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N.J. politics yielding bumper crop of scandal


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."

One of the most insidious effects of corrupt politicians is that they inevitably make their honest colleagues look bad, Christie and others said. Yet some observers drew a crucial distinction: New Jersey's voters may be cynical about corruption, but they don't tolerate it, either.

"The public thinks, 'Ah, well, they're all crooks.' But I don't think the public likes it," said Alan Rosenthal, a professor at the Rutgers Eagleton Institute of Politics. "Our expectations for the behavior of politicians keep being raised."

Example One, he and others said, is Torricelli. The federal probe into him and his campaign was closed without an indictment; when the evidence went to the Senate Ethics Committee, Torricelli's peers "severely admonished" him rather than pursue any more serious punishment.

But, if the polls can be believed - as they obviously were by leading Democrats in the state - the revelations of Torricelli's activities made him radioactive to the public, forcing him to leave the Senate after 20 years of elective office.

DiFrancesco case

That's similar to what happened last year to former acting Gov. Donald T. DiFrancesco, who dropped his gubernatorial campaign after ethical questions arose from his business dealings. And earlier this year, when Barnes ran for re-election as mayor of Paterson, he got trounced at the polls even before pleading guilty.

"Corrupt politicians in New Jersey get thrown out of office," said Herbert J. Stern, who would know. In his three years as the U.S. attorney for New Jersey, starting in 1971, he won convictions of crooked politicians including the Democratic boss of Hudson County and the mayor of Newark, among others.

"The people in New Jersey are really no different than anywhere else," Stern said. "Human beings are human beings. There's nothing about the soil or the air or the water that makes its people inherently different."

So why does corruption seem so endemic in New Jersey?

Christie offers one idea: The sheer size and expense of government in the state, with its hundreds of municipalities and agencies and obscure tax-funded boards, offers endless opportunities for politicians to dip their hands in the till, if they're so inclined.

"At the end of the day, the character of the people you elect matters a great deal," Christie said.

Another theory holds that corruption may sprout in urban areas because the bureaucracy of big-city government is so stifling. The idea is that businesspeople find it easier to slip money to a politician than to navigate red tape in city hall.

Tom Kean isn't sure about that one.

"You're supposed to do that by contributing to his dinner for re-election," the former governor said. "So why would you have to do it under the table?"

Kean spent a long and clean career in politics, and though he did not rake in cash-stuffed envelopes like some of his colleagues, he nonetheless amassed plenty of stories about a system that seems to regard payoffs - illicit and otherwise - as the price of doing business.

For example, when he ran for governor and met with county chairmen, who promised to support him in exchange for government jobs, sometimes complete with salary requirements. His real estate friends tell him about the counties and the towns where nothing - nothing - gets built without someone getting paid off.

His experience leads him to believe voter turnout will be low in the November election. Torricelli's ethical problems, his withdrawal from the election, and the arguments about whether to replace him on the ballot will simply convince New Jersey voters that there's no point in caring about a broken political system, Kean said.

"The suspicion that they all do it is very harmful," he said.

And very pervasive. Outside the federal courthouse in Newark, as one of Janiszewski's attorneys parried questions from reporters, a postal worker named Leroy Jones stopped to watch the spectacle. After 26 years working nearby, he said, he's used to seeing lawyers for fallen politicians standing on the courthouse steps.

"Politics is politics, and everything that happens in politics is backroom deals and things happening undercover," said Jones, 47. "So nothing surprises me."

Come on, he was asked. Do you really believe that?

Well, no, he acknowledged: "By and large, I'd say most of them are honest."

But when you think about New Jersey politics, he said, you end up thinking about the crooks. They're everywhere.

"Jersey's always been a hub of political intrigue," Jones said. "Jersey has - I'm not going to say that stigma - but it has that influence. That's the way Jersey politicians have always been, and that's the way they're always going to be."

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