Political corruption: lessons from the Soprano state

Anti-corruption crusaders are a staple of politics. Politicians love narratives that paint them as the judicious force that our society needs. But what ...

Apr 18, 2015

Anti-corruption crusaders are a staple of politics. Politicians love narratives that paint them as the judicious force that our society needs. But what happens when our beloved crusaders arrive to office? My home state of New Jersey, USA gives insight. Of the three highest ranking officials in the state of New Jersey, Governor Christie, Senator Menendez and Senator Booker, two have recently been accused of corruption.
With a history of state scandals, Jersey corruption has been frequently documented in popular culture, whether it be The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire or, most recently, American Hustle. The events of this past year and, more specifically, this past month, seem straight out of fiction. Alas, they are the harsh realities of anti-corruption crusaders reaching middle age.
Governor Christie, New Jersey’s hopeless presidential hopeful, has been accused of being the quintessential bully. In the ongoing Bridgegate scandal, Governor Christie is alleged to have sanctioned the closing of the George Washington Bridge, one of the most important connections between Manhattan and New Jersey, as retribution against the local Fort Lee mayor for refusing to endorse his candidacy for governor.
While conflicting reports about Christie’s knowledge continue to circulate, the extensive damage to his perceived character is certain. The governor’s approval ratings, according to a recent Fairleigh Dickinson University poll, have dropped to 35 percent, his lowest ratings since taking office five years ago.
It is hard to brush off the seemingly House of Cards-inspired emails from one’s deputy chief of staff, stating, “It’s time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Christie has likely avoided any legal ramifications for his administration’s actions, but in the face of a serious public outcry, the damage has been dealt. Corruption continues.
On the other hand, Senator Menendez, New Jersey’s senior senator and former chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, is confronted with a far graver judicial situation. Just last month, Menendez was indicted on multiple counts of federal corruption charges involving bribery, conspiracy and honest services fraud.
According to reports provided, Menendez received up to one million dollars from a wealthy Florida ophthalmologist in the form of lavish trips and personal gifts in an effort to influence Medicare legislation, creating millions in revenue for the doctor.
Although Menendez has pleaded not guilty and has support from the Democratic Party, the case comes after recent allegations of Menendez engaging in child prostitution on a trip to the Dominican Republic and rebuking the Obama administration’s Iranian nuclear negotiations.
Present support for Menendez from the Democratic Party and officials like Senator Cory Booker may be strong, but the senior senator has made enemies. Some see the Republican Party’s relative restraint in calling for impeachment as a sign of predicted conviction, a calculated strategy to drain Democratic super PAC money as the Party attempts to save face. Overall, Senator Menendez will not be coming out of this crisis unscathed, and neither will the state’s reputation.
Ultimately, although the narratives of Christie and Menendez differ, they both speak to a wider corruption problem in the state. Christie’s major political launching point was his 2002 appointment to US District Attorney, in which he prided himself on over 130 guilty pleas or convictions on corruption charges. His ultimate accession to governorship in 2010 was on the back of former Governor Corzine’s botched campaign amid sweeping corruption charges.
Similarly, Senator Menendez’s political launch point to mayor of Union City came after the city’s former mayor was racked by corruption charges. Menendez’s arrival in the US Senate then came only after Governor McGreevey resigned in the wake of a sex scandal, and the then-Senator John Corzine took McGreevey’s place, vacating a Senate seat for Menendez.
Even Corey Booker — Rhodes Scholar, Yale Law alumnus and saver of babies from burning buildings — got his start as Mayor of Newark after the former Mayor Sharpe James was convicted and jailed for corruption charges. One almost wonders if Booker’s clean record thus far can be based upon him taking office after Senator Lautenberg’s death and not any corruption allegations.
If New Jersey can give any wider lesson, it is to beware of those who claim to be forces of truth. Claimant and defender of the law are two very different roles. In the end, it is better to support those who maintain the law through practice rather than rhetoric. Crusaders and vitriol do not end corruption; rather, corruption is ended simply by not being corrupt.
Tom Klein is a staff writer. Email him at
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