New Jersey has a reputation of corruption, but one of the men influential in cleaning it up is former U.S. attorney for New Jersey Herbert Stern. Stern chronicles his experiences in the book Diary of a DA: The True Story of the Prosecutor Who Took On the Mob, Fought Corruption, and Won. He sat down with NJ Today Senior Correspondent Desirée Taylor to discuss his experiences.
Stern had a career that included prosecuting mayors from Newark, Jersey City and Atlantic City, along with top administrations of two successive governors. He said the task wasn’t very hard because at the time, New Jersey “was well stocked with corrupt mayors, corrupt public officials, corrupt people in governors’ offices.”
While many were unhappy with Stern’s work, he said he had the support of the public, journalists and one senator. “The press and the public are very powerful friends. And politicians tend to listen when they speak,” he said.
Corruption was linked to organized crime in New Jersey. Stern said Newark was dominated by the Mafia and called the amounts of money involved staggering. “You have to remember this went back to the early ’60s. We found a joint bank account between the mayor of Jersey City and the present city council of Jersey City with $1,231,000 in it. That was an awful lot of money. It’s an awful lot of money today, even more then,” he said. “Boss Kenny gave $700,000 in cash to his grandchildren. So the money was staggering. No one seemed to care about it.”
Stern prosecuted the real-life Tony Soprano, who was portrayed in the popular HBO series “The Sopranos.” “His father’s nickname was The Boot. His father had an estate in Livingston with an incinerator and they burned the bodies in it,” Stern said. “We had the actual tape recordings of them discussing the bodies and which bodies they burned and all that.”
One of the most famous cases Stern was a part of involved a hijacked plane from West Berlin to East Berlin. Stern served as a judge in an occupational court.
“The Germans didn’t want to prosecute because at that time the wall was up and these folks had a plan to escape. The funny thing is half the passengers immediately defected when the plane landed,” Stern said. “The West German government asked the Americans to convene an occupation court. And to establish the United States Court for Berlin.”
The ordeal was later made into a movie — Judgment in Berlin.