New Jersey can teach us something about ethics

This past week’s news from New Jersey was probably no surprise to veterans of Garden State politics.

Some 19 months after the infamous Bridgegate scandalbroke, onetime Chris Christie ally David Wildstein pleaded guilty to corruption charges connected to the closure of lanes on the George Washington Bridge, probably just the first criminal charge in the federal probe of the incident. A month earlier, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.,was indicted for allegedly exchanging favors for gifts and campaign contributions.

The two recent cases are but the latest in a long string of scandals that have given the state a uniquely sleazy image. Abscam. The troubled, if brief, reign of Gov. James E. McGreevey. The 2009 conviction of the newly elected mayor of Hoboken, part of a corruption case that included a motley outfit of small-town executives, state lawmakers, building inspectors and even rabbis.

The Garden State is utterly corrupt, a national joke, the story line reads. And there’s no hope.

But a closer look reveals a more complicated reality. Until Bridgegate, the past decade had seen few corruption charges against state-level officials in New Jersey, and that may be no coincidence: The shame of the McGreevey scandals led the state to pass some of the nation’s strongest ethics and transparency laws in 2005. Those reforms even helped New Jersey earn the top rank, with a grade of B+, in the 2012 State Integrity Investigation, a national ranking of state government transparency and accountability by the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International. That’s not to say the Garden State is squeaky clean, but by our most recent measure, it’s better than any other state in the nation.

Reformers say Bridgegate is a symptom of recent backsliding in Trenton, some of it tied to Gov. Christie’s GOP presidential ambitions. Perhaps. Bridgegate notwithstanding, however, New Jersey’s recent history may actually offer lessons for the growing inventory of other shamed state capitals where old-fashioned graft is making headlines more often. Like that capital over the river and up the Thruway in New York, for instance.

Of course, Hollywood and HBO have done New Jersey no favors, going all the way back to 1954’s “On the Waterfront.””Boardwalk Empire” depicted the roots of the special relationship between mobsters and politicians, while “The Sopranos” brought us up to date. “American Hustle” jogged our memories of Abscam, the decades-old FBI investigation that started with fictitious Arab sheiks targeting swindlers and forgers but metastasized to engulf the mayor of Camden and seven members of Congress, two from New Jersey.

And there was more: Under the McGreevey administration, the governor, several staff members, and the heads of various boards and authorities were accused of self-dealing, nepotism, misuse of state funds and other abuses. In 2004, the Star-Ledger found, the state saw one “corruption-related event” every three days, though many occurred at the local level. The “Bid Rig” scandal of 2009 rivaled Abscam: Once again, an investigation of white-collar crime – this time involving a cabal of money-laundering rabbis – sprawled into a corruption case that netted more than a dozen public officials and political operatives, again nearly all at the local level.

Much was the shock, then – for its authors as much as anyone – when the Center for Public Integrity report ranked New Jersey best in the nation in 2012. “Did you hear the latest joke about New Jersey?” one Hoboken-based Bloomberg News columnist wrote about the state’s rank. “. . . How did that happen? Easy. We bribed them.” The real explanation is a bit more subtle.

The report focused only on state government, not on local governments, which wield great power in the Garden State, are subject to a more forgiving set of laws and may still provide a nutritious agar for the petri dish of corruption. The report measured laws and systems meant to prevent abuse of power and encourage transparency and accountability, as well as whether they were effectively implemented and enforced.

The local-state divide also points to a murkier cause of New Jersey’s corruption, one that’s harder to measure: culture. Analysts say the state harbors an unhealthy mix of fragmented local governments, high-priced land and a history of transactional politics that has contributed to an attitude of entitlement among some officeholders.

“It’s a small state, it has a lot of valuable real estate, and local governments have very broad authority to declare parcels of land redevelopment areas,” said Brian Murphy, a Baruch College history professor who is working on a history of American political corruption. “A lot of people go into Jersey politics to get rich.”

The center’s report found that the 2005 reforms had some success in changing that culture. After McGreevey’s resignation, acting governor Richard J. Codey pushed through one of the most comprehensive ethics regimes in the nation.

“It was one of those post-crisis moments,” said Paula A. Franzese, a law professor at Seton Hall University who helped write recommendations for redrafting the state’s ethics laws. The legislature passed nearly all of those recommendations, which included the creation of a more powerful ethics commission, mandatory ethics training, anti-nepotism laws and greater transparency in state contracts.

New Jersey has seen a sharp drop in the number of state-level officials charged since then. Its stringent pay-to-play laws, which restrict campaign contributions from state contractors, have been emulated by Connecticut and Illinois, two other historically corrupt states that scored surprisingly well in the center’s report.

Can those improvements last? Besides Bridgegate, Christie’s administration has raised doubts among ethics advocates on other fronts. One effort to reform the Port Authority, the agency at the center of the Bridgegate scandal, died this year when the state Senate failed to override a veto by Christie (New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo vetoed a parallel bill; each state must pass identical laws to reform the bi-state agency). Lawmakers are now trying anew.

Christie has also drawn fire overhis taste for expensive travel, paid for by friends and donors such as Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire conservative casino owner, and Jerry Jones, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys. In February,Mother Jones reported that Christie’s administration was fighting in court against 23 open-records requests. And, perhaps most troubling to Franzese and other advocates, the State Ethics Commission under Christie has appointed an ally of the governor as its executive director, a post that has traditionally gone to more independent figures.

Over time,” Franzese said of the commission she once chaired, “it’s only as good as its custodians.” Kevin Roberts, a Christie spokesman, rejected claims that the governor exerted undue influence on the ethics appointment, noting that the commission unanimously approved the current executive director. He also said there was nothing inappropriate or illegal about the travel gifts Christie has received.

All of that may affect New Jersey’s score in the update to the State Integrity Investigation, on which reporters are hard at work in every state and which will be published later this year.

But a glance around the country reveals a host of states that still look worse than New Jersey.

The past two years have seen corruption-related arrests or convictions of the House or Assembly speakers of Alabama, Rhode Island, South Carolina and New York. The former governor of Virginiawas convicted. The governor of Oregonresigned. The former head of Mississippi’s prison system and a former state lawmaker pleaded guilty. Five current and former Pennsylvania lawmakers were arrested. As were three in California. Announcements of corruption charges no longer surprise anyone in New York, where at least 12 sitting or former state lawmakers have been arrested, convicted or sanctioned, or have resigned, after a host of ethical transgressions in the past two years alone.

New Jersey provides some hope that states with troubled histories can reduce corruption, even if they can’t eliminate it, by passing aggressive ethics laws with strong oversight. Otherwise, fuggedaboudit.

Kusnetz is a reporter and project manager with the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative news organization.