Busted: 5 Rabbis, 3 Jersey Mayors, 36 Other Honorables
Is everybody crooked?
Should we send for Diogenes?
The appalling extent of corruption revealed in the latest scandal shows us how far we are from clean government, at least in New Jersey. We don’t have the answers, but we know the problem deserves our full attention. Political and religious corruption indicate moral decay, and that is as much a threat to society as the actual crimes committed by the perpetrators who are, of course, presumed innocent.
The first question that comes to mind first is whether everyone in New Jersey politics is crooked? The answer to that question is “no.” However, a good number are.
The situation is comparable to the Middle East, where bribery of public officials is commonplace, and regarded as a necessary cost of doing business, except for the United States government, which has made it a crime to pay a bribe, even if the money is extorted from the American corporation. U.S. firms operating in that part of the world have the choice of leaving the market, paying the bribe up front and committing a crime, or making the payments under a subterfuge and trying to find a way to legitimize what, if done openly, would be criminal.
Those are choices which are faced in the world of business, where the threat can vary from Mafia-style extortion threatening violence, to more sophisticated economic methods of “interfering with an advantageous relationship,” which is an old tort.
The use of informants to infiltrate criminal organizations is a technique of which we thoroughly approve. Bribery is usually a crime of consent, and one party generally does not turn on the other, unless he is facing imprisonment for other misdeeds, and is seeking a lighter sentence. The police frequently use integrity tests (e.g. found wallets) to test their own officers. People who hold a public trust must behave themselves, or at least refrain from stealing. While such techniques applied to private citizens may raise questions of appropriateness and allocation of resources, the detection and prosecution of dishonest public officials should be a high priority, with appropriately long prison sentences for those convicted. The shame of losing one’s office should not be the full penalty for one who betrays the public trust.
In a situation where bribery has become the norm, to individuals who take bribes these crimes may not be deviant behavior. Other vices appear in the general public as well as uncivil servants: brutality, racism, dishonesty and sloth.
To people empowered to make economic decisions, the stench of New Jersey corruption has a negative impact on such issues as where to build a plant. If a business in New Jersey is held hostage to criminals in public office, required to make campaign contributions or to seek expensive state approvals for minor actions, fewer economic engines are likely to locate there.
The people are supposed to get their say on Election Day. In the race for governor they will express themselves. Elections for lower offices are murkier. Voters don’t know the candidates as well, the districts are subject to gerrymander, and many areas are a lock for one party or the other, so only the primary matters. Independents are generally excluded from voting in the one election in which the real choice is being made.
All human beings are imperfect, but some are really loathsome. The crowd in New Jersey ranges in degree of evil. We would say the kidney trafficker is the worst. Of course, he would say he extends the life of people who otherwise would have no chance to survive. Let him tell it to the judge.
What can ordinary people do to fight corrupt public officials? It’s difficult. We have “organized crime” but we don’t really have “organized anti-crime.” We pay police and prosecutors to fight crime, legal aid to defend accused criminals, and judges to referee the contests between attorneys. We are increasingly concerned with defendants’ rights and horrified by unjust convictions, which do occur. DNA should be helpful here.
Our society is becoming increasingly non-judgmental, and relativistic in its values. We see things from everyone’s point of view, and sometimes lose our own.
We now live in a period comparable in some ways to the latter days of the Roman Empire. Many of us observe what is happening, and yet we are quite unable to affect the result. You can adopt all the ethics codes you can think of, but as long as the government is populated by unethical people, or witless boobs who have no idea what is ethical, you will not have honest and efficient government.
I am troubled by ethical tribunals who are severe with small offenders, but look the other way at major conflicts of interest. It is like the Federal government determining that some businesses are “too big to fail.” Actually, that may be true; look at the disaster that followed the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. But it may not be true, because we will never know what would have happened if Lehman Brothers had been saved by Secretary Paulsen, a Goldman Sachs alumnus.
One would like to think that ethical issues are matters of right and wrong, and should not be difficult to resolve. Well. Some are and some aren’t. In any case, the Jersey politicians and rabbis do not appear to have engaged in marginally ethical transactions. From the charges, they clearly crossed the line.
New York City’s corruption level is relatively moderate to low. But when public money is given to fictional organizations as place holders, and then dispensed as largesse during the entire year, that is simply wrong. And when the Council fails to set rules for, or regulate the money it awards to ad hoc community groups, it is asking for trouble. That is what the Council has received as a result of the greed of a few of its beneficiaries. This is even more applicable to the New York State, its Legislature, and the member items in its budget.
What it comes down to is this. Some people are honest, some people are complete crooks, some will take money when it is offered, but would not solicit or intimidate. In the Police Department, the two types of takers were known as grass eaters and meat eaters — the grass eaters being more passive, and the meat-eaters the more aggressive. Neither type of conduct is acceptable. Over the years, great progress has been made in this area by strong leadership.
An effective Internal Affairs Bureau (IAB) is key to the effort. But the value of this division depends on the competence, industry, and above all integrity of its officers. There is no magic bullet here, it is a battle that must be fought daily.
When citizens read of indictments and arrests of public officials, some wonder: How many haven’t been caught? There is no reason to believe every crook is out of the State Senate, or the Assembly. Someone could go through the halls with a fly-swatter and find suitable targets.
Many practices we disapprove of are protected by the law. The Legislature is the place where the laws are made. They do not wish to tighten the rules that affect them. Crimes must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. People who are widely believed to be dishonorable nevertheless hold public office, until a good U.S. Attorney or local District Attorney gets the goods on them.
That doesn’t happen too often, which is why today is a day to be celebrated: “Then this is a day of independence for all the munchkins and their descendants”