight. Otherwise, fuggedaboudit.
This story was co-published with the Washington Post.