January 11, 2009: Couldn't help but ho ho over a Reuters report that New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine was among a group of governors urging the federal government to provide the nation's states with a $1 trillion special stimulus package. The money would be used for general fund purposes (education, unemployment benefits, etc.) as well as for public works and to “stimulate the embattled housing market.” The initiative would supposedly last for two years. But as anyone who knows Jersey can tell ya, once federal funds become part of local economies the need never stops. The stimulus would keep coming till the sun flames out or corrupt pols cease to be. (Scratch the last. The sun will burst first.) Not to knock Jersey too hard; other govs seeking special stimulus include those from New York, Massachusetts, and Ohio. No rep for cleanliness there, there, or there.
Like “stimulus” the word “revitalization” is an open sesame for endless taxpayer “investment”. For decades, revitalization has been just around the corner in post-industrial cities. The ones ruled by hoary political machines. Without boatloads of federal and state goodies to dispense, such machines might have ground to a halt ages ago. Instead the cogs and cronies kept turning; grinding out various forms of graft, driving out the middle class, and choking off new solutions to urban dissolution. Mind you, we're not talking about hot spots, the places buoyed by dodgy financiers and foreign tourists, but the cities sometimes called “second tier”. Where the loss of manufacturing left a black hole and drug trade floats a hefty hunk of a permanent underclass and quite a few cops and bureaucrats. Development scams and real estate frauds are big too; you'd be surprised (or not) at how gullible and even complicit government and quasi-public agencies can be when lubed with revitalization talk. Imagine if stimulus speak proves even more persuasive. Cities frozen in time could remain that way for another century or two!
Not all cities on the revitalization train are permanently en route. Take Hoboken, New Jersey, where Governor Jon Corzine has a residence. Hoboken is in Hudson County, directly across the river from Manhattan. The strip of Hudson County along the waterfront is called the Gold Coast thanks to a near thirty year influx of condo-dwelling Wall Street workers. Despite the influx Hudson County politics are still dominated by a relatively small number of shopworn players affiliated with factions of a Democratic machine rooted in the 20th century rule (1917/1947) of Jersey City Mayor Frank Hague. The Tiki god of Jersey political bosses. Due to the region's population density Hudson County's machine has national clout. Corruption in the county is legendary-- even for Jersey. In 2005, then Senator Jon Corzine ran for governor as a reformer. Before doing so he moved to Hoboken. Belly of the beast, right?
Jersey has numerous cities where full revitalization is always just around the corner (see Newark, Camden, Trenton, Passaic, Paterson, etc.) but Hoboken isn't among them. The corner was turned in the 1980's when the city morphed into some of the most valuable real estate in Jersey thanks to the condo-dwelling Wall Streeters. But “revitalization” remained a mantra of pols and developers seeking federal funds and tax breaks. Imagine if “stimulus” is equally long lived. Players will die with smiles on their faces-- sans Viagra. Which incidentally, served as coin of the realm in one of Hudson County's more comic corruption cases. Wherein a sleazy doc in a county slot supplied a top cop turned freeholder with artificial get-up. Cash passed hands as well. The doc was wired, as part of a federal investigation into pay-to-play. The investigation began around 2001 and ultimately brought down powerful Hudson County Executive Robert Janiszewski and developer Joe Barry, president of Hoboken-based Applied Development Companies. Among other things, bribes Janiszewski gathered from Barry greased grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Over roughly 7 years more than 125 public servants in New Jersey have been convicted on federal corruption charges. Others have resigned under clouds or decided not to run for another term 'cause they wanted to spend more time with their families. The ranks of the sullied reach from the lowest office to the highest and stretch across party lines. Common themes are pay-to-play deals for public works and development projects, fraudulent real estate transactions, bid rigging, money-laundering, tax evasion, misuse of federal and state funds, and no-show jobs. Democrats are represented more heavily because Jersey is a blue state with tightly packed cities but Republicans wallow as swell. Among the earlier cases in the federal swath was the 2002 takedown of Essex County Executive James Treffinger.
Republican Treffinger, whose beat covered Newark, was gearing up to run for U.S. Senator but got snagged for pay-to-playing with United Gunite Construction, a company with a main office in Essex and contracts in municipalities all over Jersey. Roads and sewers were their specialty. Gunite wanted to “bring a touch of Las Vegas to the sewer industry”. Under the leadership of president W. Steven Carroll, Gunite bribed its way across the state. In South Jersey they bought the director of public utilities in Camden (the poorest city in the state) and contributed heavily to Mayor Milton Milan. Mobsters did likewise; Milan went to prison. The sewers repaired by Gunite crumbled. Up north in blighted Paterson, Guinite bribed Republican Mayor Marty Barnes with deluxe vacations, expensive suits, and female companionship. They built a waterfall in his backyard pool. The waterfall held up but Barnes went to jail. Ditto for Mayor Sara Bost (D.) of Irvington in Essex County. United Gunite is still out there...
