An underlying theme in “The Swamps of Jersey” is political corruption. Here, Detective Frank Nagler and reporter Jimmy Dawson examine the topic.
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Nagler put down his coffee cup. “Get away with what?”
“You know, the Attorney General Sixty, the elected officials they caught in that bribery sting.” Dawson held up the page of the paper with a list of those officials who had accepted a sentence, about half of the sixty. Some got thirty days in jail, some half-a-year. All were fined and made to agree they would never seek public office again. Some of them were just working guys and probably lost their jobs, Dawson guessed, but a lot of them were lawyers and accountants, which meant, conviction or not, they’d never be out of work.
“Think about it. You’re sitting at your mayor desk one day, all important and such, trying to figure out how to get your brother a job at the road department, and in walks this stranger who offers you ten grand to throw a planning board vote his way. And you say yes! You don’t even question who the guy is because he’s got a reference from one of the councilmen, who also took the cash, and he got a reference from some local banker. Don’t you ever wonder about that?” ….
Dawson paused a moment. …. “Why does this type of thing seem to happen in Jersey more than any other place? Every election, every public contract, seems to have a money trail attached to it. You hear about Marbury, that town in South Jersey? The officials had a scam that went back a quarter century. Every mayor, council member, school board member and administrator bought into it as they extracted bribes and paybacks from contractors. Seems it was a rite of passage: You only got to run for office if you agreed to continue the game. And they stand there and smile at you so sweetly. But there’s nothing behind their eyes, just the blandness of evil.”
“How’d they get caught?” “Someone talked. Maybe they didn’t like their cut.”
“Why is that so different from politics as usual? These guys get elected passing cash from one campaign account to the other. Vote for my bill and I’ll make a contribution. Don’t vote for my bill and you’ll never get a dime and I’ll run someone against you in the primary.”
Dawson laughed. “You sound almost as cynical as I am. But what do you expect from a state whose best known public figure is a fictional mobster and the state motto is ‘Fugetaboutit!’ Where you can be elected mayor, county director and a Legislator and keep your day job at the local school, a place you can get elected in some of these small towns by just getting your entire neighborhood to vote for you. A state where every wide spot in the road and railroad warehouse became a town where the local government has so many departments it takes four votes by different committees to plant a tree. A state that has more school districts than towns and more ways for the politicians to steal your pocket watch than anyone else can imagine.”
“But what’s it say when we idolize a guy like Tony Soprano who thrives on murder, extortion and drug dealing?” Nagler asked.
“Maybe we like his initiative and go-get-‘em attitude.” Dawson tried to lighten the mood. Nagler put down his coffee cup.
“Yeah, crap,” Nagler said. “Then why did we stand and watch the banks plunder neighborhoods with crappy loans, or invest in poverty and death when they redlined black areas of cities, or applaud so loudly as smart action the federal budget cuts to food and housing programs even while the politicians who cast those votes made sure the money for their family farm was approved. We have institutionalized greed and self-interest. Problem for me, Jimmy? I have to work for whichever of these people get elected. You don’t. It’s gotta stop somewhere.”