Why are New Jersey politicians so corrupt?

Brian Murphy
Senate Banking Committee member Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., center, sitting next to Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., right, arrives for the committee's hearing on Iran sanctions, Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Susan Walsh/AP Photo)

On Friday afternoon, CNN reported that the federal prosecutors in the Justice Department’s public integrity division are likely to soon file corruption charges against Robert Menendez, the senior U.S. senator from New Jersey.

The story was just one of several allegations of misconduct against elected officials in the Garden State to get an airing last week. On Thursday, a former state environmental commissioner accused a top aide to Gov. Chris Christie of interfering in a decade-long pollution case to give a break to ExxonMobil, prompting a state legislative hearing later this month. And on Wednesday, testimony continued in a federal courtroom in Newark where Joseph Ferriero, a former county Democratic party chairman, is being retried on corruption charges stemming from fees he extracted from developers and others looking to do business in the state.

That all of this was going on in one random week plucked out of the calendar in little old New Jersey seems sure to help solidify the state’s reputation as another Louisiana, widely known for its culture of political corruption.

Objectively, New Jersey’s sordid reputation may not be entirely deserved. The State Integrity Investigation — a data-driven project funded by Public Radio International, the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity — recently ranked New Jersey as the state with the least amount of corruption risk among all 50 states.

But it’s also not like the problems in the state are new. Chris Christie, after all, was elected governor in 2009 because as a federal prosecutor from 2002 until 2008 he made it his mission to aggressively — and very publicly — clean up a political culture that seemed unable to contain its appetite for graft.

Now Christie, too, has been drawn into the vortex of charges and countercharges. His successor in the federal prosecutor’s office is expected to soon file charges against some of the governor’s appointees at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the powerful bistate transportation infrastructure agency, as well as several inner-circle aides in Trenton, as part of a wide-ranging investigation stemming from September 2013 lane closures on the George Washington Bridge.

The reality is that the persistent corruption problems in New Jersey have endured despite decades of criminal prosecutions and tearful public confessions because of a set of circumstances and institutional arrangements unique to the state.

Taken together, these factors help ensure that no matter what politicians promise in Trenton, corruption in the Garden State will be hard to expunge.

1. New Jersey has a lot of government. It is a small state in terms of territory, but it contains 21 counties, each with its own government. Beneath them are 565 separate municipalities, most of which have their own independently elected school board  there are 590 school districts in all. Add in different utilities and public works authorities, like the Turnpike Authority or the Port Authority, and you have well over 1,100 subdivisions of government in addition to the state’s legislative and executive branches.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (C) and U.S. Senator Robert Menendez (R) applaud as U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey, December 15, 2014. (Larry Downing/REUTERS)

Just think about what these different entities get to do — and how many different opportunities for wrongdoing or influence peddling they afford. All of them can solicit bids for business, award contracts and set rates of payment. Most of them hire a law firm to serve as counsel. Most of them select a bank to manage public bond sales and law firms to act as bond counsel. Individually, any of these contracts can be lucrative. In aggregate, so many entities selecting so many winners presents a staggering amount of opportunities to get rich simply by being in politics while maximizing your ability to influence the people making those decisions. Add to them battalions of gatekeeping lobbyists, consultants and professional insiders who stand ready to help make the right introductions and set up the right dinners  for a fee, or preferably a monthly retainer.

Also think of the number of hiring decisions made by these entities. If you can help someone’s niece get a job where she’ll make a decent salary with good benefits and retire with a pension, you have a chip in the game, and you can expect something in return. In some quarters of politics, people dream of becoming president of the United States; in New Jersey, there are officials who spend their lives angling to be named a deputy chair of a water commission. It’s the kind of job where you can get to your shore house before traffic gets too bad on the Garden State Parkway on a summer Friday.

2. New Jersey’s political culture has become desensitized to bad behavior out of necessity. Conflicts of interest abound in ways that cannot be captured on disclosure forms or understood in conventional terms of independence and disinterestedness. Until 2008, New Jersey allowed plural office holding; someone could simultaneously serve as both a mayor and a state senator, for example. The practice was largely banned in the United States after the American Revolution because of corrupt abuses seen during British colonial rule, but in New Jersey it was common until the last decade.