Then there was Operation Bid Rig. Launched by the Feds in 2005, “Rig” rounded up some 20 public servants, many of them Republicans, in Monmouth, Ocean, and Somerset Counties in Central Jersey. Among those charged were former mayors of Ocean Township, Brick Township, West Long Branch, Keyport, Hazlet, Marlboro, and Asbury Park. The usual stuff. Pay-to-play for public contracts and development. By 2007 convictions and guilty pleas were rolling in. On January 6th of this year, Democrats took control of the Monmouth County freeholder board for the first time in 23 years. Under Republican rule corruption flourished. Former freeholder board director Harry Larrison Jr. (now deceased) was charged in Operation Bid Rig. Larrison headed the board for more than two decades.
Moving back up north--
In April, 2008, a jury found Newark Mayor Sharpe James, a Democrat tower of power, guilty of fraud. James steered blighted city-owned properties to his girlfriend. Her qualifications as revitalizing developer? Experience doing hair. In Jersey, being a pol's love object opens all doors. In 2004, ex Governor Jim McGreevey put his totally unqualified Israeli man-crush in charge of Homeland Security. When the appointment, plus a swirly of corruption scandals involving his administration, forced McGreevey to resign he came out of the closet and attributed his exit to being gay. Go figure.
In May, Mayor Mims Hackett Jr. of Orange (an Essex County township) pleaded guilty to extorting bribes in exchange for municipal insurance contracts and to billing the township for fake expenses. Like Mayor Sharpe James, who was simultaneously State Senator Sharpe James, Hackett did double duty. Serving the people as a state assemblyman. The federal sting that stung Hackett originated in an investigation of pay-to-play by members of the school board in Pleasantville in Atlantic County. It expanded north after the Pleasantville educators recommended buds in Passaic and Essex Counties interested in gathering green. Along with Hackett, officials charged in North Jersey in 2007 include Keith Reid, Chief of Staff to the Newark City Council, Jonathon Soto, a former Passaic City Councilman and rising Republican star, and Passaic Mayor Sammy Rivera, an ex-cop and prominent regional Democrat. When asked by a witness if a pay-for-pay deal was sewn up in Passaic, Rivera allegedly replied “I make the fucking decision...I've got the four fucking votes on the council. So let's stop bullshitting and let's get this thing rolling.”
In November, former State Senator Wayne Bryant, who represented Gloucester and Camden Counties for 25 years and served as state Senate Budget Committee Chairman, was found guilty on 12 counts of bribery and pension fraud. Bryant held a no-show “community outreach” job at the Camden campus of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ). In return, Bryant funneled $10 million in state aid to the school. UMDNJ, with a main campus in Newark and a presence in all of Jersey's 21 counties, has been at the center of federal investigations for years.
A witness at the Bryant trial also claimed that Senator Bryant and other key lawmakers, including State Senator Bernard Kenny (former Senate Majority Leader and member of the Joint Legislative Committee on Ethical Standards) controlled millions of dollars in an obscure state budget account dubbed the Property Tax Assistance and Community Development Grants program. Those with access allegedly doled as they saw fit. The program records are now open for examination. Bernie Kenny resigned in 2008. Like Governor Jon Corzine, Kenny is a resident of Hoboken in Hudson County.
Also from Hoboken: U.S. Senator Robert Menendez. Nuff said about him. In many places. And what about U.S. Senator turned Jersey City developer Robert Torricelli? Or ex State Senate President John Lynch, the New Brunswick boss convicted of taking “success fees”*? Then there's boss Ray Lesniak up north in Union and boss George Norcross down south in Camden. Walk on in with those eggs and hammy! And did you hear about the North Bergen boys or the municipal judges in Jersey City or--
One could go on and on. But time is limited. The special federal stimulus package for states pushed by Governor Corzine won't be. Not if the Jersey operators and their ilk in other corruption-riddled states have anything to say about it. And you can bet your tax booty they will.
Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff
Coda: On January 8th, former U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie filed papers to be the Republican candidate for New Jersey governor in the upcoming race. Christie led, or was heavily involved in, the federal investigations referenced above. Plus numerous others not covered.
*U.S. Inquiry into New Jersey Power Broker is Said to Focus on His Consulting Firm, David Kocieniewski, New York Times, 11/24/05
Sources include but are not limited to:
Christopher Christie files to run for New Jersey governor, Josh Margola, The Star-Ledger, 01/08/09
Democrats take control of Monmouth Freeholder board, Mary Ann Spoto, The Star-Ledger, 01/06/09
Witness in Bryant trial says N.J. lawmakers got millions to give constituents, Dunstan McNichol, The Star Ledger, 10/06/08
Hillary campaign honcho among 11 busted in N. J. sting, Helen Kennedy, Daily News, 09/07/07
United States of America v. Samuel Rivera, Criminal Complaint, United States District Court District of New Jersey, 09/05/07
Officials pocket cash as sewer crumbles, Clint Riley, Courier-Post, 10/22/00
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