A pair of Republican lawmakers in New Jersey have proposed a new layer of ethics reform in an attempt to crack down on corruption in the historically ethically plagued state.
Assemblywomen Nancy Munoz (R-Summit) and Amy Handlin (R-Middletown) have proposed legislation that would require all local officials indicted on government corruption offenses to be suspended from office without pay. Munoz said the idea for the proposal came from the arrest of 45 people statewide -- including state and municipal officials -- in a corruption sweep in 2009.
"When you are an elected official, you should be held to a higher standard," Munoz told HuffPost.
The proposal comes weeks after a study led by the Center for Public Integrity in Washington gave New Jersey the highest grade among the 50 states for systems to prevent government corruption. The State Integrity Index showed that a variety of mechanisms that state officials have recently put into place, including open public records laws and a pay-to-play ban, would help to cut down on corruption cases in the state.
Many of the entities that contributed to New Jersey's top ranking have been established in the wake of previous ethics scandals that rocked the state.
"Keep in mind, we're not measuring cases of corruption, but the systems in place to prevent it and encourage openness and transparency in government," CPI managing editor Gordon Witkin said when the report came out.
Munoz said the latest proposal would contribute to beefing up the current systems. Under the measure, any local official arrested and indicted for corruption -- or any of a number of other felony charges -- would automatically be suspended from office without pay. In the event the charges are dropped or the official is acquitted, the suspension would be lifted and backpay restored. While the proposal at present does not apply to officials at the state level, Munoz said an amendment to include them is likely to be included.
The 2009 case was the largest single-day corruption arrest in New Jersey history, bringing down elected and appointed officials in a pay-to-play scandal connected to an organ-selling deal. The investigation was launched by Gov. Chris Christie in his prior post as U.S. attorney.
"The sheer stupidity of these people is mind-boggling," former Westfield Mayor Tom Jardim (D) told Patch at the time.
None of the officials arrested in the 2009 case were suspended, despite public protests calling on many to resign, including then-Hoboken Mayor Peter Cammarano III (D), who saw crowds in front of his house and City Hall less than a month after he took office. Cammarano resigned at the end of his first month in office and later pled guilty to accepting bribes to fund his 2009 mayoral campaign.
Jersey City Councilman Steve Fulop (D), having led calls to suspend several of his city's officials when they were arrested in 2009, said he supports Munoz's bill. Fulop has made ethics his signature issue and believes the bill would address the concerns raised by the 2009 arrests.
"Being arrested by the U.S. attorney for taking bribes -- there is reason for concern," Fulop said. "If something touches on your office, you should take a leave."
Munoz said she hopes that Democrats who control the Assembly will schedule a hearing on the bill. She said she has heard some resistance to the measure. A similar measure is being pushed in the state Senate by Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Westfield), who has made ethics a top issue in his decade in the legislature.
"I am always supportive of a bill that make sense," Munoz said. "I hope this will be heard."
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