Eleven local public officials, including two members of the state Assembly, were charged Thursday with taking thousands of dollars in bribes in exchange for promising municipal business to undercover officers posing as insurance brokers, in the latest federal probe into New Jersey’s rampant political corruption.
The officials and a man affiliated with one of them, were rounded up by agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation early Thursday morning and appeared before a judge in U.S. District Court here by afternoon. The arrests culminated an 18-month investigation in which an undercover agent and cooperating witnesses posed as insurance brokers and traded wads of cash ranging from $1,500 to $17,500 for assurances of votes on school boards and city councils.
The investigation initially focused on the Pleasantville Board of Education, which runs a tiny, impoverished school district near Atlantic City. With 13 superintendents in the last 10 years, the district has been plagued by turmoil and is now working with a state-appointed monitor.
But then, unexpectedly, Pleasantville officials led federal investigators on what Christopher J. Christie, the U.S. attorney for New Jersey, described at a news conference here as a “corruption tour” of New Jersey by referring the fake insurers to other parts of the state.
That tour, prosecutors said, ranged 125 miles north to Passaic and Paterson, two gritty towns just outside New York City known for rough politics, as well as to Newark and Orange. And the way it transpired resembled a New Jersey cliche, as meetings unfolded in parked cars, rest stops on the Garden State Parkway, restaurants and hotels.
The arrests are the latest example of how the state’s roster of elected and appointed officials has come, at times, to resemble a police blotter. Two powerful Democratic veterans — Sharpe James, the former mayor of Newark, and Wayne Bryant, a state senator from Camden — were indicted earlier this year, and state Sen. Joseph Coniglio, a Democrat of Bergen County, has been notified by prosecutors that he is the target of a corruption investigation.
But even Christie said that he was stunned by the business-as-usual boldness uncovered in the most recent investigation, which the FBI dubbed Operation Broken Boards.