Today's Sunbeam

Ethics Reform Package Unveiled

Today's Sunbeam — Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Trenton Bureau

TRENTON — Assembly Democrats on Tuesday proposed what they called the nation's toughest campaign finance package, a 25-point plan to end pay-to-play politics and remove money from government.

The announcement came 15 minutes after Gov. James E. McGreevey, an embattled freshman Democrat, made public a host of documents in the federal probe into allegations his administration gave a fund-raiser special deals on tax and other matters.

"In the present climate, there has been an erosion in trust," said Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Roberts, D-5 of Camden. "This package will make New Jersey a national leader. New Jersey will lead by example."

While no legislation has been crafted, Democrats said the pay-to-play component would preclude anyone making a direct contribution of $17,500 or more to a candidate from getting public contracts. The measure is aimed at the governor's office, Democrats said.

Along with that aspect, Roberts' "Restoring the Public Trust" package would:

In another initiative, it calls for a limited trial run in 2005 of so-called "clean," or publicly funded, Assembly races as a trial of a statewide system.

But critics said the legislation stops short of previous proposals by both Republicans and Democrats.

Along with key provisions not kicking in until 2006 or 2007, the Democratic proposal does not apply to elected officials at the county and municipal level or New Jersey's 600-plus school boards the GOP said.

Likewise, they added, it fails to address dual office holding.

"There are a few worthy elements of this proposal that share bipartisan support. However, they are overshadowed by the fact that the corrupt system of pay to play will continue to thrive," said Sen. Minority Leader Leonard Lance, R-Hunterdon/Warren, the past sponsor of ethics legislation. "Any ethics proposal that permits dual office holding and pay to play to flourish is significantly flawed."

"Assembly Majority Leader Roberts has provided an outline that has a number of constructive and creative ideas, Pozycki said. "This is just the beginning of the process so I'm not going to calculate what could and what couldn't be in" the legislation.

"There's still some discussion we need to have in the weeks going ahead on applying it to multiple levels of government," said Eric Shuffler, counselor to the governor. "Today is a significant step forward."

Along with six Democrats, groups unveiling the proposal included New Jersey Citizen Action, the Sierra Club, American Association of Retired Persons and the New Jersey Environmental Federation.

McGreevey, who has vowed to veto any legislation that does not apply to all levels of government in New Jersey, will review the legislation, an aide said.

The package is the latest set of proposals in a two-year stalemate over revamping New Jersey ethics laws. Both Democrats and GOP legislators have tried to advance reform measures.

Also Tuesday, lawyers from McGreevey's Chief Counsel's Office showed reporters a 3-inch stack of documents turned over to the U.S. Attorney's Office as part of the inquiry into recycling executive David D'Amiano. The files detail all contact between D'Amiano, who raised more than $100,000 for the Democratic State Committee, and various McGreevey underlings.

McGreevey did not release any documents related to his transition period -- the time between his November 2001 election and January 2002 inauguration.

The documents include several requests he made to have acquaintances appointed to three state boards, the Essex County Prosecutor's Office and a judgeship. Only one of the appointments went through, officials said, denying any favoritism was given to D'Amiano or any contributor.

Some of the handwritten phone messages and faxed sheets were signed "Dave," and asked for favors such as a wedding invitation extended to McGreevey.

According to spokesman Micah Rasmussen, 73,738 people have called McGreevey's office in the past 90 days and the office has received 4,161 resumes since taking office and letters of recommendation from 1,263 people. All citizens are given the same treatment as D'Amiano, he and others said.

"We are confident after a review of all the documents that the administration acted appropriately," Rasmussen said. "We look forward to continuing to work with the U.S. attorney."

But the GOP drew a comparison between McGreevey's trouble, a search warrant executed recently at the Democratic State Committee's Trenton headquarters and the ethics legislation.

Brian Nelson, executive director of the Republican State Committee, impugned Roberts on ethical issues, pointing to his introduction of a law that would have benefited a company in which he owned stock. When the issue received press attention last year, Roberts withdrew the law, which would have allowed the company, U.S. Vision, to perform some eye surgeries it is currently prohibited from doing.

When asked if the U.S. Vision matter hampers his position on ethical issues, Roberts said, "I think that's irrelevant and it's unrelated."

According to a band of supporters, one proposal in the package advanced by Roberts and Sires holds the greatest promise for severing the ties between money and government: publicly funded, or clean, elections.

Under the plan Roberts has proposed, two legislative districts would be chosen in the 2005 Assembly races to take part in a pilot program. The program would require candidates to raise "threshold" or seed money and if they meet a set amount they would qualify to opt for matching public funds.

New Jersey would be the first state in the nation to enact such a system by a vote in the Legislature. Currently, only Arizona and Maine have such a system.

"Money will always find its way into politics and by its nature it's corrosive," said David Pringle, campaign director for the New Jersey Environmental Federation. He added clean elections are the way to end national perception of New Jersey as "an industrial wasteland and (home) of corruption."

Arizona enacted the finance system in 1998 following an initiative and referendum effort in which the public sidestepped the Legislature and governor. Pointing to Gov. Janet Napolitano, one activist in that state said public elections have proven a major component in restoring integrity to a state that had two chief executives impeached.

"This is by far the most responsive governor's office and she has by far the most open door," said Chad Campbell, program director for the Arizona Advocacy Network, said. "That is a direct correlation to the fact that she ran a clean campaign."

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