People interact across different levels of government and across party lines so frequently that on a day-to-day basis, party affiliations seem like labels adopted out of convenience rather than conviction. State legislators hold part-time official positions and often have public sector jobs in their districts or, commonly, at law firms that participate in public sector work.

3. New Jersey is wedged between two big cities: New York and Philadelphia. Most of the time this is economically advantageous for New Jersey. But for political campaigns it means that television commercials are very, very expensive — and that means the campaigns are, too. State senate races can cost well over $1 million. Bob Menendez’s 2012 U.S. Senate race cost $10 million. New Jersey candidates without a personal fortune at their disposal must become experts in the care and feeding of donors.

4. New Jersey has an unusually strong governorship compared to the chief executives of the other 49 states. Chris Christie is the first New Jersey governor to share a ballot with a lieutenant governor. Before that, the governor was the only statewide elected official, and he or she runs for office in odd-numbered years so as not to compete with a presidential candidate. The governor gets to submit a budget to the Legislature, appoint judges to the bench and choose a cabinet — even an attorney general.

The reason the office is so powerful is because past reformers wanted to liberate the governor from the influence of county political party chairmen who finance and command local machines. Those party chairmen are still around; therefore the state has a strong governor and strong county party organizations. In one way or another, every recent governor has been captive to the whims of at least one county chair. Both Chris Christie and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker won their races in part because south Jersey’s Camden County Democratic powerbroker George Norcross III cut deals in northern Essex County that aided them.

In this Sept. 12, 2013 photo provided by the Office of the Governor of New Jersey, Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly, right, stands with Gov. Chris Christie, left, during a tour of the Seaside Heights, N.J. boardwalk after it was hit by a massive fire. Christie fired Kelly Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014, and apologized over and over for his staff's stupid behavior, insisting during a nearly two-hour news conference that he had no idea anyone around him had engineered traffic jams as part of a political vendetta against a Democratic mayor. (Office of Gov. Chris Christie, Tim Larsen/AP/Photo)

5. Most of New Jersey’s public officials are people of ordinary means who spend their time rubbing elbows with some very well-off donors. The fundraising demands of running for office in an exceptionally expensive media market sit awkwardly with the demanding small-time localism of the state's day-to-day officeholding culture. In some recent corruption cases, officials took bribes and gifts because they wanted to live richer lifestyles. New Jersey politics, a powerful state senator once told me, is about “wringing as much f-ing money out of the system as you possibly can before you get caught.” In some ways, it’s assumed and expected that you’ll take opportunities to get rich from being in politics and treating it as a career.

But in many other cases  particularly some that Christie prosecuted as U.S. attorney  officials were never charged with personally profiting from their acts. Instead, they were accused of performing illegal quid pro quo favors in exchange for campaign donations.

The transactional economy of doing favors naturally lends itself to the giving of gifts, and all of that can be rationalized by claiming that donors are in fact “friends.” “Christie criminalized politics” is a common complaint in the state, and it’s a legitimate one in a way.

Bob Menendez doesn’t seem likely to be accused of personally profiting from the aid he offered to Dr. Salomon Melgen, whom he calls a longtime friend. Rather, the senator interceded with agencies and officials on behalf of Melgen and accepted campaign donations from him.

Based on what’s come out in the retrial of Ferriero, Menendez seems like a good friend to have in your corner. In the early 2000s, most federal elected officials in New Jersey wouldn’t lift a finger on behalf of a developer looking to build a retail center at the Meadowlands, the home of Giants Stadium. But then-Congressman Menendez was eager to help, and in the end an executive leading the project called Menendez their “silver bullet.”

But that help didn’t come for free. Soon after, someone from Menendez’s office called to let the developer know that he was expected to raise $50,000 for the congressman’s re-election campaign within a few weeks. When the developer came up $30,000 short in May 2005, Menendez personally placed a call to his office. Rather than offer an excuse, the executive ducked the congressman’s call.

Ten years later, Menendez seems likely to be facing more reactions like that from his friends. After all, it’s New Jersey, and people in the game are already beginning to speculate about who will get to take his place.

Brian Phillips Murphy @Burrite is a professor of history at Baruch College who writes about the intersection of money and politics.