NEWARK, N.J. — When I covered him as a reporter in the statehouse in Trenton, I thought Gov. Jim McGreevey was one of the most disingenuous phonies I had ever met.

I also thought he was a lousy governor, whose administration was chock full of hacks engaging in unethical if not illegal behavior and digging the state into a deep fiscal hole.

And I thought the cloaking of his resignation as a courageous coming-out as a “gay American” was a cynical ploy to mask the old-fashioned political scandals that might have eventually brought him down in a more traditional crash-and-burn scenario.

I was right. And if you ask him about it today, McGreevey himself might even concede one or two of those points himself.

Fast forward to a warm day in March 2012. Years had passed since McGreevey’s colossal downfall had faded from the news. That day, I met McGreevey outside the Hudson County Jail for an interview about Gov. Chris Christie’s revamped drug policy. My video camera was not allowed in the jail, so we set up the tripods on the sidewalk outside.

“First, you gotta meet my ladies,” he says before we can even start the interview. “C’mon.”

Moving like a racewalker, McGreevey leads me into the jail, past the guards, through the long hallways and up the elevator, stopping to shake hands and hug inmates, jail workers and custodians along the way. Finally, we reach the dormitory style wing full of female inmates enrolled in the drug rehab program he started.

McGreevey yells across the dorm and the women sit down in a circle, group therapy style.

One by one, he asks them about their lives before the program. One woman told of being sexually abused for years, beginning when she was a teenager. She turned to drugs to ease the pain, then crime to buy the drugs. Another told a similar story: rape, drugs, crime, jail. In all, I heard a half dozen head-spinning horror stories.

And each one ended with the women saying the same thing: that the jailhouse rehab program McGreevey ran was the first ray of hope they’d had in their lives in years.

This is the work McGreevey does every day now, helping these women try and turn around their lives.

On the drive back to the office, I felt a sort of vertigo — the disorienting experience of suddenly having my opinions of a person turned completely upside down.

Because this is not something one does for the glory or for attention. Prison ministry is hard, emotionally draining, thankless work. People do it because they believe in it, because they’re driven by faith, or love, or whatever it is that I, frankly, don’t have enough of.

McGreevey, who left the governor’s mansion, got divorced and enrolled in an Episcopal seminary, is the subject of a new HBO documentary, “Fall to Grace” by Alexandra Pelosi. The film about his work with addicts and convicts shows some of what I saw in the jail that day, and you can can make up your own mind.

As there always are when we run stories about McGreevey, there are going to be comments from the bitter anonymous folks who won’t believe it. They’ll no doubt tell me I’ve been fooled the shamefully proverbial second time by McGreevey.

There’s no danger of that; McGreevey never fooled me the first time.

But this time around, if this is some kind of act on the part of McGreevey, some kind of PR stunt like those cynics say? Well, then consider me fooled.

Because I believe in redemption. And being fooled is a risk I’m willing to take to find proof that true redemption, for McGreevey and every other screw-up out there — can be real. In this case, I truly think it is.

(Brian Donohue writes for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.)

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