The List: A Rogues Gallery of the 15 Most Corrupt Politicians in NJ History

Legendary Frank Hague stands atop an impressive array of bribe-takers, extortionists, tax-evaders and patronage purveyors

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The controversy swirling around Bridgegate has reminded the nation of New Jersey’s longstanding reputation as a hotbed of political corruption.

More commonly, the malfeasance comes in the form of public officials taking bribes or favors in return for government approvals or contracts, as in the recent case involving Trenton Mayor Tony Mack, who was found guilty of bribery, fraud and extortion in a scheme involving city property.

There have been so many infamous characters it’s hard to limit a list to 10 — so here are 15 of arguably the biggest names, in a list that still doesn’t cover even half of those who have been convicted or pleaded guilty in just the last decade.

1. Frank Hague, mayor of Jersey City

There could be no one else atop a list of corrupt New Jersey politicians, although Hague is the only person on the list who was never convicted or pleaded guilty to corruption charges. Hague ran the state’s second largest city for three decades — 1917-1947 — but his influence was much broader, reaching to Hudson County, the governor’s office, the US Attorney’s office and even the presidency. Legend has it he took cash bribes that visitors would put in a special drawer in his desk that he would push open toward them. His organization also was reportedly masterful at voter fraud. Despite being the subject of several investigations, Hague was never even charged for any corruption and is said to have retired a multi-millionaire.

2. U.S. Sen. Harrison Williams, U.S. Rep. Frank Thompson and state Sen. and Camden Mayor Angelo Errichetti

Their names are forever synonymous with Abscam, a Federal Bureau of Investigation sting operation so outrageous it could have been the plot for a movie — and now is, as “American Hustle.” FBI agents posed as Middle Eastern sheiks looking to pay for political favors that included casino licenses and building permits. Williams was convicted of nine counts of bribery and conspiracy to use his office to aid business ventures, serving two years of a three-year sentence and resigning from the Senate only when it was clear he was about to be expelled by his colleagues. Thompson, of Trenton, was convicted of accepting a bribe from one of the “sheiks,” and also served two years of a three-year sentence after losing re-election to Republican Chris Smith, who has held the seat ever since. Errichetti, a South Jersey powerbroker, also was convicted on bribery charges and served 32 months in prison.

3. Assemblyman Daniel Van Pelt and a cast of dozens

Operation Bid Rig III was a two-year federal investigation of international money-laundering, organ selling and bribery of public officials that led to 46 arrests in 2009. Van Pelt, who had also served as mayor of Ocean Township, was sentenced to 41 months for attempted extortion and bribery. Among the other prominent people who pled or were found guilty: Jersey City Deputy Mayor Leona Beldini (bribery), Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell, (accepting a bribe), Hoboken Mayor Peter Cammarano III (accepting campaign contributions in exchange for development approvals), Jersey City Council President Mariano Vega Jr. (taking campaign contributions for development approvals). There were two previous bid rig investigations: Operation Bid Rig II snared 11 current and former Monmouth County officials in 2005 and Operation Bid Rig I in 2002 snagged five.)

4. John V. Kenny and Thomas Whelan, Jersey City mayors

They were among the Hudson Eight — others included the city police chief, city council president, city purchasing agent, county treasurer and Democratic chairman and a Port Authority of New York and New Jersey commissioner — charged with extorting money from people looking for city contracts. Kenny, who had succeeded Hague and reportedly exercised the same kind of power over state and federal patronage positions, had been out of office when he pleaded guilty to income tax evasion and, while sentenced to 18 years in jail, served less than a year due to illness. Whelan, mayor from 1963 from 1971, was mayor when he was convicted and served about half of a 15-year sentence in a federal penitentiary.

5. John Lynch, NJ Senate president

A former mayor of New Brunswick who served two decades in the Legislature, Lynch pleaded guilty to fraud and tax evasion charges in 2006 and admitted he took more than $25,000 from a company that he had helped win permit approvals while he was in the state Senate. Lynch, once one of the most powerful men in New Jersey politics, spent 2½ years in prison, then finished his time at a halfway house and on home confinement.

6. Newark Mayor Hugh Addonizio

A former congressman, Addonizio received a 10-year sentence after being convicted in 1970 of 64 counts of conspiracy and extortion. Prosecutors said he conspired to get $1.4 million in kickbacks from city contractors and that he was linked to organized crime. He served about half his sentence.

