One cut too deep

One of New Jersey’s periodic waves of corruption revelations started in the late ’60s, after an assistant attorney general famously declared that some members of the Legislature were “entirely too comfortable with organized crime.” The era saw scores of public officials convicted of corruption, often involving the mob.

It also produced some of the most sweeping reforms in state history, bringing about the state Division of Criminal Justice, the Election Law Enforcement Commission, and the State Commission of Investigation, an independent body charged with probing organized crime and public corruption.

Gov. Christie urged "shared sacrifice"; Democrats say his plan hurts the vulnerable.

All three agencies continue to keep New Jersey cleaner (believe it or not) than it might otherwise be. So it’s strange that the state’s former top federal prosecutor — and current governor — is threatening to gut one of them.

Gov. Christie has proposed cutting the SCI’s budget from $4.5 million to $1 million, or 78 percent — a “complete dismantling,” in the words of one agency official.

While Christie’s spending crackdown has been generally warranted — and no agency should expect to avoid a trim — this goes too far. The state can’t afford to end the SCI’s long history of exposing corruption and misrule.

Granted, after a more recent series of corruption scandals, New Jersey saw a proliferation of investigative agencies — including the Office of the Inspector General, the Office of the State Comptroller, and the restored Department of the Public Advocate — with sometimes overlapping roles. But Christie has already threatened to eliminate the public advocate as well as the state’s child advocate. Some reductions of these offices are in order, but utterly crippling the SCI would be uncalled for and unwise.

Christie is going after the most venerable and independent of the state’s investigative agencies. The 42-year-old SCI is organized under the legislative rather than the executive branch, and it’s controlled by independent appointees from both parties and branches.

Some of the SCI’s recent reports examined street gangs in state prisons, wasteful purchasing of fire trucks and voting machines, and abusive municipal employee leave and payouts.

These investigations often have the potential to pay for themselves; the latter report identified millions of dollars of waste in Camden alone. And the dramatic shrinkage of the state’s press corps in recent years makes the commission’s work even more valuable.

Perhaps the Christie administration believes crime-fighting has become obsolete now that the great crime-fighter has moved into the governor’s office. When asked about the SCI cuts, the governor’s spokesman declared, “Chris Christie is by definition a watchdog.”

Nonsense. Now that he’s the top dog, Christie is by definition not a watchdog. New Jersey, of all states, still needs robust, independent scrutiny, and Christie, of all governors, should know that.