Politics

02.13.14

A Mob-Defying Former Mayor Knows Why New Jersey Is So Corrupt

The chief of Fort Lee turned down a $500,000 mob bribe in 1974. Forty years later, he explains what makes the Garden State so fertile for corruption.

New Jersey is giving Illinois a run for its money as America’s most corrupt state. Four of the past eight governors from the Land of Lincoln have landed in the pokey, and Chris Christie could share their fate if the worst comes to pass out of recent scandals.

Even without Christie in the clink, senators, congressmen, county bosses, and mayors of almost every major city in New Jersey have been convicted of crimes. What gives? Why does New Jersey government seem like it’s run by the Sopranos? 

As the former mayor of Fort Lee, I have some personal insight into New Jersey corruption. In 1974, I turned down a $500,000 bribe from developers linked to the mob to rezone 17 acres adjacent to the George Washington Bridge right where the access lanes were closed this past September in “Bridgegate.” The land was zoned single-family residential, and the developers wanted to build 3,000,000 square feet of retail, hotel, and office space. Had they gotten their way, the $500,000 bribe would have been chump change compared to the tens of millions of dollars they would have made.

New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the nation.  Almost 9 million people live in New Jersey, yet you could fit a sizeable chunk of the state into Yosemite National Park in California. Years ago, a rocket was shot and lost in Nevada.  It took searchers almost two weeks to find the errant missile. Imagine a rocket being lost in New Jersey. Within seconds of hitting the ground, millions of residents would be calling in with its exact location.

The law of supply and demand applies to New Jersey real estate: there is very little of it and strong demand for it.  Land in New Jersey is worth a fortune. Corrupt politicians sell their souls for power or money, and the dense development of land is where the action is.  It’s as simple as that.

Even in poor cities the right development of land is worth a six-figure bribe. Just last week Tony Mack, mayor of Trenton, New Jersey’s capital, was convicted, among other things, of conspiring with his brother to accept $119,000 in exchange for the development of an automated parking garage.  The jury didn’t need more than a day to return with a guilty verdict.

A few years ago working with the U.S. Attorney’s Office then headed by one Chris Christie, the infamous federal informer Solomon Dwek helped put three mayors and two state legislators into the slammer primarily by pretending to be a real estate developer offering money in exchange for zoning help. Not too many so-called public servants declined his offer.

Corrupt politicians sell their souls for power or money, and the dense development of land is where the action is.

Corruption is even more rampant in the northern end of the state where land is closer to New York City. Two of the towns involved so far in the recent Christie scandals—Fort Lee and Hoboken—are unusually densely developed and both provide spectacular views of the Big Apple.  Fort Lee has more than 35,000 residents living within its two and a half square miles, and Hoboken has more than 50,000 people inhabiting not much more than one square mile.

If Mayor Zimmer of Hoboken is to be believed, and I have no reason to doubt her, the Christie administration was prepared to deny Hoboken Sandy relief aid if she didn’t favor a redevelopment project represented by David Samson, Chairman of the Port Authority and a close confidante of Governor Christie. Had Zimmer succumbed to the pressure, Samson’s law firm could ultimately have made millions of dollars in legal fees.

The United States Attorney for New Jersey is reportedly investigating this matter, and if criminal conduct is found, it will dwarf Bridgegate in importance. The misuse of Sandy funds is not only morally indefensible but potentially criminal.

Belleville, New Jersey is another municipality where the development of land, in this instance, for a senior citizen housing project, has a definite stench about it.  Here it seems like the politicians were trying to cement their power rather than to fill their coffers.

For many years Belleville’s public officials had tried unsuccessfully to raise the money for this development.  When Christie was kind enough to cough up roughly $6,000,000 of Sandy aid for Belleville to build the project, it was no coincidence when the Essex County Chairman, a Democrat, and the Democratic Mayor of Belleville both endorsed the Governor’s reelection bid. The only problem is that this project has virtually nothing to do with Hurricane Sandy. In fact, Belleville was ranked 254th of cities affected by the hurricane.

Local officials love nothing more than supporting housing facilities for senior citizens. They are not motivated simply by pure love in their hearts, but rather because they understand that seniors vote in large numbers and tend to vote for the politicians who were kind enough to find them housing.  Skilled politicians are expert in securing this vote often by putting voting booths in the lobby of the housing.  Again it appears that the governor was using Sandy aid as a political slush fund.

The normally straight talking Christie has been unusually silent recently. He seems like the proverbial three monkeys all wrapped up in one—“see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.”  But evil seems to be everywhere, and if the governor doesn’t come clean quickly, he has a better chance of landing in the Big House than in the White House.