When William Schluter was a New Jersey state lawmaker between 1967 and 2001, he kept notes, and lots of them, on the subject that angered him the most: corruption.
His job provided plenty of material. But it wasn’t “hard corruption” of the kind that sends politicians to jail that infuriated Schluter the most. Rather it was “soft corruption,” the legal but unethical ways in which democracy and the rule of law were subverted, that Schluter wanted to expose. Too often Schluter saw politicians make decisions that were based on political considerations rather than the public good.
Now, 16 years removed from his political career, Schluter has written a book, Soft Corruption: How Unethical Conduct Undermines Good Government and What To Do About It, published by Rutgers University Press, which at times reads like an encyclopedia of bad government in New Jersey, from the perspective of a man who had a front row seat to all the dirty dealings.
“I’m sort of a collector of trivia and detailed stuff, so when I was in the legislature I was very industrious on collecting data on stuff that I thought was wrong,” Schluter says. “I had big files on all these different things.”
Schluter, 89, was born in Bronxville, New York, and educated at Phillips Exeter Academy and Princeton University, Class of 1950. He made his first foray into politics in 1963 as a Pennington councilman. In 1967, Schluter, a Republican, was elected to the general assembly and gained a senate seat in 1971, representing a district that covered parts of Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, and Morris counties. He was a senator until 1973, when he was defeated in a post-Watergate Democratic wave. He returned to the Assembly in 1987 and regained a senate seat in 1991.
Ten years later, his district was reshaped to include parts of Trenton, putting him at an insurmountable disadvantage against his Democratic opponent, Shirley Turner. Schluter left the Republican ticket to run as an independent. Despite the endorsement of Jesse Ventura (the high profile governor of Minnesota and former professional wrestler), Schluter only got 1 percent of the vote that year.
In the book, Schluter is very critical of members of both parties for their ethical lapses. Schluter says the book has been well received so far, but his reputation as an ethical watchdog did not endear him to the party establishment back in 2001.
“They redistricted me out of a job,” Schluter says. “They didn’t want me around anymore because it was an embarrassment that I was raising these issues too often. They got me a district I couldn’t win.”
Schluter believes that corruption takes an enormous, invisible toll on taxpayers. For example, in 2013, when five-term Democratic senator Frank Lautenberg died, Republican Gov. Chris Christie scheduled a special election to replace him for Oct. 16, less than a month before November’s gubernatorial election. Schluter says having the elections on two separate dates hurt Democratic turnout in the gubernatorial vote, improving Christie’s chances at re-election, and cost taxpayers $12 million.
“That’s just one little thing,” Schluter says. “How much does it cost the state to make changes in personnel by hiring people who are more interested in following the political line than doing the best job at the lowest possible cost?”
One example of “soft corruption” Schluter cites is the practice of “wheeling,” which is a way of getting around New Jersey’s easily circumvented campaign finance laws. Individual donations to individual politicians are limited to $2,600 per election. But the same donor can give a maximum of $37,000 to a county political party committee, which is free to spend the money wherever it likes.
The county committee loophole has been used by both parties to shuttle campaign dollars to hotly contested races. The wealthy donor can give $37,000 to the committee in charge of the campaign he seeks to influence, and then to any of the other of the state’s 42 committees, with a wink and a nod, knowing that they will transfer the cash to where it is needed.
In his book, Schluter cites the 2003 Hamilton Township mayoral campaign as an obvious example of wheeling. Democratic fundraiser Jack Morris, who was developing an industrial site in Hamilton Township, gave a donation of $25,000 to the Democratic committee in Mercer County, $30,000 to Bergen and $37,000 to Camden. The latter two organizations “wheeled” a total of $50,000 to Mercer County, where Democrat Glen Gilmore was running for re-election. The players involved denied there was any effort to get around campaign finance laws.
Schluter is also critical of one popular event for the business community: the annual “Walk to Washington” train excursion.
“Powerful business-related lobbies often sponsor lavish entertainment events to which they invite legislators and other government officials. The relationships that take place at these venues are cozy and often clandestine. Opportunities are afforded lobbyists to gain the favor of and consummate deals with government lawmakers, deals that are both good and bad,” Schluter writes, citing the state Chamber of Commerce’s Walk to Washington as the most prominent of these events.
The train carries 14 carloads of lobbyists, businesspeople, legislators, officials, and reporters on a journey to the capital, where they attend a lavish banquet. The event is called the “walk” because “most passengers try to muscle their way through the crowded aisles of all 14 cars to greet and schmooze with political pals and acquaintances,” Schluter says.
He says that the trip “exploited a captive audience in an effort to influence government decisions with virtually no transparency or accountability.” The state chamber, under pressure from reform groups, stopped paying the fares of lawmakers, although many still make the journey on their own dime.
Another practice that Schluter blasts in his book is multiple office holding among public officials. Multiple offices means multiple opportunities for conflicts of interest. It also means that the official may not be able to devote sufficient time and attention to any one of his or her jobs. Among other examples, Schluter points out that Democratic Assemblyman Reed Gusciora held three municipal prosecutor appointments in 2011.
Attempts to reform these practices have been inadequate, Schluter says. A law against wheeling only outlawed the practice up until after the primary election, a half-measure that only served the interest of local party bosses. A 2008 law banned lawmakers from serving multiple elected offices, but grandfathered in people who were already serving and still allowed them to have appointed positions in addition to their elected posts.
Although he is no longer in politics, Schluter is following current events and says he still sees examples every day of money influencing politics in unethical ways.
“The clearest example of this is Phil Murphy,” he says of the Democratic gubernatorial candidate and prominent donor, who is currently leading in the polls. “He has gone out and bought the nomination. What kind of a system do we have where if you are a super wealthy person, and you’re ambitious, and you want the notoriety, you can go out and buy the nomination?”
Schluter says many New Jersey residents tolerate corruption because they don’t understand how the system works, or because they are so resigned to it that they don’t even bother to vote. Budget cuts at newspapers have also left the media with fewer resources to investigate and publicize instances of corruption. He hopes his book will shed light on some of these practices and inspire other reformers to action.
Schluter says he was inspired to go into politics because he wanted to challenge the dominance of the Democratic party in Mercer County. His first year in the assembly, he was on an election law revision commission headed by Sam Alito Sr., father of the Supreme Court judge. “He was absolutely straight as an arrow,” Schluter recalls. The book is dedicated to Alito Sr., who together with Schluter, uncovered many of the electoral improprieties of the time. Ironically, Alito’s son was instrumental in deciding the 2010 Supreme Court case Citizens United, which removed many of the restrictions on corporations and unions spending money on political speech.
Schluter’s ethics crusade involves the business world in several areas, including the “pay-to-play” practice where companies donate to politicians in order to get contracts or approvals from government bodies. He says businesses can have a role in reforming the corrupt system. ‘The businesses have got to realize that if government is for sale, and they can make a profit from buying government results, that’s not going to last forever, and that can go against them as easily as they gain it,” he says. “They have to have a better moral compass to guide them.”
A version of this article originally appeared in the May 31 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper.