Christie, Democrats blame each other for ethics inaction

Gov. Christie, with Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) has introduced ethics proposals since September 2010 but has gotten none through the Democratic-controlled Legislature.
Gov. Christie, with Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) has introduced ethics proposals since September 2010 but has gotten none through the Democratic-controlled Legislature. (MEL EVANS / AP)
Posted: April 15, 2013

TRENTON - The federal prosecutor who busted more than 130 corrupt politicians became governor based in part on New Jerseyans' belief, and hope, that he could clean up government.

But despite a sweeping ethics package that Republican Gov. Christie proposed in his first year in office - and despite continued political corruption in all corners of government - Trenton during the Christie administration is where ethics reforms have gone to die.

None of the governor's ethics proposals dating to September 2010 have been passed by the Democratic-controlled Legislature. That means state workers can still collect a public salary and public pension at the same time. Campaign contributions can still be intentionally hidden by funneling money from one political group to another. And criminally convicted public officials can still keep part of their pensions.

With three New Jersey mayors arrested in the last year - and seven executives of a government contractor charged just last month - corruption isn't going away.

Though there are plenty of proposals to tighten the rules, more than a dozen such bills - mostly from Republicans, but some with bipartisan support - are languishing without debate.

Why? Depends whom you ask. Democrats and Republicans talk passionately about the need to clean up the state, but when it comes to policing themselves, politicians just can't get on the same page.

The discord on ethics issues is so severe a Republican bill that would make local politicians and school board members subject to a state ethics code was blocked by a powerful Democrat last month not out of opposition but because Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D., Bergen) said the GOP was bucking protocol to push the bill through.

Republicans say Democrats are simply getting in the way of across-the-board reform. Another Republican bill, for example, would require insurance companies to perform actual services to get paid tax dollars - but that would-be law is going nowhere.

"A lot of great ideas that would bring real accountability to government are blocked by those who benefit from the status quo," said Sen. Tom Kean Jr. (R., Union), the Senate's top Republican.

A spokesman for Kean's Democratic counterpart, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), flipped that argument. Chris Donnelly said Democrats had "led the way" on ethics laws "since before Chris Christie and his friends in the Republican Party knew what a YouTube video was."

As is his wont, the governor has posted a few YouTube videos that address ethics, but they haven't gotten bills passed.

Lack of progress isn't all bad for Christie; railing against Democrats' failure to approve ethics reforms works well on the stump. He spent 1,482 words on the topic at a February town-hall meeting in Montville, wondering aloud why the state allows convicted politicians to tap campaign funds to pay legal bills.

Here's a campaign donation, he said, and "if you get pinched, get yourself a good lawyer."

Democrats have sought to take the high road on ethics since Christie awarded a no-bid contract for Hurricane Sandy cleanup to a politically connected disaster-recovery firm, AshBritt Inc. of Florida. The company's lobbyist later held a fund-raiser for the governor.

To prevent such a contract award in the future, Democrats introduced a bill forbidding pay-to-play laws from being waived during emergencies. The bill would require contracts to be competitively bid and the winning bidders to disclose political contributions.

Democrats also are seeking to close another ethics loophole and force so-called issue-advocacy groups to disclose their donors - just as candidates and county political groups do. That's because groups led by Christie's friends and supporters have run pro-Christie TV ads.

When a Democratic bill that would force disclosure recently came up in a legislative committee, it was Republicans who were resistant. Three Democrats voted in favor and two Republicans abstained; it is awaiting further votes.

Ingrid Reed, a political analyst, chaired a gubernatorial ethics task force that delivered its findings to Christie in 2010 and called for the creation of a local government ethics board to monitor local officials. None of her recommendations has been implemented.

She said Christie needs to push this harder.

"I don't understand; it's so sensible," Reed said. "You would think that this is something Christie would want to do."

Instead, Christie has focused more on getting ethics rules to apply to state legislators.

When Democrats sent him a bill to tighten the governor's financial-disclosure requirements, he conditionally vetoed it, saying legislators should be held to the same standard. He said the public deserved to know how legislators make their money.

Recounting that at the Montville town hall, he added: "You will be shocked, I'm sure, to know that that was three years ago, and that bill is still sitting there, waiting for them to apply it to themselves."

A related proposal to force legislators to recuse themselves on votes in which they have a financial interest has never even been introduced.

There is urgency for reform. From 2002 to 2012, 17 mayors in New Jersey were arrested on corruption charges. The mayor of Trenton still goes to work despite a federal indictment for allegedly accepting a bribe from a developer.

Next door, in Hamilton, the mayor was sentenced last month to more than three years in prison for soliciting $12,400 from an insurance broker to help with a no-bid contract. A Democratic-sponsored bill that would forbid such no-bid contracts was unanimously passed by the Senate last month - but it hasn't moved out of the Assembly.

Meanwhile, some contractors still operate as though political donations buy government contracts. One of the state's most prominent engineering firms, Birdsall Services Group, went belly-up after seven of its executives were indicted in March for allegedly making more than $500,000 in illegal contributions.

A major state demolition contractor summed it up at the corruption trial of a Newark official in 2011: "I make political contributions because I learned over the years that not making them, I lost tens of millions of dollars."

Politicians of both parties agree this is not the way government is supposed to work. They just can't agree on the specifics of how to change it.


Contact Matt Katz at 609-217-8355, mkatz@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @mattkatz00. Read his blog, "Christie Chronicles," at www.philly.com/christiechronicles.

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