7. Assemblymen Alfred Steele and Mims Hackett Jr.

They were the big names among 11 current or former elected or appointed public officials charged in Operation Broken Boards, an investigation into cash-for-contracts. The officials took money for insurance brokerage or roofing services contracts. Steele, a Baptist minister and Passaic County undersheriff at the time, pleaded guilty to taking $15,500 in bribes, while Hackett, also the mayor of Orange, admitted taking $5,000, both in return for giving a company an insurance contract in 2007. Hackett separately pleaded guilty to state charges of billing the city for fraudulent expenses. Also arrested in Broken Boards were Passaic Mayor Samuel Rivera, a city councilman and former councilman, five current or former Pleasantville school board members, and the chief of staff to the Newark City Council.

8. Robert Janiszewski, Hudson County executive

A former state assemblyman and county Democratic chairman, Janiszewski pleaded guilty to tax evasion and to taking more than $100,000 in bribes in exchange for approving professional services contracts. He worked undercover for the FBI to help them arrest Nidia Davila-Colon, a Hudson freeholder, but still received jail time — 41 months, completing his sentence in 2008. Davila-Colon was subsequently convicted of passing bribes to Janiszewski.

9. Wayne Bryant, state senator from Camden

Bryant served 26 years in the state Legislature, including one term as majority leader of the Assembly. While a state senator, and chairman of the powerful budget committee, he held several other public jobs, including a low-paying position at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of NJ. He was convicted in 2008, a year after leaving the Senate, of multiple counts of pension fraud and bribery after it was found he helped direct millions of dollars in state money to his employer at UMDNJ. Bryant served 40 months in prison.

10. Milton Milan, mayor of Camden

Convicted in 2000 of 14 charges of laundering drug money, taking bribes from the mob, getting kickbacks from city contractors, insurance fraud, and illegal use of campaign funds — to vacation in Puerto Rico, Milan was sentenced to seven years in prison.

11. Essex County Executive James Treffinger

Indicted in 2002 on 20 counts, Treffinger pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud and one count of obstruction of justice. A one-time candidate for the U.S. Senate who had reportedly sought the job of U.S. attorney for New Jersey in order to quash its investigation of him, Treffinger admitted he took a $15,000 campaign contribution in exchange for a county contract and paid two of his political operatives from the county payroll. He was sentenced to 13 months in prison. Treffinger had won his office by promising clean government as his predecessor, Thomas D’Alessio had been convicted on charges of extorting $58,000 from a solid waste company to help it get a state permit.

12. Sharpe James, state senator and mayor of Newark

The former mayor of the state’s largest city was convicted in 2008 of helping a girlfriend buy nine city-owned properties at a low price. She quickly resold them at a profit of more than $600,000. James spent 19 months in a federal prison and received a hero’s welcome from hundreds who turned out to greet him as he got off a bus to spend the remainder of his 27-month term in a halfway house.

13. State Sen. Joseph Coniglio

The Bergen County politician was convicted in 2009 of using his influence as a member of the budget committee of the Senate to get millions of dollars in state grants for Hackensack University Medical Center, which had hired his consulting firm for more than $100,000. A federal appeals court threw out all but one of the charges — extortion — and Coniglio was released after serving about half of his 2½-year sentence. But last December, the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission sued Coniglio and his campaign treasurers for illegally spending $140,000 from his campaign account to pay for his criminal defense.

14. Assemblyman Anthony Impreveduto

The deputy speaker of the lower house and a former chairman of the Legislature’s ethics committee, Impreveduto pleaded guilty in 2004 to state charges of using tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions for personal expenses, including trips, income taxes and his daughter’s wedding. He received five years probation and a $10,000 fine, and later worked as a lobbyist

15. Union City Mayor and state Sen. William Musto

A 35-year state legislator, Musto was convicted of multiple counts of federal racketeering charges. The testimony of one of his former aides, Robert Menendez — today a U.S. senator — helped convict him along with six others of getting hundreds of thousands of dollars in kickbacks from the contractor who was building additions to two city high schools. The day after Musto was sentenced to prison in 1982, Union City voters re-elected him mayor. He was barred from serving that term — voters then elected his wife Rhyta to his seat in a special election — but he did spend 3-1/2 years in prison.