The Swamps of Jersey

In the wake of New York Gov. David Paterson's latest scandal, The Economist said "Dysfunctional Albany ... is frequently cited as the nation's worst state government—a title for which there is intense competition."

New Jersey is famous for being the most densely populated state in the country, but it's also the most densely corrupt. And I mean "dense" in both senses of the word: that is, "consisting of component parts that are closely compacted together" and "delightfully idiotic."

We might have a competition on our hands here if we restrict ourselves solely to the shenanigans of lawmakers working in or around the state capital, Trenton. Lord Cornbury, New Jersey's first Colonial governor, was famous for taking bribes and filling key posts with relatives. He also happened to enjoy dressing like a woman. One of Cornbury's most recent successors, Jim McGreevey, appointed a former Israeli naval officer named Golan Cipel to oversee the state's homeland security interests—not, it turned out, because he was qualified for the position (which foreign nationals aren't actually allowed to fill), but because he and McGreevey were allegedly having sex. When Cipel (who denies the affair) threatened to sue McGreevey for sexual harassment, the married governor resigned and came out of the closet.

The impropriety doesn't stop at Drumthwacket’s door. In 2008 former Newark mayor and then–state senator Sharpe James, who once saw his chief of staff go to jail on corruption charges after authorities discovered bricks of cash hidden in his floorboards, was convicted on five counts of fraud. His crime? Rigging the sale of cheap city land to his mistress so she could flip it for hundreds of thousands of dollars in profits. Charges that James had billed the city for meals, pornography, and body lotions, among other personal expenses, were dropped after prosecutors concluded that they wouldn't add time to his sentence. The same year, state Sen. Wayne Bryant, widely known in political circles as the "king of double dipping" for collecting salaries from as many as four public gigs at a time, was convicted of steering public money to the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in exchange for a job he didn’t actually have to do; prosecutors nailed his colleague, state Sen. Joseph Coniglio, for striking a similar deal with the Hackensack University Medical Center around the same time.

Nothing, however, tops last year's Operation Bid Rig, in which the FBI arrested a bunch of rabbis and nearly 30 New Jersey officials, including state legislators Harvey Smith and Daniel Van Pelt, for alleged links to a colorful scheme that involved—I kid you not—the “laundering [of] tens of millions of dollars and [the] black-market trafficking of kidneys and fake Gucci handbags.” (The trials are ongoing.) In Trenton we do counterfeit Italian luxury goods and vital human organs—and still find the time to daven. Take that, Baton Rouge.

Again, this is only a contest if we ignore the rest of the state. That means ignoring Enoch Lewis “Nucky” Johnson, the bootlegger-cum-pimp-cum-gambling king who lorded over Atlantic City from 1911 until his imprisonment in 1941. It means ignoring Frank “Boss” Hague, who enjoyed palatial homes, a private suite at the Plaza Hotel, and a fortune estimated at more than $10 million by the time he stepped down as mayor of Jersey City in 1947 (even though his annual city salary never exceed $8,500)—and whose desk at City Hall featured a custom lap drawer that slid outward to accept cash deposits from whoever was sitting on the other side. It means ignoring Rep. Frank Thompson and Sen. Harrison "Pete" Williams, who were caught in the early 1980s accepting bribes from an FBI agent posing as an Arab sheik. It means ignoring former Atlantic City Council president Craig Callaway, who was sentenced to three years in prison in 2008 for setting up a rival councilman with a prostitute in a motel room and secretly videotaping the encounter. It means ignoring Hudson County, where former county executive Robert C. Janiszewski once took more than $100,000 in payoffs and where residents—both living and not so living—have been known to cast their votes in perfect alphabetical order. And it means ignoring Newark, where every mayor since 1962 (except the current one, Cory Booker) has been indicted for crimes committed while in office.

Sure, you could ignore all of these indiscretions and focus solely on Trenton. New Jersey would probably still emerge victorious. But I suggest that you don't. Consider it an offer you can't refuse.

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