Updated news on the Gambino, Genovese, Bonanno, Lucchese and Colombo Organized Crime Families of New York City.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

New Jersey No Longer Corrupt?

The old, yellowed newspaper clips speak to the drama of the time.
In late 1969, reputed mob members Joseph "Bayonne Joe" Zicarelli and Anthony "Little Pussy" Russo refused to testify before the newly formed State Commission of Investigation, over fears of what might happen to them if they talked. Russo would eventually be mysteriously murdered, shot three times in the head at close range.
Not long afterward, a separate investigation in Monmouth County led to the death of a police chief, found dead in his garage of carbon monoxide poisoning just 24 hours after he was served with an SCI subpoena.
And a probe into the infiltration of organized crime into the garbage business led to the licensing and regulation of the industry.
Forty years later, the SCI has a much wider scope, albeit with far less of the high profile it once enjoyed. There are fewer reports, hearings and headlines. Its most recent inquiry was not about Jersey crime bosses, but rather the state’s governing body for high school athletics. Last year it looked at public pension abuse.
Some suggest that like the mob, it has outlived its time.
An examination shows in the past 15 years, the number of reports issued by the SCI has dropped from nearly three a year to less than two. This year, it only put out one. Currently, 44 people work for the commission, which has a $4.5 million budget, and several positions have sat vacant for years.
The SCI is located at 28 W. State St., not far from the Statehouse on the 10th floor of an older building with a creaky elevator still run by an operator.
The agency has 20 staffers — who include attorneys, forensic accountants, investigators and administrators — who make over $100,000 a year.
No longer the lone watchdog on duty in a state long known for corruption, the SCI’s job is shared in part these days with the Inspector General’s Office, the Medicaid Inspector General’s Office and the state Comptroller’s Office. In fact, the Christie administration earlier this year proposed all-but-eliminating the small agency in a budget-saving move.
Meanwhile, its longtime chairman, former Attorney General W. Cary Edwards, died last month after a long battle with cancer, leaving it without one of its biggest boosters.
Proponents of the SCI, though, say it remains a key force in keeping the state honest, with its investigations of government waste, fraud and abuse.
"They are an absolute necessity," said Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex), who led the effort to restore the SCI’s funding. "They have provided transparency to the workings of government."
As a creature of the Legislature, she said the commission remains an independent check on the executive branch, unlike the state comptroller, who is appointed by the governor.
The governor’s effort to shut down the SCI was not the first time its role has been questioned. The commission earlier faced the chopping block during the Byrne administration and later during the Whitman administration — which ultimately did cut its budget as well as seriously clip its investigatory clout.
"They are an easy target. No one likes them if they are doing their job," suggested John Farmer Jr., dean of the Rutgers Law School and a former SCI commissioner.
Farmer said counting the number of reports issued by the SCI is a bad yardstick to judge its effectiveness, noting there are typically several probes ongoing at any one time, and often public hearings as well. "Some of their investigations are pretty complex, and they can take years," he said.
Created in 1968 as part of the state’s attack on organized crime, the SCI first gained big headlines in its very public confrontations with reputed mobsters — including some who fled the state or went to jail rather than testify in response to SCI subpoenas.
Hearings in 1977 focused on how the organized crime family of Angelo Bruno of Philadelphia had moved into cigarette vending businesses and nightclubs in Atlantic City after the legalization of casino gambling, and reports on attempts by associates of the Gambino organized crime family to purchase a major Atlantic City hotel. Others looked into mob influence over the operation of labor union dental plans.
Despite the perception of it being a crime commission, its reports over time have widened, from municipal corruption and video gaming, to busing and higher education. Reports in recent years have looked into street gangs, the purchase of firetrucks, weaknesses in the procurement of electronic voting machines, charity care and the procurement of E-ZPass.
Still, state Sen. Richard Codey (D-Essex) asks whether the SCI remains relevant. "The way it came about was as a vehicle for fighting organized crime," he said. "They need to look and see if their model is outmoded."
Officials who were the target of SCI’s most recent report, which focused on the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, charge that the commission has become little more than a political tool of the Legislature.
Headquarters of the New Jersey Interscholastic Athletic Association headquarters on Rt. 130. The SCI's latest investigation focused on corruption at the NJSIAA. 
In a scathing report, the SCI documented spending on filet mignon dinners, flowers, baskets and golf outings. Steven Timko, the association’s executive director, called the report one-sided and biased. He complained that the SCI slammed the NJSIAA for its dinners, but did not show the revenues those dinners brought in, or cited expenses that were ultimately picked up by sponsors. He also wondered why the report was leaked before the association was given a chance to respond.
Michael Herbert, the association’s attorney, argued that the SCI had an inherent conflict because it is dependent on funding from the legislative leadership, which can direct the commission on who or what to investigate. In this case, Herbert pointed out that the SCI launched its probe at the request of Assemblyman John Burzichelli, a Gloucester County Democrat long at odds with the organization over its spending and financial structure.
"Here we have one politician who wants to dictate how high school sports are run and when we disagree, we’re investigated," argued Herbert. "We had a big target on our back."
The SCI, though, has in fact bitten the hand that feeds it before, investigating a number of legislators over the years. In its 2007 probe of higher education, the commission reported on the push to appoint then-state Sen. Joseph Doria (D-Hudson) as president of Ramapo College. In sworn testimony before the commission, former trustee Jeffrey Shepard complained, "The state’s interference in the appointment of trustees and also the attempt to basically install a political appointment as president certainly left a very bad taste in my mouth."
In 2002, another SCI report on the operation of a privately run car-inspection program found it to be a "mammoth boondoggle," resulting from a bidding process corrupted by influence peddling. That inquiry found more than $500,000 in political contributions made to New Jersey political committees and candidates in the years leading up to the contract award.
Alan Rockoff, the SCI’s executive director, said the commission’s recommendations and findings have saved the state millions over the years. Last year, the commission reported that some municipalities were spending tens of millions of dollars on big payouts to retiring workers, including a former police chief who took eight months off with full pay and benefits leading up to his official retirement day, and then walked away with $194,069 for unused sick days — in addition to his $95,592-a-year pension.
"We tweak people’s noses and turn over rocks to see how we can improve quality of life," Rockoff said. "That’s why we exist."
But whether they will continue to exist, that’s another matter.



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