Bob Ingle, a veteran reporter with the Associated Press and Gannett, will speak on “The Soprano State,” the New York Times bestseller he co-authored with reporter Sandy McClure, at the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, February 5, at 11:30 a.m. at the Princeton Marriott Hotel. Price: $50. Visit www.princetonchamber.org, or call 609-924-1776.
Ingle and McClure also will appear at a book signing on February 5 at 7 p.m. at Chicklet Books, 301 North Harrison Street (www.chickletbooks.com). The authors will sign copies of their book, a look at New Jersey’s culture of corruption, which was published by St. Martin’s Press in 2008. Following is an excerpt from the introduction.
The legendary comedy team of Bob and Ray once performed a skit in which they pretended to be New Jersey mayors bragging about whose administration was the most crooked. One claimed he had the nation’s only corrupt visiting-nurse program
The skit came true in 2005 when U.S. Attorney Chris Christie gave the board of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey a choice. It could be taken over by an appointed federal guardian or face indictment for $4.9 million in Medicare fraud. UMDNJ may well have been the country’s most crooked institution for training doctors, dentists, and, yes, nurses.
Alleged Medicare fraud was just the tip of an operation that demonstrated the tried and true nature of things government-related in Jersey — take care of your friends and allies no matter what the mission statement says about what we’re here to do.
And it wasn’t just nurses. At UMDNJ’s hospital, the federal monitor who took over the hospital launched a probe in 2008 into whether doctors traded referrals to a failing cardiac surgery program in exchange for no-show university jobs. And it wasn’t just doctors. The monitor found dental students getting credit for classes they skipped on root canals, extractions, and crowns. Ouch!
In grade school when they go over the states and discuss what each contributes to the country, New Jersey’s could very well be that it’s the national comedic bull’s-eye. “Why are New Yorkers so depressed? The light at the end of the tunnel is Jersey.” It’s a staple of late-night TV.
Peculiar politicians and corrupt government have been constants since New Jersey was created, but something inexplicable happened in the early 1990s that speeded up the process. It’s almost as if the people who run the place wanted to see how far they could push the envelope, how much they could get away with.
Until recently there was no commercial statewide media, and that’s a part of how things got to be as bad as they are. North Jersey depends on New York stations for its TV news. Philadelphia network affiliates handle it for the south. Considering that newspaper circulation is falling and local TV news covers mostly fires, traffic accidents, and alley stabbings, it’s no wonder overburdened New Jersey taxpayers can’t name their legislators. New Jersey’s statewide TV is public television, which is owned by the state of New Jersey. Thus, everyone from the news anchor to the cameraman’s assistant gets a paycheck from the same place as the governor. This creates at least the appearance of a conflict.
To an outsider it looks like crime and political corruption are the fabric from which the Garden State’s government is woven. This fabric is woven so tightly that no institution or individual could ever reverse the flow of taxpayer money into the pockets of the politically connected. Read on and we think you’ll agree.
It starts, of course, at the top. There is only one statewide elected official, the governor. New Jersey has had, shall we say, some interesting governors recently, some of whom have managed to interest prosecutors as well as voters.
Perhaps the most interesting recent denizen of Drumthwacket, the governor’s mansion in Princeton Township, was Jim McGreevey, who among other things named a young Israeli with no appropriate experience to the job of homeland security adviser just months after 9/11. With a straight face, McGreevey talked of Golan Cipel’s many qualifications. Well, maybe “straight face” is not appropriate. When McGreevey stepped down, telling us at age 47 that he suddenly realized he is gay, his staff said that Cipel was someone with whom the twice-married McGreevey, who has two daughters, had an affair. Cipel was threatening a sexual harassment lawsuit, the aides said.
Before McGreevey, Donald DiFrancesco was acting governor because he was president of the state Senate, the position that steps in for a missing New Jersey chief executive. DiFrancesco was going to seek a full term but suddenly pulled out of the race after a series of stories by coauthor Sandy McClure and others centered on questionable land deals and loans and alleged unethical conduct.
DiFrancesco became acting governor when Christie Whitman left to be head of the Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush. She promptly made a fool of herself by insisting the Manhattan air in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks was clean and pure. Not even by New Jersey standards was that so. Rescue workers will undergo medical monitoring for the rest of their lives. Six years later, in June 2007, Whitman was called before a Congressional committee to explain herself. Basically, she blamed the terrorists.
Whitman, who had served only in a county post and as head of the state utilities board, came to office after defeating in 1993 one- termer Jim Florio, whose chief of staff, Joe Salema, was sentenced to a halfway house, home detention, and a $10,000 fine for a role in a $200,000-plus kickback scheme involving a Camden County authority.
