If you follow the state and national media, it sometimes does seem that the primary crop of the Garden State is corrupt politicians. As a criminal defense attorney, I have represented politicians charged with crimes as far north as Essex County and as far south as Cape May County. They have been prosecuted by county prosecutors, by the state attorney general and by the U.S. Attorney's Office. And, of course, I read about cases where I have not been engaged as counsel. All these cases fall into two general categories:
Some politicians go astray because they succumb to temptation, such as using public resources for their personal benefit, or dipping into the till. These are uncomplicated thefts.
The other type of public corruption case is generated by some business person or campaign contributor who finds himself with his own criminal investigation. That person agrees to become an undercover operative for the prosecutors, approaching elected officials to test their willingness to exchange official influence for cash or other benefits. This sale, or lease, of public office is not theft, but it is still driven by the same force - greed.
But these types of transgressions can be found in every sector of society, not just government. The same sorts of things occur in small businesses and large corporations. We have all read about embezzlements and misuse of resources within charities, Little Leagues, church groups and civic associations. So what makes it seem like New Jersey voters go out of their way to elect to public office only politicians with the correct genetic code for corrupt activities? There are four reasons.
First, it is sexy. Headlines read better when the focus is a mayor rather than the business manager of the public library, even if they both committed precisely the same offense. And there is sense to that; the public probably does have a greater interest in a mayor who exaggerates his expense account than in a library administrator who does the same thing. The media soon forget about the library theft. Not so with the mayor. The media will recycle the basic story and send a photographer every time a court notice goes out or a motion is filed or a court appearance is required. (Believe me, I dress better for court when my client holds public office.) So there is the first reason - disproportionate media attention.
The second reason is the numbers. Of the 50 states, New Jersey is geographically the fourth smallest. But it has 9 million residents, which makes it the ninth most populous state. This means New Jersey is the most densely populated state in America, and that may explain why we have more political corruption cases, or purse snatchings, or drunken driving cases than say, Montana, the fourth largest state geographically, but with a population one-tenth as large as New Jersey.
And then there is the nature of our governmental structure. We have a state government, 21 county governments, 566 municipalities and 608 school districts, each of which has a school board. So New Jersey has a lot of people and a lot of government and a lot of public officials. The more eggs you have in a crate, the more likely it is some of them will be rotten - that's the third reason.
The fourth reason: Quality prosecutors. In the nearly four decades I have been a criminal defense attorney, I have seen a gradual and steady improvement in the quality of prosecutions at all levels. I see a greater emphasis on thorough, longterm investigations; I see more career prosecutors, and at least at the federal level, I see liberal funding for investigations.
And giving guest lectures at law schools, I have come to learn that the majority of talented law students with an interest in criminal law hope to become prosecutors. When I went to law school during the activist late 1960s and early 70s, it was the opposite - talented students wanted to be the next famous defense attorney. I think this cultural shift has contributed to the improvement of prosecutors' offices. Simply put, New Jersey prosecutors are working overtime, making cases that might simply be ignored or unnoticed in other states.
If you give New Jersey a fair shake, you will probably conclude that our size, our population, human nature and rigorous law enforcement are all combining to produce the unfortunate but obvious result: lots of highly publicized public corruption cases. That's good material for jokes, like when I introduced an Atlantic City mayor to a national convention. I told conventioneers he was a "unique" mayor - neither under indictment nor on parole. They had a good laugh, which was the idea. Just don't confuse the joke with reality.
Edwin J. Jacobs Jr., a prominent Atlantic City attorney, is former president of the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey.