Abner “Longie” Zwillman once dated actress Jean Harlow and was dubbed the “Al Capone of New Jersey”.
He was born in Newark and lived in West Orange when he died of suicide in 1959.
While he tried to go “legit,” he got his start doing business with such infamous associates as Bugsy Siegel, Lucky Luciano and Dutch Schultz.
One of the most fascinating revelations about Zwillman is that he allegedly offered the equivalent of $3 million as a political donation to a New Jersey gubernatorial candidate in 1949, according to federal witnesses.
There was just one catch – he would get to pick the attorney general after the election.
The bribe/contribution was turned down by Elmer H. Wene, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate from Cumberland County, and a farmer- businessman celebrated as the “world’s greatest expert on chickens.”
Along with being a great yarn, this story offers a glimpse into the dark old days of New Jersey politics.
The bribe attempt occurred decades before the New Jersey Legislature created a strong inducement against such behavior when it enacted a 1973 state law requiring candidates to fully and timely disclose to voters their contributions and expenses.
Those that don’t may face an investigation by the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission or even the state Attorney General.
In 1949, politics in New Jersey was like the Wild West. Candidates faced little accountability for the funds they raised and spent.
Federal and state campaign finance laws were weak and rarely enforced before the Watergate scandal led to a major overhaul in the early 1970s.
President Lyndon Johnson, in his 1966 State of the Union message, said federal statutes “were more loophole than law. They invited evasion and circumvention.”
New Jersey’s laws were equally feeble. “A veil of secrecy shrouds much of this area,” says the Interim Report of the Election Revision Commission in September 1970.
Added the late former state Senator William Schluter in memoirs: “Gaping loopholes in the then-governing law allowed virtually unlimited amounts of money to flow freely to a candidate just by channeling funds through a separate committee allied with the candidate.” Such contributions did not have to be reported. Schluter authored the 1973 bill that created ELEC and imposed stronger disclosure laws.
In the era of truly dark money decades ago, Zwillman, through intermediaries, allegedly approached Democratic state Senator Wene, who besides being a prosperous chicken farmer was a former congressman and his party’s nominee for governor in 1949.
The racketeer made an offer through an associate of $300,000- more than $3 million in 2018 dollars- if he got to pick the attorney general, according to “Final Report of the Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce, United States Senate, August 31, 1951.”
When Zwillman offered his contribution, there were no limits. Under current laws, the most an individual contributor could give a gubernatorial candidate in 2017 was $4,300 per election.
The largest known legal contribution to a gubernatorial candidate (not counting contributions by wealthy candidates to their own campaigns) occurred in the 1977 primary election. It was the last gubernatorial primary without contribution limits. Developer Peter Levine gave $331,753 to unsuccessful Democratic primary candidate Robert Roe, an amount worth nearly $1.4 million in current dollars.
In case you are wondering how Zwillman could afford such a large bribe to Wene, federal investigators said just his boot-legging operations earned more than $50 million during the Prohibition era.
He personally testified that the contribution offer “never existed.” Keep in mind that Zwillman was described in a story about his death as a “master at covering his traces, financial, political and otherwise.” Also, according to an FBI memo to J. Edgar Hoover, he once gave $300,000 to “men in the Internal Revenue Department to squash a tax claim in a liquor firm.”
Zwillman also allegedly offered former Congressman Peter Rodino $100,000 to run for Newark mayor and even agreed to pay $50,000 to any person who would help locate the Charles Lindbergh baby.
James A. Bishop of Teaneck, a Wene aide and former reporter, testified before the investigatory panel that he was told the $300,000 was offered because “Zwillman does not want the Wene administration to hurt him…that is all he asks.” Earl A. Baldwin, a retired income tax inspector, also testified the bribe offer was made.
The surprise is that the candidate spurned the gesture in an era when such the money could have been easily hidden. “It is to Mr. Wene’s great credit that he turned this offer down flatly, without even permitting the proposal to be fully explained to him,” says the report.
Wene may have had the luxury of being honest because he was a prosperous businessman.
In a profession where the “rubber chicken circuit” is a cliché, the poultry- raising farmer once provided his fellow Congressional members with such dinners, according to his January 27, 1957 obituary. At one point, Wene’s farms produced 5 million chickens annually.
After forsaking Zwillman’s offer, Wene paid a price for his integrity. He lost to incumbent Republican Governor Alfred Driscoll in part because “insurgent” Hudson County Democrats rallied behind Driscoll, who became the first Republican since Warren Harding to carry Jersey City.
“…there is a strong chance that Zwillman had something to do with having that vote swing away from Wene,” says the investigative report.
Wene ran again in 1953 and lost the primary by less than 1,600 votes to Robert Meyner, who would go on to become governor.
While today’s laws may not totally stop illegal donations, they create a huge penalty- forfeiture of office- for someone who gets caught accepting $50,000 or more in illegal contributions.
A little-known provision in ELEC’s law allows the commission to remove any candidate who takes more than $50,000 in illegal contributions if it determines the violation “had a significant impact on the outcome of the election.” The commission has never had to invoke this clause during its 45-year history.
Lesser penalties can lead to stiff fines.
There are always going to be some people who break the law. Some people commit murder even though they may face the death penalty. Some are going to make illegal campaign contributions or even direct bribes despite existing prohibitions.
Even with tougher campaign finance laws, there have been some well-known examples of illegal donations/bribes since 1949 though the amounts pale in comparison to Zwillman’s offer.
The Abscam undercover operation of the late 1970s led to the convictions of one U.S. senator, six U.S. representatives and several local officials on various bribery and corruption charges. The biggest cash payments were about $125,000- worth nearly half-million dollars today but not close to $3 million dangled by Zwillman.
Operation Bid Rig, a major corruption investigation conducted by the FBI, IRS and US Attorney’s Office, culminated in the arrest of 44 people in New Jersey and New York in July 2009 and led to numerous convictions. Those implicated in the probe accepted as little as $1,000 to about $72,000. Most were in the
$10,000 to $30,000 range.
An extensive probe by the state Attorney General’s office led to multiple convictions of employees of Birdsall Services Group for giving more than $1 million in illegal political contributions between 2006 and 2012. The funds were given to scores of New Jersey candidates and committees to secure about $84 million in public contracts.
The biggest issue with the contributions is that the employees were illegally reimbursed. The size of the checks individually- $300 or less- actually were small.
While abuses may sometimes occur, most people are going to think twice knowing they face fines or even jail- time. Maybe even Longie himself if he was still around.
Joe Donohue is the deputy director of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission. Click here to read the ELEC November 2018 newsletter.