Anatomy of a Machine

Among the nearly 1 million residents of Bergen County, approximately 0.4 percent are on the county payroll. But that figure jumps precipitously — to more than 40 percent — for one group of Bergen residents in particular: Democratic municipal chairs loyal to Bergen County Democratic Organization chairman Joseph Ferriero. That means that the 70 Democratic municipal chairs and five legislative district leaders in the county are more than 100 times more likely to hold government jobs than the average Bergen County resident.

Joe Ferriero has always maintained that he doesn’t control the awarding of government jobs and contracts. But last October, when Republicans accused him of enticing Lyndhurst Mayor Rich DiLascio to switch parties with a $20,000 a year county contract (which was awarded and later withdrawn), Ferriero admitted the obvious — perhaps accidentally — to Scott Fallon at The Record: “We chose not to award a contract to him because we didn’t want the feeling of impropriety.”

Though Ferriero holds no elected position in Bergen County government, he controls how taxpayer resources are allocated. The best-case scenario in such an arrangement is an unaccountable, truly benevolent boss who legitimately looks out for the best interests of county residents. But when Ferriero decides how and when to allocate government resources, the top determining factors are not competency or efficiency, but rather which choice will help him further amass money, consolidate power and ultimately steer contracts to the law firm where he is a partner. No attempt was made to hide this from his bio on the firm’s website: “Mr. Ferriero has been appointed by various municipalities throughout New Jersey as Borough Attorney, Special Labor Counsel, Special Litigation Counsel, and Environmental Counsel, and has served as Tax Appeal Counsel to various municipalities and corporate clients as well.”

Perhaps the most egregious example of Ferriero’s abuse of taxpayer money dates back to November, 2004. Again, it was The Record that reported: “A county police officer racked up more than $1,000 in overtime while chauffeuring Bergen County Democratic boss Joseph Ferriero to Yankees games and to an Atlantic City casino, Police Department records show.”

If The Record keeps this up, in a few years it’ll be Ferriero penning the update to former U.S. Sen. Bob Torricelli‘s premature death notice for the Bergen County paper, which in 2006 was awarded the prestigious IRE Medal for investigative journalism.

The Bergen boss’s hold on power is built upon two interconnected components. The pay-to-play cycle in which campaign contributors are rewarded with government contracts has been well documented. The other half of the equation is the old-fashioned patronage mill through which he trades elected offices and other government jobs for loyalty and reliable votes. Even news reports of subpoenas from the U.S. Attorney didn’t discourage the Democratic County Committee members from re-electing the chairman by a margin Saddam Hussein could almost respect.

It’s easiest to understand the starkness of the situation in terms of the raw numbers. While only 0.4 percent of the approximately 900,000 Bergen County residents work for the county government, a preliminary analysis shows that over 40 percent of the Democratic municipal chairs and legislative district leaders in the county hold government jobs. And for many, there is an unambiguous understanding that their job is contingent on Ferriero retaining power.

Although it’s reasonable to expect that those who are interested and involved in politics would be more civic-minded and have a proclivity for government work, this statistic is stunning by any reasonable standard. Neither is this meant to suggest that all these people are unqualified for the jobs; in fact some were in those positions even before Joe Ferriero took power. But even accounting for all these caveats, there is only one reasonable interpretation of the macro trend of this phenomenon: Ferriero is leveraging taxpayer dollars to consolidate personal power.

It’s no accident that these district and municipal chairs are such a high priority for the chairman; they wield considerable influence over local elections. In some cases they have never even called an executive-level meeting, and there are entire municipalities that have never invited candidates to speak to them. The objective is to keep rank and file Democrats in the dark, without the opportunity for discussion or to hear from anyone opposing the chairman or his candidates.

There is much more to this story — this preliminary analysis of Ferriero’s control over municipal chairs is very conservative and doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. We could also consider those chairs with spouses or other immediate family employed by the government or those who benefit from pay-to-play in the form of contracts for their firms. Or explore the similar trends among the 1,100 county committee members. But that story will have to wait for another day.

Juan Melli is Politicker.com’s associate editor.

Anatomy of a Machine