Corruption charges against Sen. Bob Menendez add to NJ's colorful political history

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The corruption allegations facing U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez represent the most recent chapter in the sordid history of New Jersey politics.

Corruption in Garden State government by most accounts dates to Edward Hyde, the state's first governor under British rule. Accused by the state Assembly of taking bribes, embezzling funds and misusing his office, Hyde in 1708 was placed under house arrest in New York City. He nonetheless returned to England the next year as a pensioner welcomed by the royal court.

Since then, the state's landscape has remained ripe for corrupt government officials. Among New Jersey's 21 counties, 564 municipalities and 693 school districts, conflicts of interest are common and money is flowing.

Recently accused along with his wife, Nadine Arslanian Menendez, of accepting "thousands of dollars of bribes" in exchange for his power and influence, Menendez said the allegations are another "baseless" attempt to harm his career in politics.

“For years, forces behind the scenes have repeatedly attempted to silence my voice and dig my political grave,” he said in a statement.

Senator Menendez's rise to power

Sep 27, 2023; New York, NY, USA; Sen. Bob Menendez leaves the United States District Court in Manhattan. He has been charged with bribery in a federal indictment. Mandatory Credit: Michael Karas-The Record
Sep 27, 2023; New York, NY, USA; Sen. Bob Menendez leaves the United States District Court in Manhattan. He has been charged with bribery in a federal indictment. Mandatory Credit: Michael Karas-The Record

Menendez is correct in that the most recent corruption allegations aren't the first New Jersey's senior U.S. senator has faced. Menendez was indicted in April 2015 on 14 counts of criminal corruption, including bribery, conspiracy and false statements. Prosecutors said Menendez used his office to benefit a friend and campaign donor, Dr. Salomon Melgen, in exchange for nearly $1 million in gifts, trips and campaign contributions.

The Justice Department in 2018 dropped all charges after the trial ended in a hung jury. Menendez, as he did this month, said the allegations stemmed from a confusion between friendship and corruption, a defense also recently used by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

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Menendez's early years

Menendez's alleged ties to corruption date back much further, however, as part of Hudson County's political machine. In his first campaign — a bid for the Union City school board at age 19 — Menendez ran on a slate supported by William V. Musto. Musto, who ultimately served 36 years in the state Legislature before being indicted on charges of racketeering, extortion and fraud, mentored Menendez in the 1970s and employed him as an aide before the two parted.

In 1982, Musto was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison. Menendez testified against him. He also challenged him for mayor, an election he lost to Musto, who was unable to serve. Menendez became mayor in 1986 by "taking on his powerful hometown mayor and a corrupt political establishment," according to his website.

When he was running for U.S. Senate in 2006, Menendez's history with Musto returned as a talking point, with The New York Times reporting Menendez's involvement in securing $30 million in federal money for a Bayonne development. Development contracts were signed with a company that hired Menendez, one of his former aides and a close friend as lobbyists, and Menendez's former campaign treasurer was brought in as a partner. Bonds for the project were underwritten by a significant Menendez campaign contributor.

Then Gov. James McGreevey at the League of Municipalities Convention at the Atlantic City Convention Center in 2003.
Then Gov. James McGreevey at the League of Municipalities Convention at the Atlantic City Convention Center in 2003.

Also in 2006, federal prosecutors started investigating a rental agreement between Menendez and a nonprofit agency. He collected rent, the nonprofit received federal grants and its employees helped fund his U.S. House of Representatives campaign.

Menendez said he received a prior OK from a House Ethics Committee official, but records revealed that the official no longer worked there.

Even Menendez's 2005 appointment to the U.S. Senate was controversial. He was hand-picked by his predecessor, the then-new Gov. Jon Corzine. Corzine had replaced Gov. Jim McGreevey, who resigned after admitting to an affair with his underqualified homeland security adviser, Golan Cipel, who was threatening a sexual harassment lawsuit.

Assemblyman Eric Munoz, the highest-ranking Hispanic Republican in the state Legislature at the time of Menendez's Senate appointment, derided the selection.

"Bob Menendez has proven time and again that his only interest is the ambitions of himself and his cronies," he said in 2005. "We need leaders who define honesty and integrity, not self-interest."

