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07.23.09

Jersey Rotten Scoundrels

Which exit for corruption? Lee Siegel on why the state that brought us The Sopranos is the home of the nation’s most crooked politicians.

Announcing at a televised press conference the arrest of over 40 people in New Jersey today—including the mayors of Hoboken and Secaucus, Jersey City’s deputy mayor and two state assemblymen—the FBI special agent in charge of the 10-year investigation lost his professional composure. New Jersey’s “culture of corruption,” he said angrily, “is among the worst in the nation. If not the worst.”

It is hands-down the worst, and it has been for decades. New Jersey is a national shame.

Here’s a list of New Jersey public officials indicted, convicted, or released from prison since … April:

State Sen. Wayne Bryant, convicted for bribery and pension fraud.

State Assemblyman and former Perth Amboy Mayor Joseph Vas, indicted for using his political influence to push through a real-estate deal, and also for knowingly accepting illegal campaign contributions.

An aide to Vas, Ray Geneske, convicted of laundering money for a real-estate developer.

State Senate President John A. Lynch finished up his prison term after being convicted of accepting tens of thousands of dollars from a contractor in exchange for helping the latter develop land in a state park.

President of the Pleasantville Board of Education, Jayson Adams, convicted of taking bribes on behalf of elected officials.

Paul Bergrin, former U.S. attorney and Essex County prosecutor, lately working as a defense attorney, accused of arranging the murder of a witness.

Cumberland Country tax collector Heddi Sutherland indicted for collecting $100,000 for herself.

State Sen. Joseph Coniglio convicted of extortion and mail fraud.

Before that, there was the arrest in 2007 of 11 New Jersey officials, including a mayor and state assemblymen, for promising contracts to insurance brokers and roofing contractors in exchange for cash. And in 2005 the arrest of 12 New Jersey officials accused of bid rigging, bribery, and money-laundering. And the breakup in 1998 of a police-burglary ring, operating out of several Northern New Jersey towns. I could go on, but my fingers hurt. In other states, public officials wait to be re-elected or re-appointed. In Jersey, they wait to be sentenced.

But no brief history of the rot in the Garden State would be complete without a nod to Hugh Addonizio, the mayor of Newark from 1962 to 1970, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for taking kickbacks from city contractors. Addonizio virtually made Newark the Mafia’s playground. The two mayors who succeeded him, Kenneth Gibson and Sharpe James, also both went to jail on charges of corruption.

A number of the country’s greatest artists come from Jersey: Sinatra, Paul Robeson, William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Junot Diaz, and on and on. But if you want to know why Bruce Springsteen was born to run, why Jersey-born Dionne Warwick sang, “Things that I promised myself fell apart,” and why Newark-born Philip Roth’s Alexander Portnoy could not stop masturbating, consider the effect New Jersey’s culture of corruption has on the state’s quality of life.

Unemployment is among the nation’s highest, pollution is among the nation’s worst, and the state’s infrastructure—especially in cities like Newark, despite Mayor Cory Booker’s heroic efforts to improve life there—is a mess.

But most consequential of all is that corruption’s impoverishment of the state’s coffers has caused New Jersey to use property taxes to make up for the abused and misused sums. Jersey has the highest property taxes in the nation—an absurdity considering the number of wealthy individuals and prosperous businesses making their home in the state. The strangling property taxes have the effect of driving people to desperation. The “shortcut” has become the state’s cultural style. You do unto others as the preposterous taxes do unto you. (Adding insult to injury, most of the corruption has to do with cozy deals between pols and real-estate developers. The state's mind-bending physical ugliness in places is due to zoning laws falling before big kickbacks and bribes.)

New Jersey’s proximity to New York also certainly has something to do with its outrageous amorality. The spires of Gotham are visible throughout the northern part of the state and the city’s presence is felt throughout—Manhattan’s within-arm’s-reach splendor provokes grandiose fantasies of wealth and power. And there is a feeling that if you don’t stretch your hand beyond the law in your little pissant territory—where no one will care because the quality of life is already so awful—you don’t have the balls of the players across the river.

But the real culprit behind Jersey’s irremediable official greed and dishonesty is the state’s political structure. For ages, the state’s counties have had all the power. This means that the state government, whose officials depend on the good graces of the county bosses, would rather let things slide than uncover the interminable corruption. The situation has improved since Addonizio’s day—witness the recent arrests and convictions—but the old adage that all politics is local is still stronger in Jersey than most anyplace else.

Skeptics will point out that the recent law-enforcement offensives have been led by Christopher J. Christie, the current Republican candidate for governor, when he was United States attorney, and that the majority of people charged with crimes have been Democrats. But hard as it is for a liberal to say, the Democratic party in New Jersey has traditionally stunk to high heaven. They might as well relocate the party headquarters to the state penitentiary.

In the meantime, the Garden State can be proud of the strangest twist in its latest contribution to the annals of crime. Among those arrested were a number of rabbis from the Syrian-Jewish community, including that group’s chief spiritual leader. One of them was accused of buying people’s kidneys for $10,000 each and selling each of them for $160,000.

Maybe Jersey should sell itself to Paramount Pictures and turn the whole place into a production company. But even then, they’d just start pirating their own films.

Lee Siegel has written about culture and politics and is the author of three books: Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently, Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.