Several years ago, when I assumed the executive directorship of the Hall Institute of Public Policy, I wrote a column that sought to show that New Jersey was not one of the most corrupt states in the nation. That article was based on U.S. Department of Justice data that was submitted to Congress. This state was somewhere in the middle of the group, and looked rather good, actually.
Some commentators were shocked at the article, regarding it as dangerously naïve. One must admit that there is a whole cottage industry devoted to the New Jersey corruption theme, and these people actually say they hate to lose that characterization. Other opinion leaders were pleased that finally New Jersey's problems were for once viewed in a moderate and comparative perspective.
In light of the activities of the corrupt class of 2009, it appears that the usual suspects are proving me wrong, and they have added a cast of rabbis to that judgment. These latest 44 characters were representing two strains of crime with a common witness. They are being accused of every offense from plain, old-fashioned embezzlement to selling kidneys on the open market.
The feds have turned their attention to the major figures of Jersey City, Hoboken, Secaucus and Ridgefield. It looks like a rerun of the old Hudson County follies. Bogus contractors were told that $10,000 or so would grease the skids to get zoning appeals and more complicated building projects done. Money was laundered through synagogues and yeshivas by men once thought to be distinguished in their communities. Many of the transactions took place in the closed world of the Syrian Jewish community in wealthy Deal.
Two assemblymen, consultants and local officials were all mentioned in the same breath with couriers, money launderers and zoning and housing officials. Everybody seems up for sale in New Jersey. There is no evidence that the corrupt people ran into a wall blocked by honest opposition, so we will have rethink our strategy for keeping this state honest.
I must admit the question is not just what the numbers in the federal reports are. Official misbehavior in this state is persistent, widespread and increasingly bold. Corruption in New Jersey is not just an aberration; it is a way of life. The mayor of Hoboken was just elected, and it is alleged that he already knew the language and references for a shakedown. Old and young political leaders in both parties believe that corruption and extortion are legitimate expectations for those dealing with public officials. There is no shame, no embarrassment, no self consciousness over their activities. The acting federal attorney said the accused people live in an ethics-free zone.
New Jersey has become a national embarrassment. Yet the state's attorney general was not involved in the federal crime bust. Crime prevention and prosecution are just not as important on the state level.
There is an inevitable search for reasons for such corruption. One is the large number of jurisdictions in New Jersey - school districts, municipalities, fire districts that spawn patronage jobs, contract considerations, campaign contributions and opportunities for money to be passed along in white envelopes at dinners, parking lots and private office meetings. Still, one would hope that public officials have a sense of public trust and would be horrified by a bribe. But in New Jersey, there is a special set of common expectations: Get what you can out of public service - bribes, pensions, second and third jobs. Against that attitude is a forgotten admonition of New Jerseyan Grover Cleveland - that a public office is a public trust.
Perhaps this generation is too set in its ways - too corrupt, too accepting of corruption, too prone to look the other way. It is said that the schools should focus on teaching ethics and civics. Let's just write off this generation, surely it is not the greatest generation. What a sad commentary on citizenship. It is bitterly ironic that a loyal, decent Jersey City cop's wake was taking place the very same day when the class of '09 was being exposed. They and we are unworthy of his sacrifice.
Michael P. Riccards is executive director of the Hall Institute of Public Policy -New Jersey, 224 West State St, Trenton, N.J. 08608.