On Friday, Trenton Mayor Tony Mack was convicted on six federal corruption counts for soliciting bribes from parking garage developers. Sworn to uphold the law and serve the people, the mayor was found guilty of bribery, extortion, mail fraud and wire fraud in an expensive trial with heavy use of technology and informants.
It’s an all too familiar story in New Jersey, the very thing that gives our state its sorry reputation for rampant corruption, and the kind of thing that opens the door to crime: If the mayor is corrupt — and usually such information is local public knowledge long before the feds get involved — why should anybody else obey the law? Crooks need have no fear of prosecution in a town with a corrupt mayor.
Mack joins a growing list of New Jersey officials convicted on federal public corruption offenses. At least 17 mayors have been convicted since the 1970s when Newark Mayor Hugh Addonizio and other officials were taking kickbacks from city contractors. Besides mayors, though, hundreds of lesser officials in our fine state — building inspectors, zoning commissioners and even school board members, among others — have also been convicted of bribery, extortion and fraud. And that’s just the convictions.
Consider also the hundreds of convictions for non-corruption offenses, such as making false statements, obstruction of justice, election fraud, tax evasion, money laundering, perjury and campaign finance violations, along with thousands of cases where the defendant did the deed, but wasn’t convicted or even charged.
So rampant is the practice of greasing official palms with cash and gifts — from outright bribery to more subtle “courting” of officials with baskets of liquor, tickets to ball games and contributions to election campaigns — that vendors say they expect to spend money when they come to New Jersey, or they don’t come at all.
It’s enough to make you wonder whether anything can and will be done. In “The Soprano State: New Jersey’s Culture of Corruption,” Bob Ingle and Sandy McClure argue convincingly that the sheer number of public officials in New Jersey — more than 80 per square mile, exponentially more than most states — creates two big problems: Too many potential targets for the unscrupulous, and so many people with their hands in the till that police and prosecutors can’t keep up. Anyone who questions the value of shared services or regionalization should consider that.