N.J. politics yielding bumper crop of scandal

Torricelli case is famous, but only one of many of the state's problems

October 16, 2002|By Adam Lisberg | Adam Lisberg,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

HACKENSACK, N.J. - The corrupt New Jersey politician didn't flinch when he admitted taking bribes.

Robert C. Janiszewski answered the judge's questions rapid-fire, standing tall with his hands clasped firmly in front of him, in a majestic old federal courtroom in Newark. He said he had taken more than $100,000 from people seeking government contracts. He said he knew it was wrong. He stood stoically for half an hour, until the judge asked one simple question: "Why did you do it?"

Janiszewski, slim and dapper at 57, rocked back on his heels and slumped his shoulders forward. For the first time all morning, the disgraced former executive of Hudson County couldn't find any words.

"Um, I think that, um, I just made a very serious error in judgment over time," Janiszewski said haltingly. "I had turned away many attempts, many approaches over time, and this one, I just did not turn down."

He let out a big sigh and seemed to be twitching all over. A moment later, he pleaded guilty to two counts, and then he took off his glasses and dabbed at his eyes.

Recent headlines

In some places, this could be the stuff of a once-in-a-lifetime drama. But in New Jersey, it was just another episode in a seemingly endless saga of scandal.

Consider the headlines just from the recent past:

Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, dogged by a corruption scandal, dropped his re-election campaign recently before voters could throw him out of office.

Janiszewski said he had worked with prosecutors to expose other corrupt politicians in the state; prosecutors said an investigation continues.

Joseph R. Auriemma, North Bergen's top municipal administrator, pleaded guilty in September to taking gifts from a municipal contractor.

In July, Paterson Mayor Marty Barnes pleaded guilty to taking bribes and other gifts from a representative of a sewer-repair firm in exchange for no-bid municipal contracts.

And in April, Torricelli's presumptive challenger, Essex County Executive James W. Treffinger, withdrew from the Senate race after federal agents seized hundreds of documents from his offices.

To paraphrase the judge who heard Janiszewski's plea: Why do they do it?

`Public has to care'

"It sounds like there's a real basic lack of adherence to law there," said Peggy Kerns, director of the Center for Ethics in Government, part of the National Conference of State Legislatures. "The public has to care for these kind of things to change."

Kerns was quick to add that New Jersey isn't necessarily more corrupt than other states - a sentiment echoed by other political observers and prosecutors.

Still, political corruption seems somehow inextricable from the New Jersey mystique, like mobsters and the turnpike. It's as old as the ghost of Boss Hague, and just as difficult to eradicate.

Just keeping track of the ongoing investigations requires a scorecard:

Prosecutors are busy working with Janiszewski to build more cases involving Hudson County officials, as well as other Democrats. At the same time, prosecutors have won guilty pleas against a North Bergen commissioner and the township administrator. A decade-old probe into the Passaic County Republican leadership is still open, and no one knows what the Treffinger investigation will bring.

"The United States attorney's office, for as long as I'm here, will spend as much time and as many resources as are necessary to make sure that when this type of conduct occurs in our state, it will be ferreted out and it will be punished," thundered the man behind those investigations, Christopher J. Christie, New Jersey's U.S. attorney, as he stood flanked by other law enforcement officers at a news conference after Janiszewski's plea.

`My question'

"My question to the public officials of the state of New Jersey is: Why do you continue to do it?" he said. "How much more evidence do you need that this office will be vigilant and will be strong in terms of ferreting this conduct out? If you decide to place your public office for sale in this state, our office will be there. We will catch you. We will prosecute you. And we will put you in jail."

Since taking office this year Christie has increased the size of his public-corruption unit from 11 prosecutors to 14 and has declared open season on crooked officials. He says he wants his legacy to be a cleaner state.

But he also knows that he is following in the footsteps of other U.S. attorneys who have bagged major targets and gotten plenty of crooks out of office, and that it doesn't seem to stem the tide of the greedy and the stupid, looking to make a buck while in office.

"The only thing you can do, in light of the history that it continues to occur, is just raise your voice," Christie said later. "You'll never know how many people you deter by having a press conference like that today."

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