With arrests, New Jersey stakes claim as corruption capital

Latest dragnet includes mayors and state assemblymen with 44 arrests so far.

Louis Lanzano/AP
Acting US Attorney Ralph J. Marra Jr. speaks at a news conference with Newark division special agent in charge Weysan Dun, right, and special agent Julio La Rosa, left looking on Thursday in Newark, New Jersey.
Louis Lanzano/AP
FBI agents lead arrested suspects from their headquarters as part of a corruption investigation,Thursday, in Newark, N.J.

Move over Illinois and Louisiana. New Jersey is vying to be the most corrupt state in the nation.

The state, which has watched many of its public officials sent to jail in the past, is now trying deal with the latest news.

On Thursday, 300 agents from the FBI and the IRS's criminal investigation division swooped in and started rounding up three mayors, a state assemblyman from Ocean County and even someone identified as the chief rabbi of the Syrian Sephardic Jews in Brooklyn. So far, the dragnet has resulted in 44 arrests, and officials indicate there might be more to come.

The arrests are part of a 10-year investigation called Operation Bid Rig, which has already resulted in the arrest of 48 other officials. In the latest round, the FBI used a "confidential witness" who, among other activities, is alleged to have offered officials bribes to move his development projects to the top of the pile.

The federal prosecutor says his office has audio and video tapes of meetings that took place in diners, bathrooms, and offices to back up its claims. "We feel very confident about our evidence," says acting US Attorney, Ralph Marra Jr.

The arrests prompted federal law enforcement agents to call the state one of the most corrupt, if not the most corrupt, in the nation.

Federal officials talk about the state having a political "culture" of corruption. Mr. Marra says the newly elected mayor of Hoboken, Peter Cammarano III, even joked that he could be indicted and still get 85 to 95 percent of the vote.

At a press conference, Marra said efforts by solid citizens to clean up the state had been met by derision. "They get shouted down," he said.

Political commentator Larry Sabato, who has written two books about New Jersey's corruption, says part of the blame lies with the residents.

"It could never have survived or gone as deep without a wink or a nod from the voters," says Mr. Sabato, a professor at the University of Virginia. "They have not punished the people they should have punished."

But, he says, the state is also at fault for allowing public officials to hold multiple public offices at the same time. "You can be a state assemblyman, a mayor, and freeholder [comparable to a county commissioner] all at once," he explains. "It gives them multiple salaries but it leads to corruption."

According to Bennett Gershman, a former New York special state prosecutor investigating corruption, one of the main reasons for so much public graft in New Jersey is because local prosecutors are not doing their job.

"In a sense government officials feel they have a green light," he says. "They have no prosecutor hanging over their shoulder, and I would say that is not a minimal factor but an important factor."

The corruption is engendered as well by the lack of political competition, says Randy Mastro, former deputy mayor of New York under Rudolph Giuliani.

"In certain geographic parts, there is one party rule," says Mr. Mastro who grew up in New Jersey and is now at the law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher in New York. "When that is the case you have more potential for corruption because the criminal types know who they have to bribe."

Transparency International, a global nongovernmental organization dedicated to increasing public accountability and combating corruption, quotes an unnamed scholar, as saying the state "is the epicenter of the nation's corruption."

Mr. Sabato says he might have made the statement. "I've said it many times." However, Sabato says New Jersey is not necessarily the worst. It shares that title with Illinois and Louisiana, in what he terms "the unholy trinity."

"All three are tied," he says.

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