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New Jersey’s first Bridge Scandal

By David Wildstein, January 14 2018 4:42 pm

The appointment of a new Adjutant General prompts a re-telling of New Jersey’s first bridge scandal.

It starts with Clifford Powell, former Acting Governor of New Jersey who was Chief of Staff (now Adjutant General) of the New Jersey National Guard from 1947 to 1948.  Powell had been a Republican legislator from Burlington County in the 1920’s and 1930’s, serving as both Senate President and Assembly Speaker, and as Burlington County Republican Chairman. When Gov. A. Harry Moore resigned to become a U.S. Senator in January 1935, Powell became the Acting Governor for five days – 36 hours more than John Bennett.  Powell tried to run for Governor in 1937, but lost the Republican primary to the Essex County candidate.

In just one day, October 22, 1948, Powell pulled off one the most legendary swindles in the history of New Jersey politics.   In the morning, Powell and some friends purchased a pair of privately-owned bridges for $6 million.  Before lunch, he had engineered a special meeting of the Burlington Freeholder board and had them create the Burlington County Bridge Commission, and told them who to appoint.  The new commission held its first meeting after lunch, voting to float a $12 million bond issue.  The commission sold the bonds before the end of the day and used the money to buy the two bridges from Powell – a one-day profit of $6 million.

The Legislature tried to undo the deal, but the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled against them.  The commission still runs the two bridges: the Tacony-Palmyra and Burlington-Bristol Bridges.

Powell backed a fellow South Jersey candidate, Alfred Driscoll, for Governor in 1946 — that’s how he became Adjutant General.  He had considered running again in 1949, if Driscoll opted out of a second term (he was the first New Jersey governor eligible to seek one), but the bridge scandal sort of ended his future political aspirations.

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