Today’s (July 23rd) reports of widespread corruption arrests in Hoboken, Jersey City, and other Hudson County, New Jersey communities (and some outside of Hudson County as well), netting three mayors, state legislators, city council members, and others, have special resonance for me.  I was an appointed city official for four years in Jersey City, and it is where I gained my revulsion to the corrupt use of public and, in the case of nonprofits, quasi-public dollars.

The arrests bring me back to what made corruption in the nonprofit sector such a concern for me in my work at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy and the Nonprofit Quarterly.  There is no such thing as tolerable corruption, there is no such thing as minor abuse of the public trust, we should not and cannot abide by this in business (where many of the nation’s slimy mortgage bankers should be experiencing the joys of a perp walk), in government, or in the nonprofit sector.

According to early reports, the FBI has arrested a number of politicians—and rabbis—on charges of money laundering, political bid-rigging, and, grotesquely, even reports of international trafficking in body parts.  There’s no question that these four dozen or so arrests are not going to be the only ones, as the State’s Secretary of the Department of Community Affairs, former Bayonne mayor Joseph Doria, had his office and home raided and, lacking a sense of good grace, didn’t resign on the spot but waited until Governor Jon Corzine told him to.

Most of the alleged illegal activity, according to the press release from the Acting U.S. Attorney, occurred in Jersey City and involved even some people I remember from a quarter century ago.  At least one I recall having opposed my department’s designation of a developer because, his being Jewish meant that he was probably related to me (I was director of the Department of Housing and Economic Development and, because of pro-tenant, pro-affordable housing policies of my department, frequently referred to as the “Commie-Jew-[Expletive-Deleted],” even by associates of the mayor I worked for, anti-Semitism and racism were that rampant).

But the others among the arrested whom I personally recall were typical run of the mill local politicians, some of them even connected more or less to nonprofits and quasi-public nonprofits that we sometimes funded at HED (we administered the Community Development Block Grant program, with its public service component serving as crucial operating funds for local nonprofits, especially important since in Jersey City, there wasn’t a local foundation grantmaker to be found in those days).

We all operated in a municipality that was often used as a textbook case example of government corruption.  For much of the public, Jersey City is best known for boss Frank Hague’s 30-year tenure as mayor.  Hague is known for his oft-quoted statement of power, “I am the law,”  and his corruption was legendary (including a two-way drawer in his City Hall desk, which he would extend outward toward visitors in his office into which they could deposit their bribes).  When I taught public policy at St. Peter College, I used John T. Noonan’s textbook, Bribes: The Intellectual History of a Moral Idea, which had a pretty solid chapter on Jersey City and Hague’s corrupt successor-party boss, Mayor John V. Kenny.

That was years before I stumbled into Jersey City politics, but the corruption was rampant.  In one instance, a developer left one of my program officers an envelope full of cash, which I reported to the police and to the mayor; action ground to a halt when we let the police know that the developer came to our department at the behest of the then president of the City Council (the current president of the Jersey City City Council is one of the people arrested today).  Another time, I had one of the building inspectors in my department wired to catch a private developer and another inspector paying and accepting bribes; we got it on tape, but no one went to jail.

As our four years in office ground to the end, I recalled a developer sitting with my staff discussing his plans for an affordable housing development he planned in the Greenville neighborhood.  We really wanted him, he was a minority developer in a community that had a large African-American population but few decently capitalized African-American developers.  But he said he couldn’t or wouldn’t work with our department because, since we didn’t solicit—much less accept—payoffs. The system was corrupt, and if we weren’t on the take, it must have meant that we lacked power in the system.

It didn’t matter that our Housing and Economic Development department was clean (at least we thought so, in the planning and development units).  The developer viewed our environment as polluted, and we were either part of it or emasculated by it.  We couldn’t escape by saying we weren’t like those other guys.  The honesty and integrity by which we thought we lived were sullied and undermined by the corruption around us.

Corruption comes in many forms, illegal like the round-up of these politicians, and legal. The legal corruption of campaign contributions from developers and others was, like some of the payoffs in today’s arrests, at the heart of the pernicious system.  As we all know in the nonprofit sector, probity is not simply a matter of doing things that break the law, but maintaining standards of ethics and accountability even if violations don’t mean that the police or the FBI will knock on the door.

I can still remember the reaction of the building inspector in my department who was asked by local prosecutor to wear a wire to catch a crooked developer.  He was frightened, an entirely legitimate response to the being asked to tape an illegal transaction between a tough-talking supervising inspector and a developer with enough money at stake that he would risk arrest to make what would likely be penny ante bribes.

This quiet, frightened building inspector agreed to do it to stand up in his own individual way for the governmental integrity, for the public interest.  It is something we all have to do–in government and in the nonprofit sector.  When we turn a blind eye and fail to speak out about corrupting influences in this sector, regardless of whether the corruption is illegal or not, we’re all sullied.