New Jersey Herald

Cleaning Up A Culture Of Corruption

New Jersey Herald — Sunday, September 23, 2007

By BILL WICHERT

Winning over voters in the 24th Legislative District began as a mission to receive $10 donations through a state campaign financing program, but now it has come down to cleaning up politics in New Jersey.

The district's "clean elections" financing project has been about empowering voters and eliminating the influence of special interests, but now Democratic candidates are taking that philosophy to the next level with a series of ethics reform proposals. Some of the proposals go against their own state leadership, just weeks after 11 public officials were arrested for allegedly taking bribes in exchange for public contracts.

More than a month before the general election, Democratic Senate candidate Edwin Selby and his Assembly running mates Toni Zimmer and Pat Walsh have unveiled an "anti-corruption plan." That plan includes a total ban on dual office-holding; preventing elected officials from collecting more than one pension; prohibiting convicted officials from collecting any pension benefits; and a statewide clean elections program.

"We have to change the way we're doing business," Selby said.

Republican Senate candidate Steve Oroho, who is running with Assembly candidates Alison Littell McHose and Gary Chiusano, said many of the Democrats' proposals mirror ethics legislation that has already been introduced by Republicans.

"It looks like (the Democratic candidates) want to get on back of the Republican line," Oroho said. "We've got the plan. It's already there."

McHose has introduced several ethics reform bills, including ones to prevent cabinet-level officers from taking on outside jobs; require legislators with multiple public jobs to pick one pension; and impose limits on campaign contributions from county and municipal political committees. The Assembly-woman said she would be interested in requiring legislators to undergo ethics training.

Although the Demo-crats' plan calls for stronger regulations that those approved by the Democratic leadership in Trenton – including some bills signed by Gov. Jon Corzine earlier this month – they remain tied to the culture of corruption that has identified their party in recent months, said Bill Winkler, a spokesman for the Republican candidates.

"I think they need to put their own house in order," Winkler said. "The level of corruption in the Democratic Party is at a boiling point."

Democrats pointed out that corrupt politics crosses both sides of aisle, and that they would go to Trenton as fresh voices within the Democratic Party.

"If they want to paint us with the paintbrush of corruption, that's disingenuous," Selby said. "Why can't we be against it, too?"

Corruption on both sides

Ingrid Reed, policy analyst with the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, said targeting ethics reform could be a good strategy for the Democratic candidates, if they show that they would be among the legislators interested in making such changes. During the 2003 State Senate race in the 12th Legislative District, Ellen Karcher beat then Republican Co-Senate President John Bennett by focusing on Bennett's alleged conflicts of interests in a largely GOP district, Reed said.

With ethics on the minds of voters, both parties could put forth an anti-corruption platform as the Nov. 6 election approaches, Reed said. "A lot of voters feel it doesn't make a difference what party you are," Reed said. "People are distrustful of all politicians."

The outcry over corruption in New Jersey in the last few years has been fueled by the arrests of both Democrats and Republicans. In separate probes led by U.S. Attorney Chris Christie, several Republicans were caught up in a federal investigation two years ago into corruption in Monmouth County and, a few months ago, Democratic Senators Wayne Bryant and Sharpe James were indicted on corruption charges as well.

Earlier this month, another federal investigation led to the arrests of 11 public officials on bribery charges, including Democratic Assemblymen Mims Hackett Jr. and the Rev. Alfred Steele. Both legislators promptly resigned from their seats.

Looking for reform

New Jersey's reputation for corrupt politics goes back to the deep-seated political cultures established in many Northeast states following the Civil War, said Dr. G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.

"Northeast states developed strong political machines, in which they used government as a source of employment," Madonna said. "Voters were the prize."

From Vermont to Connecticut, several Northeast states have instituted campaign finance reform laws in the last few years, including the "New Jersey Fair and Clean Elections Pilot Project" being implemented in the 24th, 14th and 37th Legislative Districts. The 24th Legislative District includes all of Sussex County and parts of Hunterdon and Morris counties.

Under the program, candidates in the 24th Legislative District can receive at least 400 contributions of $10 each, or $4,000, to get $46,000 in public dollars for a total campaign fund of $50,000. With the maximum 800 $10 contributions, or $8,000, matching public funds bring each candidate to $100,000. Contributions must come from registered voters in the legislative district. With the exception of up to $10,000 in "seed money" from registered voters in the state, candidates cannot use any other campaign funds.

Oroho has reached the maximum qualification and, as of Wednesday, the other candidates' donation levels were as follows: McHose, $6,950; Chiusano, $7,540; Selby, $5,210; Zimmer, $5,000; and Walsh, $4,740. Candidates have one more week to qualify for public financing.

In the Democrats' "anti-corruption plan," the only apparent source of disagreement between the two parties is the proposal for a clean elections program for all general and primary elections on the state and county levels. Democrats maintain that the program gives power to individual voters, but Republicans have said the power will be returned to county party organizations with the existing networks to get donations.

The GOP candidates, who have said they are opposed to spending public dollars to support political candidates, also questioned the cost of running the program on a statewide level. New Jersey Citizen Action, the state's largest citizen watchdog coalition, said one preliminary estimate might be about $100 million. By Sept. 12, the state had provided about $3.7 million to 15 "Clean Elections" candidates, including $393,990 to the six candidates in the 24th Legislative District.

"I'm obviously very concerned that the cost of funding that thing will be pushed upon taxpayers in the state of New Jersey," said McHose, who is seeking reelection to the Assembly seat she has held since 2003.

Walsh said, "If you don't see the advantage of clean elections, you're either blind or biased...I think it's obvious the plan will pay for itself by getting corruption out of politics."

With the rest of their "anti-corruption plan," the Democratic candidates are challenging the initiatives of their party fellows in Trenton and showing agreement with previous Republican proposals.

The candidates are calling for a complete ban on dual office-holding, meaning existing legislators with multiple elected positions will be forced to step down from one position when the term expires or they will leave one position by another designated date, Selby said. Corzine signed a similar bill early this month, but that legislation takes effect on Feb. 1, 2008, allowing sitting legislators to hold onto their positions.

Whereas another bill signed by Corzine allows for extra fines against convicted public officials, the Democratic candidates are saying such officials should be stripped of all pension benefits. In a related proposal, the Democrats have said elected officials should be prevented from collecting pensions from multiple public jobs through a process known as "pension stacking."

"Why should someone keep the benefits when taxpayers are paying for these things?" Zimmer said.

Republicans said they also support all three initiatives, because each one already has been put forward by Republicans in the legislature. The three proposals are included in bills introduced by McHose and other Assembly Republican leaders, who outlined their "blueprint for a corrupt-free New Jersey" earlier this year.

In addition to banning dual office-holding and requiring convicted officials to forfeit their pensions, that blueprint also calls for expanded anti-nepotism laws; suspension of indicted public officials without pay; and preventing pay-to-play and closing loopholes in existing campaign contribution regulations.

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