Nelson Johnson
Hedshot of Attorney Nelson Johnson, Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2002. MICHAEL EIN

"People get the government they deserve." That's as true today as it was 2,500 years ago when first expressed by Aristotle. "We the people" could reduce corruption in government if only we cared a little more.

That said, I must confess that New Jersey stands out. Our state has a penchant for corrupt government like few others. The most recent batch of indictments - 44 in all - is no milestone, just another layer of pavement in an embarrassing road we all know well.

What makes New Jersey special are the layers and numbers of governments we've grown accustomed to and the proximity to our leaders that we demand. New Jersey, the most urbanized state in the country, is fragmented into 1,635 units of local government, including counties, municipalities, school districts, local public authorities and special taxing districts.

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Some context: New Jersey has more school districts (605) than New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania combined. Amazing, huh? Why such a splintered government when less works well (better) in other states? Because that's the way it's been since colonial times and because we want government close to us.

"Home rule" is sacred to us. When we want something from government, we seek a familiar face to talk to. Regardless of the issue - getting trash collected on an off-week, a new street light, your child's ride on a school bus, an application for a zoning variance, extension of a sewer main or fighting an ordinance violation - we demand our local officials to be accessible. But there's a price for all that access, and its not just high property taxes to fund our many fiefdoms.

One by-product of so much home rule is increased opportunities for corruption. Our state's history shows us that too much government yields too many doors to be knocked on, too many self-important public officials who believe they're underpaid and too many fingers that money will stick to when someone wants to buy greater access.

Swindlers and politicians have been partners in New Jersey forever. An early example is the Legislature's abolition of slavery in 1804. Predictably, slave masters were upset. So they were granted a hidden bonus - a subsidy of $3 per month for each freed child. Black children were to go to the "overseer of the poor," which dutifully declined to take them. Slave owners then had the children placed with themselves and collected the money. A line item for "abandoned blacks" was in the state budget for years.

As our state developed - and more municipalities were carved out of existing ones - contracts for building everything from roads, bridges and sewer mains to municipal buildings, schools and parks became (and remain) tempting targets for pilfering tax dollars. As the number of public agencies and officials multiplied, so, too, did the occasions for graft and bribery.

From today's vantage point, we can see that there was a moment in our state's history when we had the chance to at least minimize the playing fields for corrupt politicians. That was when the state constitution was re-written in 1947.

The driving force behind that effort was Arthur Vanderbilt, who became the first chief justice of the new Supreme Court. Of necessity, Vanderbilt's focus was limited to modernizing the court system. He knew that Hudson County boss Frank "I and the law" Hague liked home rule just fine.

As it was, Hague didn't want the courts touched either, and his battle with Vanderbilt is an epic in New Jersey's history. It's a tribute to Vanderbilt's tenacity that he succeeded. Today, New Jersey's court system is one that jurists throughout the nation hold up as a model. Not so, for our local government. Arthur Vanderbilt left the reform of home rule for another champion. Unfortunately, no one has stepped forward.

While corruption is as old as our state itself, in some communities - Atlantic City and Jersey City being the best examples - it's a time-honored tradition. A FBI agent once said to me, "Looking for politicians on-the-take in those two towns is like shooting fish in a barrel."

A final thought: As a historian, I'm intrigued by the decline in professionalism among our state's public thieves. In researching "Boardwalk Empire" I became friends with former Mayor Dick Jackson who had spent time in federal prison as one of the "Atlantic City Seven." In assessing some of the more contemporary fallen politicos, Dick observed, "At least we knew how to run government. City business and the people got taken care of before we were. These guys are greedy amateurs." He added quizzically, "Who the hell takes cash from a stranger?"

I can only imagine what Dick might say were he with us today and observed the bumbling that led to the current indictments.

Alas, even political corruption isn't what it used to be.

Nelson Johnson is a Superior Court judge and a historian. He is the author of "Boardwalk Empire" and a sequel, "The Northside," which will appear in 2010. The views expressed here are his alone as a historian.

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