The Times, Trenton

Lawmakers Begin Review Of Ethics Reform Package

The Times of Trenton — Tuesday, April 27, 2004

TRENTON (AP) — In an effort to change what one assemblyman called a "culture of corruption" in New Jersey politics, legislators began looking yesterday at a proposed 25-point plan to reform state ethics laws.

Eight bills unveiled last month by Democratic leaders were discussed before the Assembly State Government Committee. While lawmakers and others disagreed on some details, all agreed that reform was needed.

"Corruption has enveloped this state," said Assemblyman Bill Baroni, R-Hamilton, who read a long list of elected officials from New Jersey who have been convicted or indicted in recent years. "This culture of corruption has enveloped both of our parties."

The meeting yesterday was the first of four scheduled over the next month. It focused on plans to clean up elections and campaigns.

The Democrats' reform plan calls for strengthening the powers of the state's Election Law Enforcement Commission, bolstering campaign finance reporting requirements and even regulating "robocalls," those recorded messages on behalf of candidates that flood voters' phones.

Frederick Herrmann, ELEC executive director, told the committee that the threshold amount for reporting political donations should be reduced to $300 from the current level of $400.

But Assemblywoman Joan Voss, D-Fort Lee, said the amount should be lowered further, to $100, as is suggested in the reform plan. She said $3.2 million in contributions of less than $400 was given in a five-month period last year.

"With a $400 reporting requirement, huge sums of contributions can move beneath the radar," Voss said.

The plan also calls for political fund-raisers to be registered annually and for them to file annual reports on their activities.

In addition, penalties would double for the failure to submit contribution reports to ELEC and for accepting money in violation of limit laws.

The plan also would make it illegal to solicit political donations on state property. Sen. Thomas H. Kean Jr., R-Westfield, said that bill did not go far enough because it only would apply to those in the executive and legislative branches and not political action committees or other political party activities.

"My concern is you're opening up a significant loophole," Kean said.

There were efforts to implement ethics reform last year and a number of bills did become law. But the issue has remained prominent. Ethics questions knocked some lawmakers from office last year and continue to circle around other legislators.

Staci Berger, program director of the watchdog group Citizen Action, told committee members that the bills would make important changes.

"Voters want a transparent democracy, one in which they can easily tell how candidates raised funds, determine how those same candidates spent that money and how much they got from lobbyists and corporate special interests," Berger said.

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