February 28, 2003
Former federal judge, upon hearing about New
Jersey's overwhelming corruption, states in defense that N.J.'s corruption is no
greater than anywhere else in the United States.
Herbert Stern, who was U.S. attorney
here in the early 1970s
and later a federal judge, said New
Jersey's political corruption
is no worse than in other states.
Locking Up N.J.'s Bad Guys
Los Angeles Times, February 27,
A rookie federal prosecutor finds success not
by chasing the mob,
but by taking on the Garden State's corrupt
By Josh Getlin
Times Staff Writer
NEWARK N.J. -- James W. Treffinger was the
political boss of Essex County and one of New Jersey's most powerful
Republicans. When rumors circulated that he might be the target of a federal
corruption probe, he scoffed, boasting to an associate that the rookie U.S.
attorney wouldn't know a law book from a cookbook.
Treffinger could not believe that a newcomer like
Christopher J. Christie would actually take on New Jersey's political big shots
and crack down on the corruption that has long been a fixture in the Garden
State. Critics joked that the fledgling prosecutor had been watching too many
episodes of "The Sopranos."
But no one's laughing any more. The U.S. attorney
indicted Treffinger on 20 counts of extortion, fraud and conspiracy, and the
indignant official was hauled into court in leg irons and hand-cuffs.
The arrest and humiliation of one of New Jersey's most
influential politician last year stunned many here.
Christie filed 26 cases against a multitude of
office holders in 2002, more than any other U.S. attorney's office, and won 17
convictions or guilty pleas. He promises that new indictments will be announced
in coming months, but for those New Jersey officials who might be his next
targets, the really bad news is that Christie... seems to be enjoying himself
.... In a state where the governor commands unusual
power-- appointing all constitutional officers, state judges and many lesser
office holders-- New Jersey's sole U.S. attorney enjoys a striking degree of
"I didn't anticipate coming in that we would be making
this kind of crime a focus," Christie said recently in his Newark office, which
commands sweeping views of Lower Manhattan. "But once I got here, it became
clear that the activity involving corruption would be brisk. We've been breaking
cases almost every other week, and I'm amazed. There is so much of this stuff
everywhere you look."
Christie .... has put New Jersey political
corruption at the top of his agenda.
Triggering shock waves from Princeton to Perth Amboy,
his office has established a zero tolerance for bribery, extortion and other
crimes by politicians, no matter how minor the offense. ...
Christie has had no shortage of cases to
prosecute, experts say, because of New Jersey's fragmented political structure.
Given the state's booming suburban growth, observers
say, there are many opportunities for officials to cross the line. Some of them
pocket small cash bribes from developers, convinced they will never be found
out. In other cases, people shower local politicians with huge campaign
contributions in a brazenly open "pay to play" culture of buying access-- and
municipal contracts-- in exchange for cash and other personal favors.
The corruption is pervasive, "almost an epidemic," said
Christie, who has been investigating officials from the top rungs of state
politics down to the obscure power brokers in small New Jersey towns.
Herbert Stern, who was U.S. attorney here in the early
1970s and later a federal judge, said New Jersey's political corruption is no
worse than in other states. ...
Given such history, New Jerseyans can't be blamed for
thinking that corruption is unavoidable. In 1981 and 1988 surveys by the
Eagleton-Rutgers poll, a majority said half of local politicians are corrupt.
[They appear to have overlooked the other half.
But even the most jaded observers were surprised
by the number of small-town politicians caught up in Christie's crackdown last
.... "You have mayors and other officials in New
Jersey with broad discretion to give contracts, often without any bids. You have
many governmental bodies, all with big pots of money to spend."
As new subdivisions, roads and shopping centers spring
up across the state, there are more opportunities for ethically challenged local
officials to "turn the corner, to cross the line" and either accept or solicit
bribes, he said. And the psychological pressures that cause someone to travel
down this path are distressingly common.
"We've seen so many cases where an official has been
approving contracts for years that make developers, highway construction firms,
and other people quite rich," he said. "And then, one day, this person asks:
'What's in it for me?' "
That's what happened to Janiszewski, a powerful ...
official in Hudson County who was thought to have a bright future in party
politics. But he was caught accepting a developer's $5,000 cash bribe at an
Atlantic City hotel by FBI agents who burst into the room minutes after their
hidden camera recorded the transaction. ...
Other officials have fought back, angrily proclaiming
their innocence and denouncing Christie for being overzealous. ...
Terrance D. Weldon had similar thoughts in Asbury Park,
believing he could shake down developers without getting caught, and his fall
has even Christie shaking his head. The most puzzling stories, he says, are
those where an official who has it all tries to steal some more.
Weldon, a community leader and former Asbury Park fire
chief, helped craft a sweeping redevelopment plan for the shabby, deteriorating
beach town made famous by Bruce Springsteen. Weldon was simultaneously the
town's city manager and the mayor of nearby Ocean Township, hugely respected in
According to prosecutors, Weldon accepted three bribes
totaling $64,000 from developers seeking approval for housing construction near
the Jersey shore.
In one case, he had taken $3,000 from a developer, and
then sought an additional $2,000 explaining that his family was going on
vacation and needed cash.
When federal agents raided his home, they found $50,000
stuffed in the vest pocket of a jacket hanging in his attic. Weldon agreed to
plead guilty, though he is not cooperating with authorities, and will face up to
20 years in prison when he is sentenced later this month.
The Asbury Park case, Christie said, is distressingly
typical of many local corruption stories.
"They all remind me of an old saying-- that you can
judge somebody's character by what they do when they think that nobody else is
watching," he said. "We have to change that mind-set here in New Jersey and tell
politicians that when we catch them, they won't be getting their wrists slapped.
They're going to jail."
All we can say is thank God that the judges in
New Jersey are above political corruption and bribe-taking. -Ron
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