TRENTON, N.J. — A political consultant proposed a last-ditch effort to lawmakers Monday to help rid the state of its reputation for political corruption: Require lie-detector tests for candidates and officeholders.
George Dredden told members of the New Jersey Assembly Republican Policy Committee that the polygraph tests would be a means of reform for a state where more than 130 public officials have pleaded guilty or have been convicted of corruption this decade.
"I know it's out of the box," said Dredden, who has worked on several political campaigns, including state Sen. Joe Pennacchio's run for U.S. Senate in 2008. "But we've done some things to get us into the box."
Less than a month ago, 44 people – the majority of them public officials, including two state lawmakers – were arrested in a sweeping federal sting that put New Jersey corruption back in the spotlight. Two mayors, a city council president and a state assemblyman are among those who have resigned in the aftermath.
In the last decade, more than 130 public officials in the state have been convicted on federal charges.
New Jersey has tightened some anti-corruption laws in recent years, but both candidates for governor say they want to go even further.
Among their proposals: The incumbent, Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine, has called for extending state regulations on accepting campaign money from government contractors to county and municipal governments. Republican challenger Chris Christie, who built a reputation as a corruption-buster during seven years as U.S. attorney, wants to bar elected officials from also holding other paid government jobs.
But Sam Antar, a former white-collar criminal invited to the hearing by the committee, said ethics training wouldn't get rid of corruption because criminals find ways to get around laws.
"Everybody knows right from wrong," said Antar, who became a federal informant in the 1980s and helped the government prosecute his cousin, electronics store mogul "Crazy Eddie" Antar, on fraud charges. "You can give them all the ethics classes in the world, and it won't make a bit of difference."
Antar said he supported Dredden's proposal to give lie-detector tests to politicians. He told the committee that Crazy Eddie used to give polygraph tests to members of his inner-circle to make sure they weren't stealing from him or cooperating with investigators.
Dredden acknowledged that his idea would be costly, difficult to adopt and subject to legitimate constitutional challenges. But he said the test would deter most corrupt, would-be politicians from running if they knew the scrutiny to which they'd be subjected.
Ingrid Reed, director of the New Jersey Project at Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics, said the polygraph test could spark even more public mistrust of the government if people are not sure the candidate's legal rights are being respected or if people are not certain the results are fair.
"What you really need is to make sure that people really understand what it means to serve public office," she said. "You don't get that with some kind of test."
Robert Williams, a law professor at Rutgers-Camden, said the tests might violate the privacy and search-and-seizure provisions of the state constitution.
But he acknowledged that politicians already give up some of their rights, like when they agree to public campaign financing or when they make financial disclosures.
Assemblyman David Rible, R-Wall, pounced on the idea, which has not been included in any of the Legislature's anti-corruption proposals so far. During the hearing, he brainstormed one way to try to make the measure constitutional.
If it were made voluntary, Rible mused, politicians who refused the test might struggle to get elected.