In order to fully understand the extent to which soft corruption affects the functions of government, it is essential to have a comprehensive description of it as it is practiced by many of New Jersey’s political leaders.
Acts of soft corruption are moral and/or ethical transgressions engaged in by public officials in their quest for political power and/or personal benefit. These acts are perfectly legal; they do not break any laws, so they cannot be prosecuted as criminally corrupt — thus the descriptive word “soft.”
Soft corruption is found in such governmental functions as: campaign finance, lobbying, patronage, and the electoral process, as well as when the public and private interests of lawmakers conflict.Acts of soft corruption produce government outcomes that undermine the principles of good government and are harmful to the public interest.
However, a distinction must be made. Engaging in these processes is not, per se, engaging in soft corruption. The processes outlined above are necessary functions of government that can be performed honestly, fairly and with integrity. For example:
- Campaign Finance – Money has to be raised for political campaigns and can be done honorably.
- Lobbying – Representing and expressing the concerns of interest groups is a normal and desirable phenomenon in our system of self-government.
- Patronage – Filling of government jobs can be achieved by selecting qualified individuals on the basis of merit.
- The Electoral Process – The conduct of elections and the selection of competent candidates for public office can be done in an open, fair, and transparent manner.
- Conflict of Interest – A lawmaker can decline to participate when confronted with a matter that may affect his or her private interest.
It is only when government functions are manipulated for reasons of greed, personal gain, or political exploitation that soft corruption occurs.
Examples of the nefarious aspects of soft corruption are:
- Large campaign contributions are sought by legislative leaders from special interests that have a stake in pending legislative proposals.
- Lobbyists conduct fund-raising events for legislative candidates.
- The unwritten “rule” of senatorial courtesy is used in the patronage appointment process to effectively blackball qualified applicants for important state positions.
- The selection of candidates to run for office is surreptitiously rigged to award the “party line” to a boss’s loyal stalwarts.
- A public official acts on a government matter that results in personal benefit to the official
In summary, soft corruption is the use of political subterfuge, nonetheless legal, to achieve government results that work against the public interest.