To an outsider, New Jersey politics often seems like a den of corruption. The latest series of arrests doesnât do much to change that reputation.
This week, eleven local politicians and one co-conspirator were arrested as part of a statewide bribery scandal. The crowd runs the gamut of the political scene: mayors, assembly members, staffers and local council members have all been charged. The list is dominated by ten Democrats, although one Republican makes it a bipartisan affair.
The story is slowly unfolding, as the FBI has only disclosed enough information to provide probable cause for the arrests. But it is clear that the operation began in the town of Pleasantville, where FBI agents posed as representatives from an insurance company and a roofing agency. Agents met individually with members of the townâs education council, setting up deals throughout the past year to pay cash bribes in exchange for contracts.
It would have made for a quick story of small town corruption, but the Pleasantville school board members recommended that their new FBI friends look for more "business" upstate. From there, the FBIâs insurance company bounced from willing politician to willing politician, taking them to the cities of Newark, Orange, Passaic and Patterson. As in all prime cases of local corruption, underhanded deals were carried out in parked cars and restaurants.
The two highest ranked officials are Alfred Steele, a state assemblyman, and Mims Hackett, Jr., also an assemblyman as well as the mayor of Orange. It was on Steeleâs recommendation that investigators were introduced to Hackett; both men promised to help the would-be insurers obtain state contracts in exchange for cash.
Christopher Christie, the U.S. Attorney leading the investigation, took a play out of the Giuliani textbook. He organized a series of public arrests complete with handcuffs and leg shackles for the twelve, who were released on bail Thursday and left to shirk the herd of reporters on their own. (Steele resorted to running away from the press, which resulted in a rush-hour traffic jam.) Still, the Democratic leadership have been quick to challenge claims that Christie is playing partisan politics. Senate President Richard Codey addressed local Democrats on Friday saying, "these questions about whether the U.S. Attorney is too political, that's not the question. He didn't put a gun to anyone's head and force them to put their hand in the cookie jar."
As of now, both Steele and Hackett look set to resign their positions on Monday. We'll see if the immediate response of outrage by local Democrats helps to ameliorate the reputation that New Jersey is still the home of Tony Soprano and dirty politicians.