Author, Journalist, Filmmaker

The Sting and The Stung

I hope you are a regular reader of Between the Lines, the column on Hudson County politics written every week by my colleague Al Sullivan for The Hudson Reporter. Few people know as much as Al about this many-storied corner of the New Jersey political scene, and his column adds context and color to news stories that sometimes fly by too quickly. Al not only knows where the bodies are buried; he knows who held the shovel.

In his Feb. 14 column following the conviction of Jersey City’s former Deputy Mayor Leona Beldini for taking bribes, Al made several points about the tactics employed by former U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie to nab more than 45 political and religious figures in a sting operation. Christie – now Gov. Christie – ordered a crook named Solomon Dwek to try to bribe various public officials and claim he needed their help to get approval for a fake land development in Jersey City. Al explained that using entrapment – when law enforcement induces a person to commit a crime they otherwise would have been unlikely to commit – had once required federal agents to show that someone had done illegal acts in the past before they were allowed to use a sting operation to show they still would. He also pointed out that the Dwek sting, which exploded in national headlines in late July, might have been a shortcut by federal authorities in a hurry to get publicity to benefit Christie’s gubernatorial campaign. The fact that Christie won the election may or may not support this view.

Al is a sophisticated and compassionate reporter who believes in fairness. But at the risk of sounding unfair, I want to offer another view of the subjects he raised: politically-motivated prosecutions, the use of sleazy provocateurs in sting operations, and the honesty and integrity – or lack of it – of today’s species of public official, some of whom seem to regard holding government office as a career stepping stone rather than a sacred trust.

First, Chris Christie. Does anybody remember the U.S. attorney scandal that engulfed the office of Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez and led to his resignation? Gonzalez was accused of firing certain U.S. attorneys who had the integrity to refuse to become political hatchet wielders for the Bush White House and prosecute Democratic politicians and cancel prosecutions of Republican officials. I guess Bush-appointee Christie did his job well enough, because he was allowed to keep it – in fact, by the Bush White House’s twisted standards, Christie might be the most successful hatchet man of those appointed by Bush. Moral: some kinds of corruption land you in trouble, other kinds get you the big seat on the dais.

I’m not going to venture an opinion on how many people who were offered bribes by Dwek turned them down. It would be a useful task, but probably futile, for some enterprising journalist to inquire, from the Hudson County Prosecutor, the state Attorney General, and the U.S. Attorney’s office in Newark, whether any of those who demurred took the proper next step, and dropped a dime on Dwek, either out of a sense of offended personal rectitude or public responsibility. Realist that I am, I’m willing to guess: None. I hope I’m proved wrong, but I’m not holding my breath.

Did the Beldini jury prove that it doesn’t matter if the person offering bribes to public officials is as pure as the driven snow or of the moral caliber of Hannibal Lecter? Maybe, maybe not. But it doesn’t really matter. There is a perfectly appropriate response any public official can make when offered a bribe to sell out their public trust and the influence of their office. That response is: No, thank you, followed by an immediate phone call to the county prosecutor, state Attorney General, or U.S. Attorney to report that an attempt was made to corrupt them.

As a near lifelong resident of New Jersey and taxpayer in Jersey City – where only 25 percent of registered voters went to the polls in the last election – I have no problem whatsoever with the FBI dangling bribes in front of any public officials to test their integrity and honesty. After all, their oath of office should sufficiently inoculate them from temptation. If not, maybe the fear of jail time and public disgrace will. Considering all the other ways the government wastes my tax money, using it to test the honesty of public officials seems to be less unfair entrapment than a reasonable investment in good government.

Oh, and on that question of whether the sting was intended to benefit Christie’s virtually content-free campaign? Last July, I believed the sting was a series of land mines planted by Christie designed to explode during the slow summer political news season, calculated to arouse public outrage, and sweep Christie into office on a tide of anger against political corruption.

Whether that was the intent or not, I was wrong about the results. A Quinnipiac poll taken days before last November’s election found that for 40 per cent of New Jersey residents polled, their number one concern was high taxes. In an astounding and heartbreaking figure, given the level of rage and mistrust in America right now toward politicians and elite institutions on every level, only 4 per cent named corruption. So maybe the heart of the problem lies not just with politicians who’ll snap at any bribe laid before them, but also with a citizenry so morally and ethically indifferent that public officials are no longer afraid to betray the trust they’ve been given. Maybe we really do have the government we deserve.

The Hudson Reporter March 4, 2010