Opinion—Tolerance of Corruption Undermines Our Democracy

By Everyman Jones

On October 3, 2019, Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam, Jr. pled guilty to wire fraud for defrauding a nonprofit youth basketball league of more than $87,000. At 3:17 PM, the New Jersey Attorney General filed an Order to Show Cause seeking to have Gilliam forfeit his elected office. On that same day, Governor Phil Murphy called Gilliam’s admitted conduct “despicable” and called for his resignation saying, “He has squandered the trust and confidence of his community and of his administration to lead that community. He must resign.” State Senate President Stephen Sweeney also called for Gilliam’s resignation: “For everyone’s sake, he really should resign immediately.” Gilliam submitted his resignation to the City Clerk hours later.

When West Ward Councilman Joseph A. McCallum, Jr. pled guilty on March 15, 2022 to wire fraud as part of a scheme to receive concealed bribes and kickbacks, it was assumed that a similar chain of events would follow. McCallum’s fraudulent conduct, directly involving local construction and real estate projects in Newark, seemed to constitute a greater breach of the public trust than Gilliam’s. However, over two months after his guilty plea, McCallum remained on the City Council until the end of his term, and neither Governor Murphy, Mayor Ras J. Baraka, nor any of the nine members of the Newark Municipal Council have called for his resignation, or even publicly commented on his guilty plea.

Illustration by Sharon Adarlo

The silence of Mayor Baraka is most confounding. When McCallum was first charged by the U.S. Attorney’s Office on October 21, 2020, Mayor Baraka conditionally called for McCallum’s resignation the following day in a written statement: “We do hope that these allegations are not true. However, if in fact, they are, then he should consider the West Ward and the City of Newark by resigning and allowing us to heal and move on.” With McCallum having now pled guilty, thereby lending truth to the initial criminal allegations, it was assumed that Mayor Baraka would renew his call for McCallum to resign. He did not. In contrast, when confusion as to new polling places caused difficulties for Newark voters during the May 10 municipal elections, Mayor Baraka used a generous portion of his victory speech to call for the immediate resignation of the entire Essex County Board of Elections. “They should leave immediately and at once,” he argued. Under such circumstances, one is left with the vague sense that Mayor Baraka did not consider the guilty plea of McCallum to be an issue for his immediate supporters, so therefore, not an issue at all. 

In a 2012 study, Bribes and Ballots: The Impact of Corruption on Voter Turnout in 75 Democracies, researchers at the University of Connecticut theorized that “[d]isgruntled with the system, people in corrupt countries might be befallen with a general political apathy and become disconnected with politics.” The study, citing numerous other authorities, would also state that “corruption has been shown to compromise citizens’ satisfaction with the performance of their political system, and even leach down to the roots of democracy, decreasing citizens’ satisfaction with democracy, trust in democratic institutions, their confidence in the performance of democracy, and ultimately, their belief in the legitimacy of democratic states.” In Newark, where voter turnout in the 2022 municipal election was 10% of approximately 165,000 registered voters (and 3% in the April 2022 school board election), it is fair to wonder if the hypothesis holds true for our city. What could voter turnout have been if Mayor Baraka called for the resignation of Joseph McCallum with the same conviction that he called for the resignation of the Essex County Board of Elections? 

In any event, in the absence of any public stance against public corruption, the city is left with this, Sharpe James, the former mayor who was convicted of fraud in 2008, seeking to run for an at-large council seat, and Joseph A. McCallum, Jr., who was convicted of wire fraud in March 2022, giving his public endorsement for West Ward councilman to Dupré Kelly, the candidate who is being challenged for having allegedly violated campaign finance laws in the 2018 and 2022 municipal elections.

Everyman Jones is just a regular guy in Newark, just like you and me.

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