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07.23.09

New Jersey Is Corrupt Again!

As the FBI arrests numerous New Jersey politicians (and rabbis!) in a corruption probe, former Fort Lee Mayor Burt Ross reflects on how his state is back to being No. 1.

Just as those of us living in Tony Soprano country feared we were falling behind Louisiana, Alaska, and Illinois in the race for the country's most politically corrupt state, FBI agents swarmed all over New Jersey, arresting public officials for keeping true to our well-earned reputation.

The mass arrests took place predominantly in Hudson and Bergen counties—two of New Jersey's most populated counties, each vying for title of most corrupt.

The entire list of those arrested would take up an entire column itself, but among the most notable are Dennis Elwell, mayor of Secaucus, Peter Cammarano, mayor of Hoboken, who was bartending at the St. Ann feast last night, Jersey City Council President Mariano Vega, and Jersey City Deputy Mayor Leona Baldini (apparently our women are learning from the men). So many people have been arrested that the FBI reportedly needed two buses to transport all of them from their headquarters to U.S. District Court for initial appearances. A number of rabbis have also been arrested, giving the scandal a bit of religious flavoring.

The charges against Hoboken's recently elected mayor show how little has changed in the evolution of corruption in New Jersey. Back in 1974 as mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, I was offered $500,000 by the Mafia to make zoning changes. The mobster and I met in a diner (for some reason, often the place of choice for money exchanges) and Joey D gave me $100,000 as a good faith deposit to smooth the way for a major development. I wore a wire, accepted the $100,000 in small bills, and turned the money over to the FBI. They graciously gave me a receipt in return. Several months later, two mobsters and the real-estate developers for whom they were fronting were convicted and sentenced to federal prison.

The indictment against Mayor Peter Cammarano rings a familiar bell. A cooperating witness working with the FBI called people close to the then-mayoral candidate making it clear that cash would be spread around if Cammarano would support high-rise development. Cammarano was allegedly more than willing to help and several public officials met in, yes, you guessed it, a diner, where the cooperating witness wearing a wire gave the soon-to-be-mayor $5,000 in cash. Cammarano, a lawyer, reportedly told the cooperating witness "I run the election-law department at the biggest election-law firm in the state of New Jersey."

In these financially troubled times, it seems like public officials are willing to sell their souls for a lot less than in the good old days. If the mayor couldn't have gotten $500,000 for his efforts, he at least could have held out for $50,000. New Jersey is the most populated state in the country and northern New Jersey the most densely populated part of the state. It should come as no surprise that the value of real estate is high and continues to be the source of much of New Jersey's corruption, although the Mafia no longer plays a pivotal role.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was the arrest of State Assemblyman Daniel Van Pelt, a freshman legislator who ironically sponsored a law requiring convicted corrupt officials to pay back the state for legal costs. If he is ultimately convicted, he might well rue the day he introduced this legislation.

Burt Ross, former mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, and former administrator of the New Jersey Energy Office, is a lawyer and real-estate investor. A book The Bribe was written about his exploits with the Mafia.