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Corruption on the run in N.J.
|Corruption on the run in N.J. |
Sunday, September 23, 2007
The crimes have been outrageous -- like the Port Authority commissioner who admitted trying to silence a witness by setting him up with a prostitute and secretly taping their tryst. Or the judge who traveled to Russia to film himself having sex with a teenage boy.
They've also been mundane, like the MVC workers who ran their own driver's license mill.
But the list of government officials and employees arrested by federal agents in New Jersey the past several years shows a spectrum of public servants -- from state senators to building inspectors -- who authorities said were eager to sell their offices for cash.
For U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie, it's a never-ending well.
"Our approach is that there really is no act of corruption too small," said Christie, in an interview with The Record.
More than 125 government officials and employees in New Jersey have been charged with corruption-related crimes in the nearly six years since Christie took office.
The vast majority -- 92 public servants in all -- pleaded guilty. Two of them died before they were sentenced. Ten more went to trial and were convicted. Two died while charges were pending.
None have been acquitted.
In addition to the public servants -- 22 of whom are still facing indictment or awaiting trial -- two dozen developers, contractors, vendors and political operatives were swept up in the probes.
Critics, particularly Democrats, have repeatedly accused the Republican appointee of targeting certain officials while attempting to set the stage for a gubernatorial run. Among the elected officials charged by Christie's office, Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 2-to-1.
If he were pursuing cases merely to be partisan, Christie responded, there would at least be some acquittals.
"Corruption is corruption, no matter which party is doing it," he said. "Both have participated in it in this state and both have been brought to task for it by our office."
At the same time, he quickly noted that more Democrats are currently in office than Republicans, tilting the probability factor.
Describing municipal and school boards as "farm teams" for higher office, Christie said, "you need to try to nip this stuff in the bud at the local level before they get into positions of greater power where they have the opportunity to steal even more money."
Although U.S. attorneys are appointed by the president and ordinarily are committed to the administration's general policies, they have the legal authority to set their own course.
Nationwide, federal prosecutions for drugs, violent crime and certain white-collar offenses have declined in recent years, amid a shift in priorities after 9/11 and budget restraints. The total number of criminal cases brought by U.S. Attorneys' Offices peaked in fiscal 2004 and dropped by 4.5 percent between then and 2006, according to the latest Justice Department data.
Christie says his office has bucked the trend, in part, thanks to federal agencies "that have continued to be willing to place resources on criminal investigations and not just terrorism."
A former corporate lawyer, Morris County freeholder and fund-raiser for President Bush, Christie has a staff of 139 lawyers in what is the nation's seventh-largest U.S. Attorney's Office. Its corruption unit had seven attorneys when he arrived. He's more than doubled that to 16.
The group is led by James Nobile, a 15-year veteran of the office whom Christie calls "one of the finest prosecutors I've ever met. He's creative, he is incredibly detail-oriented, and he works harder than anybody I know."
The cases are often built by the FBI, IRS and other agencies with the help of cooperators who take investigators inside the conspiracy. They are bolstered by audio and video evidence that leave little wiggle room for targets.
The latest undercover sting, "Operation Broken Boards," is a case in point.
Following an alleged trail of corruption from a South Jersey school board, the FBI on Sept. 6 arrested 11 officials, including mayors, councilmen and assemblymen from several North Jersey cities, on charges of trading influence for bribes. Many of them were recorded in the act of taking cash or other gifts, investigators said.
"If we took the position that looking at one board of education in a relatively small suburb in Atlantic County was not worth our time, we wouldn't have gotten all these public officials," Christie said.
Having had "a ringside seat" the past six years, Christie said he's come to believe New Jersey's corruption stems from "too much government."
"When you have 566 municipalities, 612 school boards, 21 county governments and a $34.5 billion state government, that's a lot of government to get honest people to staff and for law enforcement to effectively keep an eye on," he said. "This culture of corruption in New Jersey is a culture of just much-too-much government for anyone to effectively staff or police."
Citizens "need to become directly involved" in holding public officials accountable, he said, repeating a frequent theme.
"The public needs to understand it's their democracy," Christie said. "So it's their problem, too."
The list of public servants in New Jersey charged with federal crimes in recent years is diverse. North Jersey names are listed.
15 council members/ commissioner
5 state legislators
2 county executives
92 guilty pleas
10 trial convictions
58 prison sentences
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