Soft Corruption in New Jersey

  “The essence of government is power, and power, lodged as it must be in human hands will ever be be liable to abuse.” – President James Madison   “There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money, and I can’t remember the second.” – Mark Hanna of Ohio in 1896.

What is soft corruption? William Schluter, author of SOFT CORRUPTION spent twenty years in the NJ legislature and many more in local, county and state politics. He points out that NJ’s political leaders all too-often “succumb to accommodation, expediency, and then subterfuge.” In effect some public officials engage in unethical conduct, activities which break no laws, but fail to meet acceptable standards of morality.

Soft corruption means higher cost of government, leads to bad government decisions, and contributes to public apathy. Schluter says, The exorbitant sums of political money flowing through NJ and the barely concealed motives of the givers and receivers amount to a system of ‘honest graft’. when it follows the law, which it usually does.”

He cites examples: when local officials solicit contributions from the same individuals who are paid handsomely for services by the governing body on which the officials serve, and lawmakers receiving contributions from a trade organization that wants the legislature to enact a measure beneficial to practitioners of that trade. Political scientist Lynda Powell suggests, “The more money a legislator raises, the more interests of constituents are traded off against these donors.”

The difference between soft corruption and criminality is not always clear. At the federal level we will receive more clarity at the conclusion of the trial of Sen. Robert Menendez where prosecutors must show that the senator’s actions and the contributor’s gifts were explicitly traded and were not just interactions among “friends.”

Nonetheless, Schluter says the most blatant issues that cry out for reform in NJ include senatorial courtesy, dual office-holding, influence peddling by lobbyists, patronage abuses, partisan redistricting, wheeling of campaign funds, and above all, concentration of power by those who control political money. During Christie’s term, for example, Democratic boss George Norcross has become more powerful than ever, but he is just one of many engaged in soft corruption. We can all pick out specific examples of these abuses.

This is behavior that should offend all New Jerseyans. Soft corruption is legal only because our laws and citizens allow it. Reform is not easy as it benefits officials. Nonetheless with enough determination and insistence from voters bad laws can be rescinded and new laws created.

You can select one of the above blatant issues and join others to take back our government. As the author says, “We can do better. We must do better.” In his book he sets out an agenda for reform and explains how to achieve it.

William E. Schluter:SOFT CORRUPTION: How Unethical Conduct Undermines Good Government and What To Do About It – 296 pages – Rutgers University Press  – © 2017

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