"I welcome this investigation" is oft said by politicians when news breaks that they're targets of corruption probes. Claiming nothing will be discovered except proof of their integrity and hence an investigation will work to their advantage. But despite this fabulous opportunity for enhancement, investigation invitations sent to U.S. Attorneys by politicians won't require an archive at the Library of Congress any time soon. Though pols may welcome investigations, none but the kinkiest welcome
shackles. Such as the ones New Jersey's Essex County Executive, Republican James Treffinger got to wear when his own, personal opportunity knocked with a 20 count federal indictment. In late October Treffinger was busted and handcuffed on the very street where he lives. Lending new imagery to the old lyric, "I have often walked on this street before". Later Treffinger complained of his treatment. The U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, Christopher J. Christie responded "Violent criminals and white collar
criminals are not going to be treated differently." If so, this would be music to many ears.
Essex is one of Jersey's most populous counties, containing within it Newark, the state's largest city. James Treffinger is the county's top official and chairman of the Essex County Republican Party. He's been partner in a major Wall Street law firm and has made several stabs at becoming a United States Senator. Last Spring, Treffinger was forced to withdraw from the Senate primary race after feds raided his offices, turning a simmering investigation into a public pop in the eye. The
Treffinger indictments focus mainly on "pay for play" municipal contracts. Particularly ones granted United Gunite Construction, a company specializing in a form of concrete sewer and road repair. Originally from the south, and with development interests in Nashville, Gunite eventually held contracts across New Jersey. Their political connections in the state were extensive. They also did some work in New York City, including repairs on the Statue of Liberty base. Gunite president W. Steven Carroll,
when asked for income verification in court in Jersey, supposedly claimed to be an attorney with the New York City firm which employs Bill Clinton. But then, a hustler will say anything.
Gunite did big business with both political parties, but since Jersey municipal machines tend to be Democratic, the donkey had the edge. By the time Treffinger's office was raided "Gunitegate" had been brewing for well over a year and had down sized a number of political careers. Treffinger was well aware the investigation was headed his way and according to the indictments, set about falsifying records of Gunite dealings. Yet he still went ahead with plans to run against Democratic Senator Robert Torrisullied. Perhaps Treff thought if he was elected, the investigation would crumble like the inner city sewers "repaired" by United Gunite. Allegedly Treffinger had a lot of faith in erosion. In statements captured by wire wearing associates, Treff supposedly expressed an alternate political ambition-- for a presidential appointment as U.S. Attorney for New Jersey. Saying "All this becomes moot if I get to be made the U.S. Attorney." And boo-hooing that there are "plenty of mobsters to go after. You don't have to go after all these poor politicians trying to ply their trade." Though similar complaints are made by rounded up hookers, the statement reveals Treff's heart of gold. Pols bagged and tagged in Jersey have been a bi partisan bunch. Treff's alleged empathy for those across the aisle is moving. Pols may bicker over hot button issues (the kind with little everyday impact)and in election races, call each other crooks, but they hang together when the chips are down. As Hudson County Freeholder Nidia Davila-Colon (also persecuted while plying her trade) allegedly said, before allegedly ferrying a bribe to confessed extortionist and ex-Hudson County Executive Democrat Robert Janiszewski, "If he goes down, I go down."
Jersey's corruption problems, and Conair poufed pols with delusions of aristocracy, are typical to older urban areas with machine traditions. Less typical is the airing corruption receives in the Jersey press. The state also has a lively online journalism scene. The civic minded, plus some mighty colorful ax grinders, have jumped on the Net. In most towns, one can generally find someone shining a light into the dark corners of local politics. Add the nearby New York City media which loves sneering at Jersey sleaze (while missing the fact that corrupt connections between NYC and Jersey are becoming seamless) and you have a situation that makes boosters cringe, but encourages those with a less negative take on public knowledge.
Speaking of knowledge, The Sopranos is always mentioned in context with Jersey. In a recent episode Tony Soprano invests in urban real estate. In Newark no less. Flipping run down properties in depressed neighborhoods with financial backing from HUD and a local non-profit affordable housing group acting as front. Every detail was there: inadequate oversight, phoney assessments, inflated values and curdled old radicals working social goodness for profit. A set-up now so recognizable nation wide, it can serve as mise en scene in a prime time drama.
Flipping properties in inner cities produces abandoned buildings or strip mine rentals. Which typically become drug warrens. Baltimore, Maryland, along with a reputation for crime, had by the late 90's acquired a rep as flip city. To the point where a federal flip task force was formed. Recently, a mass murder took place in Baltimore with components as common as flipping. A black family, Cornell and Angela Dawson and their five children, were tenants in a "bad" neighborhood. The kind where a lot of residents only go out in the morning because "drug boys" own the streets the rest of the time. There were seven dilapidated properties on the Dawson's street alone. Cornell Dawson was a construction worker and Angela was a stay at home mom. She walked her children to school and shot hoops with them in the concrete back yard. Both Angela and Cornell had become hated by neighborhood drug dealers because they refused to accept street trade. Angela, concerned for her children, was particularly vociferous, consistently reporting incidents to the police and hassling dealers hanging on her corner. Though some in the neighborhood backed the Dawsons, others did not. Fear was a factor (few in nabes where drugs rule believe in "anonymous" tips) but so were familial connections to dealers and benefits derived from their business. First came threats. Then came Molotov cocktails through the window. Which failed to ignite. The Baltimore Police suggested the Dawsons leave. They even offered to help. But the Dawsons did not want to be pushed out and responded in a way deemed heroic when facing terrorism or fighting for civil rights. They stood their ground.
Finally, on October 16th, a neighbor with a "drug history" kicked down their door in the middle of the night-- despite the prior threats and firebombings, there were no police outside the house-- splashed gasoline around and lit a match. Angela Dawson and her five children died in the burning house. Cornell Dawson, with burns over 80% of his body, died three days later.
A huge public outpouring of grief ensued. Plus masses of media attention. The kind residents of drug ridden neighborhoods seldom receive except in the face of dramatic disaster. The alleged murderer was a parole violator. Blame the parole board said some. The war on drugs was responsible for the war on the Dawsons, intoned others. Mayor Martin O' Malley at first said something like what mayors of cities with crime problems often say--the police can't be every where at once-- but grew increasingly
compassionate. Most local pols agreed on the need for more funding, in part to help establish more neighborhood watch programs to do what the Dawsons had been doing. A few said the man who burned a family to death should be numbered among the victims. Almost all agreed it was time to take back the streets. The drug boys said nothing. Being too busy making deals and ducking in and out of slums.
On a brighter note, Baltimore has a wonderfully redeveloped waterfront. A real model of urban revitalization.
Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff
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