Federal Prosecutor Calls Bust 'Corruption Tour of New Jersey'

It extended from the south Jersey seaside to Newark's gritty streets, leading investigators on what a federal prosecutor dubbed "a corruption tour of New Jersey."

The probe into alleged bribe-taking in the awarding of public contracts culminated in the arrest Thursday of 11 public officials, all but one of them Democrats. Among the arrests: two state lawmakers, two mayors, three city councilmen and several members of school board in Pleasantville, where the scandal had its roots.

Republican legislators seized on the arrests Friday by calling on Democratic Gov. Jon S. Corzine to order a special legislative session to tackle corruption.

"We need to see real ethics reform now, not next month, not next year, but next week," GOP Assemblyman Bill Baroni said.

Corzine's office didn't immediately respond to the Republican demands.

All 11 officials, plus a private individual, are accused of taking cash payments of $1,500 to $17,500 to influence who received public contracts, according to criminal complaints filed by the office of U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie, who was appointed by President Bush.

The 12 suspects, wearing handcuffs and leg shackles, made initial court appearances Thursday afternoon. The charges were explained, they were advised of their rights and a $200,000 unsecured bond was set for each.

The arrests shook a state already suffering from an overdose of political corruption.

Christie noted that 108 public officials in New Jersey have been convicted of federal corruption charges in the past five years. He marveled at the "stupidity and greed" of those who would continue to flout the law.

"The conclusion I draw is they don't care," he said. "They care more about themselves than the public they are elected to serve."

The investigation began last year, focusing first on the Pleasantville schools. The FBI established a fake insurance brokerage purporting to employ the government's two cooperating witnesses and undercover agents.

The probe widened when Pleasantville school board members referred the cooperating witnesses to public officials in northern New Jersey, according to the criminal complaints released by the U.S. Attorney's Office.

"The corrupt political culture in this state that goes from south to north is laid out in great detail in these complaints," Christie said. "This pattern of corruption infects every level of government — from the local school board to the highest levels of state government."

Assemblymen Mims Hackett Jr. and Alfred E. Steele were arrested, as was Passaic Mayor Samuel Rivera. Hackett is also mayor of the city of Orange.

Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts Jr. announced Friday that Hackett and Steele were immediately resigning from their committee posts, and Steele would relinquish his deputy speaker title. But neither resigned from the Assembly.

Also arrested were Keith Reid, the chief of staff to Newark's City Council president; Passaic councilmen Marcellus Jackson and Jonathan Soto, the lone Republican charged; two Pleasantville school board members and three former members; and a private citizen. One of the former school board members is now a Pleasantville city councilman.

The arrests of Hackett, charged with taking $5,000, and Steele, charged with taking $14,000, mean four Democratic state legislators face federal corruption charges. Democratic Sens. Wayne Bryant of Lawnside and Sharpe James of Newark were indicted earlier this year.

Attorneys for Steele and Hackett said they would plead not guilty, but declined further comment. Telephone messages seeking comment from others charged in the probe were not returned.