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New Jersey's colorful political history

Corzine's selection of Menendez was thought by most pundits to be heavily influenced by party bosses who helped him raise money and win the governorship, including George Norcross in Camden County and John Lynch in Middlesex County. Lynch, a former mayor of New Brunswick who spent 20 years in the state Legislature, in 2006 pleaded guilty to fraud and tax evasion. Lynch admitted to taking $25,000 in bribes from a company in exchange for help securing state permits and spent 30 months in prison.

Lynch was one of many political bosses who have shaped New Jersey politics over the years through their influence on candidate selection and campaign fundraising. The prototype for corrupt political bosses was Frank Hague, who lorded over Jersey City from 1917 to 1947. Patronage and pay-to-play were the norm under Hague, who was the subject of multiple investigations for his use of political power for personal gain.

Hague made millions in mostly cash kickbacks. He rigged elections. His personal attorney, Thomas J. Brogan, helped him navigate corruption hearings and election investigations — the latter as a state Supreme Court justice. Hague was never convicted of corruption. He was never even charged.

Former US Senator Robert Torricelli in 2002.
Former US Senator Robert Torricelli in 2002.

Kickbacks have nonetheless been the downfall of many Garden State politicians. Former U.S. Rep. Hugh Addonizio in 1970 was found guilty of conspiracy to receive $1.5 million from contractors in exchange for favorable treatment while serving as mayor of Newark. In 2014, Trenton Mayor Tony Mack was found guilty of receiving bribes to sell city property below market value. Another Newark mayor, Sharpe James, was convicted in 2008 of having his mistress sell city property. He was also found to have used campaign funds for his legal defense.

Claims of illegal campaign contributions ended Robert Torricelli's 2002 reelection campaign after seven terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and another in the U.S. Senate. Earlier in 2002, Torricelli was rebuked by the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Ethics for receiving improper gifts from businessman David Chang. Chang, a campaign donor, had pleaded guilty to violating federal election laws, leading Torricelli to publicly apologize before stepping down. Torricelli later gave his campaign money to the nonprofit Rosemont Foundation rather than the Democratic Party.

Although Torricelli evaded charges, three other politicians were busted in 1980 after a Federal Bureau of Investigation sting. U.S. Sen. Harrison Williams, U.S. Rep. Frank Thompson and state Sen. and Camden Mayor Angelo Errichetti were all caught in the ruse involving a fake Long Island company called Abdul Enterprises. Federal agents posed as Middle Eastern sheiks seeking to invest oil money using a variety of illicit means. Art thieves, fences and fake stock brokers were targeted, as were politicians willing to take bribes for help securing licenses and permits.

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Movies, series about NJ politicos

Re-created in the 2013 movie “American Hustle,” the sting landed all three influential politicians in prison. A U.S. senator for 23 years, Williams was convicted on nine counts of bribery and conspiracy to use his office to aid business ventures before his 1982 resignation. Thompson and Errichetti were also convicted of bribery.

Another sensationalized Hollywood reenactment, "Boardwalk Empire," detailed the life of political boss Enoch "Nucky" Johnson. Johnson linked Atlantic City government and organized crime starting in the early 1900s but was most influential during Prohibition. Johnson ensured a lack of liquor law enforcement in Atlantic City and took kickbacks from the industry he protected. Johnson famously flaunted his wealth and eventually was hit with tax evasion charges. Convicted in 1939, he spent 1941 to 1945 in federal prison.

More recently, Atlantic City has seen two mayors get caught up in the courts. Early-1980s Mayor Michael Matthews served a prison term after admitting to taking a $10,000 bribe. His successor, James Usry, was charged with conspiracy, bribery and official misconduct and later pleaded guilty to violating campaign finance law.

Three more mayors were caught up in the federal investigation that led to the 2009 indictments of 44 people, including two legislators and more than 20 candidates for political office. Called Bid Rig III, the investigation was started by then-U.S. Attorney Chris Christie to look into bribes for permits and contracts. Although most were cash, one bribe involved a human kidney.

It ultimately spurred the resignation of the state's community affairs commissioner, former Bayonne Mayor Joseph V. Doria Jr., who had his home raided in the investigation but was cleared of all charges.

Among those arrested were Hoboken Mayor Peter J. Cammarano III, Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell, Assemblyman L. Harvey Smith and Assemblyman Daniel M. Van Pelt, a Republican from Ocean County.

This article originally appeared on Sen. Bob Menendez indictment adds to NJ political scandal history