Bob Menendez has just been indicted on 14 criminal counts, including eight counts of bribery. While it’s not every day that a member of the United States Senate is hit with criminal charges, it might as well be every day that a politician from New Jersey is revealed to be corrupt.
“There is something about this state—whether it’s in the air or in the water or whatever it is, that just makes people more accepting of corrupt practices,” Bob Ingle, co-author of The Soprano State, said.
“I am not going anywhere,” a defiant Menendez said at a Newark press conference, the crowd studded with his supporters, on Wednesday evening. “I am angry and ready to fight. Today contradicts my public service career in my entire life,” he snapped, as supporters chanted “Menendez! Menendez!” and “Viva Bob!”
But Menendez’s optimism ignores New Jersey’s history.
Part of the problem may be the sheer number of public officials the Garden State employs.
New Jersey is the fourth-smallest state in terms of square mileage, yet it has 565 municipalities, each of which employs dozens of public officials.
“There is a lot of government and there are a lot of people running that government, and it’s very difficult to keep up with all of them,” Ingle said, calling the system “bureaucracy on top of bureaucracy.”
New Jersey’s boss system—meaning parties are controlled by unelected, omnipotent dictators—also might be a cause of the moral bankruptcy.
The two most notable being George Norcross III in southern Jersey (defined as everything south of Trenton), best-known for telling an enemy, “you’re going to get your fucking balls cut off,” and Joe “Joe D” DiVincenzo in northern New Jersey, who admitted to The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza in 2014, “Anybody who runs statewide has to come through us.”
It is impossible to rise in New Jersey politics without fostering relationships that will come back to haunt you.
Iraq and Goldman Sachs veteran Steven Fulop, the 38-year-old mayor of Jersey City, knows this firsthand.
Fulop is about as unlike a New Jersey politician as a person with a New Jersey accent could possibly be. He wears tasteful suits; he competes in Iron Man competitions; he expresses normal, human ambivalence about the field he has chosen.
I last saw Fulop in February, on a chartered train from Jersey City to D.C. populated by drunk legislators and lobbyists, engaging in the sort of eyebrow-raising back-slapping deal-making that people from other states might do in smoke-filled rooms.
Not in New Jersey. There they do it in full view of the press, because what else are we supposed to expect?
Fulop, visibly uncomfortable, skeptically peered out the sides of his eyes as we spoke—while the intoxicated leaders of the Garden State bumped into and groped their way past us.
“I think if other legislators from other states could see [this train] they would think it’s very strange. Very strange,” he said.
Fulop campaigned on finally ending the corruption that plagued the region of Jersey City since mayor Frank Hague sat behind his infamous desk—outfitted with a special drawer wherein people could deposit bribes—in the early 1900s.
Fulop’s slogan? “Enough.”
His challenger, incumbent Mayor Jerramiah Healy, had no vision, ties to some of the more corrupt members of the city, and perhaps most memorably, was known for wandering around on his porch completely naked. But Healy was machine-approved: Everyone from powerful state Democrats to President Obama had endorsed him.
But Fulop did have one powerful friend: Menendez.
Their relationship began as contentious (Fulop challenged Menendez for Congress—and lost—in 2004) but eventually grew warm.
And now Fulop, a potential gubernatorial candidate in 2017, is in the position of having to defend Menendez or lose a vital ally.
When the news of Menendez’s impending indictment came down, Fulop told the Jersey Journal’s Terrence McDonald he would “stand by my friend…anyone who is making assumptions about Bob Menendez based on a news story clearly doesn’t know the Senator.” (Interview requests from The Daily Beast to Fulop were not granted.)
New Jersey’s recent history is littered with cautionary tales of those who stuck around too long to avoid stumbling into catastrophe.
By most accounts former governor Jim McGreevey was a world-class mayor when he served the town of Woodbridge from 1991 to 2002, but then he reached for the next brass ring. McGreevey went to Trenton, and it only took two years until he was forced to resign after installing his unqualified (secret) boyfriend as the state’s homeland security director.
The current governor, Chris Christie, passed up a chance to run for president or vice president in 2012, as Republican Party leaders so desperately wanted, opting instead to run for a second term. That proved unwise; he has been under investigation by the United States attorney for the last 15 months, after a member (or members) of his administration orchestrated the closure of lanes on the George Washington Bridge—the busiest bridge in the world—seemingly to torment a small-time Democratic mayor. Christie’s hopes of running for president in 2016 now appear grim.
But let’s not forget that when Christie was the United States attorney from 2002 through 2009, he convicted more than 100 public officials. That’s more than one per month.
For every Menendez or McGreevey, there are dozens other small-ball crooks and creeps populating New Jersey’s public offices. Ingle told me what has struck him most about the type of corruption most commonly seen in the Garden State is how “how small the amount of bribery or thievery these people will be involved in.”
Sometimes it’s as small as a quarter—or several tons of them.
For a decade, Thomas Rica served as the public works inspector of Ridgewood, a quaint village of less than 25,000 in northern New Jersey. An artificially tanned 43-year-old with a politician’s head of wavy dark hair, Rica made $86,000 a year in the position—but he wanted more.
Conveniently, Rica had a master key to Village Hall, which housed a coin-collection room full of buckets of quarters from parking meters. Rica would enter the room with the key, manipulate a security camera on the ceiling so that his act wouldn’t be filmed, and steal the coins by the fistful, sometimes $500 worth of coins at a time.
He did this sometimes several times a week—for years. He would then bring the coins to multiple banks, where he had personal accounts.
All told, Rica stole $460,000 in quarters. The Bergen Record calculated such a haul weighed 11.25 tons, “the equivalent of three elephants, a single 84-passenger bus or nine Honda Civics.” In June 2014, Rica was sentenced to four years’ probation and ordered to pay the village back every last quarter.
At his press conference, Menendez claimed investigators don’t know the difference between friendship and corruption—but the damning indictment suggests it is he who doesn’t know the difference.
The senator may not be so lucky, but then he probably should have seen this coming.