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.”