From our archives: The Burlington Bridge scandal, 58 years before Bob Stears

Clifford Powell served in the state legislature in the 1920’s and 1930’s, including stints as Assembly Speaker and Senate President. He was the Senate President on January 3, 1935 when Governor A. Harry Moore resigned to take his seat in the United States Senate. Powell became Acting Governor that day and served for five days; the Senate reorganized on January 8th and Horace Prall became Senate President and completed the remaining week of Moore’s term. (Harold Hoffman had already been elected Governor in the 1934 election, and he succeeded Prall on January 15th). But history still regards the 41-year-old Powell as a former Governor. Powell was a General of the New Jersey National Guard, and went on active duty during World War II. He commanded the U.S. Army’s 50th Armored Division, the New Jersey Blues, through many battles in North France and became a highly-decorated war veteran. He also spent many years as the Burlington County Republican Chairman, and served as the Chief of Staff of the New Jersey National Guard during the post-War administration of Governor Alfred Driscoll. In a move that became the major political scandal of the time, Powell perpetrated one of the greatest swindles in the history of New Jersey. And he did it all in one day, October 22, 1948. Powell and a few of his friends started the morning by purchasing two privately-owned bridges for $6 million. Late that morning he called a meeting of the Burlington County Board of Freeholders (which he seemingly controlled) and had them create the Burlington County Bridge Commission. Immediately after creating the Commission, Powell (through the Freeholders) appointed the members of the Commission. After lunch, the Commission held their meeting and voted to float a $12 million bond issue. By the end of the day, the Commission had sold their bonds and used the money to purchase the two bridges from Powell and his friends. In one day, Powell made a $6 million profit. Ultimately the deal became the subject of an investigation; Powell was forced to resign from Driscoll’s cabinet and return his profit to the Commission. But the state Supreme Court ruled that since the bonds had already been sold, it would be unfair to the bond holders if they were to shut down the Commission. Powell is a mere footnote of New Jersey political history, but the Burlington County Bridge Commission continues to run the two bridges it purchased from Powell: the Tacony-Palmyra and Burlington-Bristol Bridges.

From our archives: The Burlington Bridge scandal, 58 years before Bob Stears