But that’s just the governor. No one gets that job without the backing of powerful party bosses spread across the state and kissing the butts of special interest groups. These guys make the old days of Chicago look like Sesame Street. The bosses’ strength is raising campaign money, the mother’s milk of politics. The unions are good for turning out the vote on Election Day. In return, the legislature is more than happy to do the unions’ bidding.
Lower down the food chain, corruption thrives on unchecked conflicts of interest. A New Jersey mayor can also be a member of the state legislature and a partner in a law firm that benefits from legislation he writes. In New Jersey pretty much nothing becomes law unless it benefits somebody financially. Hardly anything happens solely because it is the right thing to do. The public’s welfare is often the last thing on the agenda. Unions and other special interest groups call the shots. Everybody else pays for it.
But, you ask, doesn’t that violate ethics laws? In other places, definitely. Think of the Garden State’s ethics laws as what banking regulations would be like if Bonnie and Clyde made them. Government creates agencies to keep mobsters out, and politicians find ways around them. What about the justice system and the courts? You guessed it. Scandal regularly engulfs judges and the attorney general’s office.
In New Jersey, government is not about taking care of what people can’t do for themselves. It’s about jobs. There is entirely too much government. Smallest of the Middle Atlantic states and 46th among the 50 in land area, New Jersey has 566 municipal governments and 616 school districts, some of which don’t have students but collect millions of dollars in local taxes and state aid and do have paid administrations.
New Jersey has more school superintendents than do the states of Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware combined. Add to that 187 fire districts, 486 local authorities, 92 special taxing districts, and 21 counties, all of which can add taxes — 1,969 taxing entities in total when counting the state, with its taxing arms, as only one — and the picture of a state with its hand perpetually in taxpayers’ pockets comes into focus.
The number of elected officeholders in local government is 19,119. Each is a part of a political fiefdom, a power base for politicians who employ supporters and ensure their loyalty with good pay and pensions out of line with the real world.
The workers, in turn, get out the vote to keep the pols in office and themselves on the payroll. State government has 154,500 workers, and local government employs 444,000, for an average of about 81 government workers per square mile. The national average, according to the Census Bureau, is six government workers per square mile.
Even less visible are the 50 state authorities — unelected, unac- countable independent bodies with the power to float billions of dollars’ worth of bonds without being subject to the vote of the people or supervision by elected officials.
Authorities are a useful way to get around the state constitution’s requirement that voters must approve borrowing. They’re dumping grounds for political deadwood, relatives, and boy or girlfriends, as well as a dandy way to reward allies with fat contracts.
The New Jersey Turnpike, for example, opened in 1951, and it is commonly believed that the Turnpike Authority was supposed to remove tolls when the road was paid for. That should have been decades ago, but the tolls are still there because politicians found out what a gold mine an independent authority is. In most states the highway department is responsible for roads because they are, after all, just strips of concrete.
In New Jersey it takes a huge bureaucracy in the form of an isolated authority to administer that concrete. And they keep the tolls because when they float bonds, they have to guarantee tolls will stay in place to pay off the bonds.
Should someone complain about raising the tolls, the response will be that most of the people paying them are just passing through.
The three most frequent excuses for government waste and excess are: People from out of town will bear the brunt of it; it’s for the seniors; and, it’s for the children. Taxpayers buy it every time.
Politicians want to keep the status quo, so they have New Jerseyans believing they drive on the best roads in the nation. That’s another thing about Jerseyans. They seldom go anywhere — probably because, thanks to the outrageous cost of living, they can’t afford to.
In Jersey, it’s not just the Sopranos who make news. Real mobsters do, too. One wiseguy, Angelo Frisco, was serving prison time for arson for hire when he was paroled under unusual circumstances, reportedly after a call from the governor’s office.
A state agency recently paid $260,000 to an outside company to create a slogan encouraging people to visit New Jersey. It chose “We Will Win You Over.” It sounds like people with a negative view of the state had to be convinced.
Bob Ingle has worked for the Associated Press, the Atlanta Constitution and Gannett, for which he is the Trenton bureau chief. He writes a syndicated column and a blog and appears on New Jersey 101.5 FM’s “Jersey Guys” show.
Sandy McClure is a veteran reporter whose New Jersey statehouse stories, first for The Trentonian and then for the Gannett State Bureau, span from Republican Governor Tom Kean to Democrat Governor Jon Corzine.
She also spent two stints in Pennsylvania covering government and corruption for five newspapers.