Even by the ethically elastic standards of politics here, the boyish-looking governor of New Jersey has suffered one long headache this month.
First, a prominent gubernatorial fundraiser, who is a trash hauler, was indicted on charges of extorting bribes and campaign contributions from a Middlesex County farmer. (The governor made an unwitting cameo in this scandal, allegedly dropping a code word into a recorded conversation.) A week later, another top political donor, a wealthy developer, was charged with trying to derail a federal investigation of his finances by hiring prostitutes to seduce witnesses, including his brother-in-law.
In the middle of all this, the state commerce secretary -- an ordained minister with a degree in ethics -- resigned after it was revealed that he funneled contracts to the sister of his chief of staff. And the governor's former chief of staff is under investigation for getting contracts to put up billboards on public land while he was running James E. McGreevey's campaign.
"The governor hired some freaking hacks and said some stupid things, and that will hurt him," said David Rebovich, managing director of the Rider Institute for New Jersey Politics. "But there's no smoking gun. Without that, McGreevey will survive."
Anywhere else, Rebovich might sound like a stone optimist. But this is New Jersey: "I don't want to say we're corrupt, but we lead the nation in the number of former mayors in federal prisons."
It has been a bad decade or three for public officials in the Garden State. A former Hudson County executive disappeared for months in 2001 before reemerging to plead guilty and help implicate other corrupt officials. A recent acting governor resigned in an ethics flap. In the past two years, the U.S. attorney has obtained the convictions of 58 public officials. The U.S. attorney's spokesman told the Bergen Record: "You shake the trees, they just seem to drop more apples."
It has gotten to the point where a former governor, Brendan T. Byrne, jokingly said to reporters at the Democratic National Convention in Boston this week that he mumbled too much to be caught by prosecutors. "They never could have wiretapped me," he said.
McGreevey, 46, was mentioned 83 times in the federal indictment of David D'Amiano, the trash-hauling fundraiser. But the prosecutor has not named McGreevey as a co-conspirator, and the governor's aides say McGreevey's involvement was innocent. McGreevey was not implicated in the indictment of fundraiser Charles Kushner, either.
"There's been no hint of impropriety on the governor's part," said Micah Rasmussen, the governor's press secretary. "When you take a look at his appointments, you see a lot of stars and a few people who have not lived up to his standards."
McGreevey, a Democrat, had a reasonably successful first two years in office before the scandals began to break around him. He passed a "millionaire's tax," which gave a property tax rebate to 2 million middle-income homeowners, and he cut a deal to protect the environmentally sensitive New Jersey Highlands.
McGreevey and his aides have portrayed the investigations as a vendetta by Christopher J. Christie, the federal prosecutor, who was appointed by President Bush and is said to have gubernatorial ambitions. "They will use every tool against us to win battles they can no longer win at the ballot box," McGreevey told New Jersey reporters this week.
Christie, a Republican and former county officeholder, has displayed little reluctance to pursue Republican wrongdoers. In 2003, Essex County Executive James W. Treffinger, a member of the GOP, pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in an investigation of his granite company. (Treffinger tried to get himself appointed U.S. attorney to squelch the investigation and was recorded by investigators saying: There are "plenty of mobsters to go after -- you don't have to go after all these poor politicians trying to ply their trade.")
"When you are unhappy with the facts, you go after the prosecutor. Unlike everyone else in public life, I have to prove everything I say to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt," Christie said in an interview, noting that his public-corruption office has expanded from seven prosecutors to 14. As for his gubernatorial ambitions, "I've said any number of times that I'm not a candidate for governor."
Republican Assemblyman Bill Baroni teaches legal ethics and has watched politicians from both parties march off to prison. "New Jersey has a political culture of corruption," Baroni said. "It's not just Democrats. It's a pox on both political parties."
The first of this month's scandals broke July 6, when the federal prosecutor indicted D'Amiano, the trash hauler, for trying to extort $40,000 in campaign donations from a dairy farmer. In exchange, D'Amiano promised to persuade state and county officials to double an offer -- to $7.4 million -- to buy the farmer's land.
To prove his political bona fides, D'Amiano promised to bring the farmer to meet with McGreevey, who is identified throughout the indictment as "Public Official 1." If the farmer brought along "mulch" and "topsoil" (in other words, the money) to that meeting, the indictment said, D'Amiano promised the governor would use a code word, Machiavelli, a reference to the Italian political philosopher.
As it happens, the governor agreed to a meeting and said jokingly that the farmer must be reading from " 'The Prince' by Machiavelli" to learn how to negotiate with state officials, the indictment said.
The governor does not deny uttering the word -- the farmer wore a wire -- but his aides describe it as an innocent exchange. The governor, they say, is a good retail politician. "If you and I are in a room, and you tell me that this person happens to be reading a certain book, there's a very high likelihood that I'll mention that book," Rasmussen said. "It was a literary reference. The other day at the convention he mentioned Lord Tennyson."
Rasmussen added that this dispute centers on a county land deal. "The state didn't offer any additional money," he said.
That explanation fails to convince students of state politics. "You're a governor," said Rebovich of the Rider Institute. "Under what circumstances, unless you are with the CIA, would you speak in code to a constituent?"
The Kushner indictment came seven days after D'Amiano's. Kushner, 50, was McGreevey's biggest campaign contributor and once was his nominee to head the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. He was charged with conspiracy and obstruction.
The federal government had been investigating the finances of Kushner's company. To thwart this investigation, Kushner is accused of persuading a prostitute to have sex with a cooperating witness at the Red Bull Inn, and secretly videotaping the seduction. Kushner, prosecutors say, tried to use that tape to silence the witness, who is Kushner's brother-in-law.
Kushner's brother-in-law and Kushner's sister took the tape to federal prosecutor. The federal prosecutor's office has emphasized that the governor has no involvement with this case. But the impression left is not great.
"He hasn't been caught with any money, and he can reasonably argue that he was just duped or didn't realize how bad these guys were," said Joseph Marbach, a political scientist at Seton Hall University. "But that's not great public relations."