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The Swamps of New Jersey

Originally appeared as an editorial in the New York Times of Thursday, April 19, 2001,

For at least two decades New Jersey has struggled to shed its old identity of aging factories, polluted marshlands and suspicious political deals. To a large degree, it has succeeded. But recently the state has seemed to slide into new ethical problems surrounding its three principal statewide officeholders and an associate justice of its Supreme Court. Once again the state has become the focus of criticism and scrutiny by investigators -- a reminder that New Jersey residents must remain vigilant in demanding high ethical standards from their elected and appointed leaders.

This week the focus has been on the most senior elected official in each of the major parties. The state's acting governor, Donald DiFrancesco, a Republican, has been ensnared in questions about his past financial practices as a state legislator and as attorney for the township of Scotch Plains. The Times disclosed on Tuesday that two special counsels for the township, one Republican and one Democrat, concluded in 1998 that he had violated legal-ethics rules and should be removed from his job. They found that Mr. DiFrancesco had lobbied township officials for a zoning change that benefited his family without disclosing his own financial stake; ruled on projects involving a home builder shortly after receiving $225,000 from that builder; and influenced town officials to drop plans for a soccer field on land his relatives hoped to develop.

Mr. DiFrancesco became acting governor after Christie Whitman resigned to become the Bush administration's environmental protection administrator. As his problems have mounted, so have Democratic hopes for retaking the State House this year. Mr. DiFrancesco has denied any improprieties, but he has come under pressure within his own party to drop his gubernatorial candidacy.

The state's senior Democrat, Senator Robert Torricelli, is also plagued by ethical questions and investigations into his campaign fund-raising, business dealings and personal finances. A former political supporter has reportedly accused him of accepting tens of thousands of dollars in cash and expensive gifts, far more than allowed under federal law and the Senate's ethics rules. The senator has denied any impropriety and angrily charged that federal prosecutors are out to discredit him. His supporters suggest dark political vindictiveness by the Bush administration.

Two other top officials, one from each party, have faced ethical criticism. Associate Justice Peter G. Verniero of the Supreme Court, a Republican, has come under heavy attack from the State Senate for his passive role in investigating cases of racial profiling while he was attorney general several years ago and for his apparent lack of candor in testifying about it during his confirmation hearings and more recently. He has been urged to resign from the high court by Mr. DiFrancesco, some legislative leaders and this page, among others.

Earlier, the state's junior senator, Jon Corzine, a Democrat, was criticized by this page and by others for his decision to continue holding large numbers of shares at Goldman Sachs, which he once headed, while serving on the Senate Banking Committee. That poses a clear conflict of interest, although he is in compliance with the Senate's lax ethics rules.

In none of these cases has anyone yet been charged with crimes. But what is troubling is a pattern of behavior that suggests New Jersey may be backsliding from its earlier successes in moving toward more open and responsible government. Two years ago the Almanac of American Politics declared that "New Jersey, once corrupt, is now pretty well cleaned up." But if recent events have proven anything, this is no time for complacency.

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