Corruption in the Garden State: New Jersey’s Biggest Public Scandals

Corruption in the Garden State: New Jersey’s Biggest Public Scandals

New Jersey has a long, sordid history of political corruption scandals. From mob bosses controlling Atlantic City during Prohibition to mayors accepting bribes from developers, shady dealings seem to be an intrinsic part of Jersey politics. Let’s take a look at some of the biggest corruption cases that have plagued the Garden State over the years.

Abscam – 1970s

One of the most famous political stings in history took place in New Jersey in the late 1970s. Abscam – a codename for “Arab scam” – was an FBI operation targeting public officials suspected of corruption. Undercover agents posed as representatives of an Arab sheikh offering cash bribes in exchange for political favors. The operation resulted in the conviction of a U.S. Senator and members of the House of Representatives from New Jersey:

  • Senator Harrison Williams – convicted of bribery and conspiracy for promising to use his office to help secure government contracts in exchange for stock in a titanium mining company
  • Congressman Frank Thompson – convicted of accepting a bribe from FBI agents posing as Arab sheikhs seeking political favors

The Abscam scandal exposed political corruption at the highest levels of government and was adapted into the 2013 movie American Hustle starring Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence.

The Hudson County Mafia – 1980s

Throughout the 1980s, members of the Genovese and Gambino crime families wielded major influence over politics in Hudson County, NJ. Mob bosses demanded kickbacks from contractors doing business with local municipalities and bribed public officials to gain lucrative government contracts.

Notable figures included:

  • Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo – Philadelphia mob boss who controlled gambling and extortion rackets in Atlantic City
  • Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano – Genovese capo who had politicians on his payroll in Hoboken

This mob corruption allowed organized crime to siphon off millions of dollars from Hudson County and undermined the democratic process.

Operation Bid Rig – 2000s

In one of the biggest corruption stings since Abscam, Operation Bid Rig ensnared over 40 New Jersey public officials and rabbis in 2009-2010. The investigation involved an informant posing as a crooked real estate developer offering bribes for help securing government approvals and contracts. Among those arrested were:

  • Peter Cammarano – Mayor of Hoboken who took $25,000 in bribes and was arrested just three weeks after being elected
  • Dennis Elwell – Mayor of Secaucus accused of taking a $10,000 bribe
  • Several Orthodox rabbis accused of laundering millions of dollars through religious charities

The scandal revealed deep-seated corruption among local officials who saw bribery as a normal part of doing business.

Bridgegate – 2013

In an apparent act of political retaliation, staffers for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie closed down access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee causing massive traffic jams. The lane closures were allegedly punishment for Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich declining to endorse Christie in his re-election bid.

Two Christie aides were convicted of fraud and conspiracy for their role in the scandal:

  • Bridget Anne Kelly – Christie’s deputy chief of staff who sent the infamous “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email
  • Bill Baroni – Christie appointee to the Port Authority who realigned the bridge’s access lanes and then lied about it being part of a traffic study

This petty abuse of power for political payback eroded public trust in the Christie administration.

Senator Bob Menendez Corruption Charges – 2010s

New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, the state’s senior U.S. Senator, faced corruption charges in 2015 for allegedly accepting bribes from a wealthy donor in exchange for political favors. Prosecutors said Dr. Salomon Melgen plied Menendez with lavish gifts and vacations in order to get the senator’s assistance with business deals and visa applications. Their 2017 trial ended in a hung jury, and federal prosecutors decided not to retry the case.

However, Menendez was indicted again in 2022 on new federal corruption charges related to a different scheme involving political donations. Prosecutors allege Menendez solicited and illegally accepted campaign contributions from three individuals in return for lobbying other government officials on their behalf. He has pleaded not guilty.

Why is New Jersey so Corrupt?

Experts point to a confluence of factors that contribute to New Jersey’s disproportionately high levels of corruption:

  • Pervasive local power – New Jersey has 565 municipalities, the most per capita of any state. This diffuse local control provides more access points for corruption.
  • Political culture – New Jersey’s culture of political patronage and tightly-knit party machines enable corrupt leaders to consolidate power.
  • Mob influence – The mob has maintained connections in New Jersey politics dating back to Prohibition era rackets in Atlantic City.
  • High government spending – With more tax dollars flowing through the system, there are more opportunities for graft and kickbacks.

Regardless of the causes, corruption scandals seem to keep sprouting in the Garden State. Voters’ patience with shady political dealings may be growing thin, but changing such an entrenched culture of corruption is a slow process. Lasting reform will require a combination of enforcement and ethics laws with a shift in political norms and expectations from voters. Until then, New Jersey’s reputation as a hotbed of corruption will likely persist.