* Federal Judge Downplays Official Corruption
- J.A.I.L. News Journal
Los Angeles, California February 28, 2003Federal Judge DownplaysOfficial CorruptionFormer 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 1970sand later a federal judge, said New Jersey's political corruptionis no worse than in other states. ...Locking Up N.J.'s Bad GuysLos Angeles Times, February 27, 2003A rookie federal prosecutor finds success not by chasing the mob,but by taking on the Garden State's corrupt politiciansBy Josh GetlinTimes Staff Writer[Excerpts]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 immensely......... 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 autonomy."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. -ed.] .......But even the most jaded observers were surprised by the number of small-town politicians caught up in Christie's crackdown last year..... "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 both communities.....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 BransonJ.A.I.L. is an acronym for Judicial Accountability Initiative Law
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