In 1967, a LIFE Magazine expose of organized crime put New Jersey’s fabled mobsters on the map — people like Richie “The Boot” Boiardo, so-named for the tavern phone “boot” he frequented. The story shocked the nation and led the state to establish a special commission that would investigate misconduct or malfeasance on the part of organized crime or public officials. Now half a century later, the New Jersey State Commission of Investigation’s Executive Director Lee Seglem joins Correspondent Briana Vannozzi.
Vannozzi: So it’s the 1960s — there’s all kinds of social unrest. LIFE magazine comes out with this expose about organized crime. Lo and behold New Jersey’s in the middle of it, and what happens then?
Seglem: Well people were shocked because some of the revelations in that LIFE magazine series were just appalling. For example, they had stories about Richie “The Boot” Boiardo, who was at the Genovese capital at the time. He had a 29-acre compound estate in Livingston, a property that was occupied in part by an incinerator that reputedly was used for more than just burning trash.
Vannozzi: We can read between the lines there.
Seglem: Right, and this guy Sam “The Plumber” DeCavalcante, who became the boss of the only really homegrown organized crime family in New Jersey, he reportedly, according to LIFE at the time, was working on the development of a large garbage disposal that was — that they described as something that would be able to turn a human being into a meatball. So people were shocked, and so what was going to be done about this? The Legislature, of course, appointed a committee — which is the natural thing they do — but they got serious about this. So they created the State Division of Criminal Justice, which is an agency in the Attorney General’s Office that really does the prosecutions, and arrests and criminal activity investigations. But then somebody asked the question, well why wait until there’s a crime committed before you start an investigation? Why not look at systems that are vulnerable to criminal abuse, or activity, or unscrupulous behavior like that and do an investigation of those systemic flaws? And that’s where the SCI comes in.
Vannozzi: The backdrop for you all. So it wasn’t just about being another type of prosecutor arresting — you really look into systemic, wide issues. So I have this — taxpayer dollars that were saved from investigations that the commission conducted. $17 million in rip-offs within health benefits; $3.5 million in savings from unused sick leave, that you all discovered; $39 million in wasteful and excessive cash benefit payout. Has the type of crime you all have investigated over the last 50 years changed all that much?
Seglem: Well it’s gotten a little bit more sophisticated with the advent of higher technology and computers and that sort of thing. But basically, at its heart, it’s still people trying to rip off the system and for their own personal gain. On the organized-crime front, you know that the mafia has kind of diminished — they’re sort of like a low-grade fever on the criminal front these days. But they’ve been superseded by these very volatile, violent criminal street gangs and drug dealing syndicates. We just had a public hearing a couple weeks ago where we took a look at the emerging, real serious problem with juvenile gun violence and neighborhood gangs. So yeah, it’s constantly changing, and it constantly needs some agency like the SCI to monitor it and keep people informed.
Vannozzi: How does an investigation land on your desk, so to speak?
Seglem: A lot of the investigations we do are generated in-house by our expert professional investigators, accountants and analysts. Occasionally legislators or public officials will say, “We got a problem here, you need to look at this.”
Vannozzi: The Governor’s Office as well, I’d imagine?
Seglem: From time to time, that’s correct. And even average citizens. We have a complaint hotline that can people file complaints on. This led to a whole series of investigations 12 or 15 years ago into abuses and corruption and new home construction and inspections. We had three or four public hearings. Those people went to all kinds of agencies looking for help and some assistance. They went to criminal justice agencies — that wasn’t for them. Then they finally wound up on our doorstep and we were able to help them.
Vannozzi: I have a list here, I mean, it’s you’ve got so many. But one of the more recent investigations you all did was into New Jersey’s SPCA’s — the Societies for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. There was an investigation — widespread investigation — you all did about the opioid epidemic, about the filtering of these prescription drugs. I mean I have lists, upon lists of what you all have looked into — the corruption within recycling is one, firearms and access to ammunition. What sticks out in your mind, as maybe one of the more prominent investigations you all have done? Because policy comes of this, yes?
Seglem: Exactly. Well I think the work we did on the opioid and heroin epidemic was really landmark investigative work. We were really wringing the clacks and the waving the red flag this almost 10 years ago, before almost any other government agency, about this horrible tragedy that was coming over the horizon. So I think that was probably one of our most significant investigations in the modern era. The one you just mentioned about the SPCA — that was a project we decided two or three years ago to start following up on past investigations we had done, because in some cases nothing was done in response to them. The first SPCA investigation we did was almost two decades ago. So we said, let’s take a look at this organization still in place. There had already been a little bit of media reporting about continuing abuses, financial and otherwise. And sure enough, when we got into it, it was a mess. So this time we presented that to the Legislature. They prepared legislation and basically abolished that organization and transferred the responsibility for the important job of enforcing the animal cruelty laws to qualified law enforcement.
Vannozzi: Yeah it was a big deal. So your statue a while back — legislators made the commission permanent, but nothing in New Jersey is permanent. You’re at the whims of the budget cycle and the legislative and executive branches. I mean are you comfortable to say that we’ll see the commission go on for another 50 years from here?
Seglem: I think so, but I think the SCI needs to continue doing good, hard-hitting work. It’s all about how many products you can put out in the street. You know, life in Trenton is “what have you done for us lately,” and that’s a legitimate question to ask. And as I said, I think every government agency has a responsibility to follow up on the impact, results of the work they’ve done, and that’s why we’re doing that at the SCI.