Gov. Phil Murphy conditionally vetoed a proposed law on Monday intended to close what its sponsors called a “loophole” in New Jersey’s corruption laws — which would make it clear that it is illegal even for political candidates to accept a bribe in the state.
The governor called for amendments that would make the law even tougher, leaving no question as to its intent and “even more definitively foreclose the possibility of an incorrect interpretation” of the current statute. Those amendments would include charging anyone who facilitated or served as a go-between in setting up a bribe or payoff.
The state Legislature voted unanimously in March to change the law to unequivocally state that the bribery laws apply not only to public officials, but to candidates for public office as well.
The measure had been sparked by the dismissal of criminal charges against former Democratic state Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell, who had been accused of taking a $10,000 cash payment during his Bayonne mayoral campaign in exchange for promising to appoint a government informant as the city’s tax attorney if he had been elected.
A judge found O’Donnell had no ability to make any such promise. But an appeals court last month reinstated the indictment against him. It determined that there was no such loophole in the statute governing public corruption.
“We find nothing in the statute that would somehow exempt candidates for office from its reach,” the three-member appellate panel said in its 21-page opinion.
Murphy, in conditionally vetoing the bill, requested changes that he said would make its intent clear.
“I understand that this bill, introduced before the Appellate Division rendered its decision, may have been intended to remove any doubt as to the proper reach of the bribery law by stating dispositively that it applies to candidates for public office,” the governor wrote.
While he said he was confident that New Jersey’s highest court will ultimately affirm “the Appellate Division’s well-reasoned ruling,” that did not mean the state should forgo the present opportunity to strengthen the bribery law, to foreclose the possibility of an incorrect interpretation of the statute.
The correct policy was manifestly clear, added Murphy.
“It should be a crime for any person to directly or indirectly offer, confer, or agree to confer an unlawful bribe, as well as for any person to solicit, accept, or agree to accept an unlawful bribe — regardless of whether the person whose influence was sought or who sought to be influenced was qualified or had the capacity, ability or jurisdiction to commit the corrupt act at the time of the bribe or agreement,” he said in his veto statement.
The bill seeks to ensure that result, said the governor, because it includes candidates for office as well as officials. But he said the measure still was not clear enough and that would make it susceptible to interpretations that could frustrate that intent.
“I am concerned that the statute as amended by this bill would allow those who offer, solicit or accept bribes for corrupt acts to find loopholes to evade criminal liability, which would then result in future legal arguments and judicial decisions,” he said.
Any change in the statute would have had no impact on the appeal of the O’Donnell case, but it underscored the continuing contention over the law.
O’Donnell, 50, was charged in December 2019 by the state Attorney General’s office along with four other political candidates and officials, who were accused of taking tens of thousands of dollars in illegal campaign contributions and cash payoffs from a tax attorney who was secretly cooperating with prosecutors in a sting operation after he was nabbed in a separate bribery investigation involving years of similar payoffs and donations.
In dismissing the indictment against O’Donnell last year, Superior Court Judge Mitzy Galis-Menendez in Hudson County concluded that as a candidate for public office, he had no power to make any promises in return for the cash payment that prosecutors say he accepted.
Citing the state’s corruption statutes, the judge said O’Donnell, who later lost his election, had no influence to sell.
“Jason O’Donnell had nothing to offer,” she asserted. “Where is the crime? Where do we criminalize activity that someone is thinking of doing?”
A similar federal corruption case a decade earlier during the infamous Bid Rig case also saw charges thrown out against Lou Manzo, a former assemblyman then running for mayor of Jersey City.
The appellate court, in its strongly worded decision, said to accept that those who are running for office are not subject to the bribery statute would be to “declare open season” on the bribing of candidates for public office and would allow a candidate to be bribed “before, during, and after being elected, right up until taking the oath of office.”
Assemblyman Gregory McGuckin, R-Ocean, had introduced the legislation after Manzo’s case was dismissed. The measure then languished for a decade. But it received new attention the charges against O’Donnell were dismissed by the lower court.
The bill, A2472, cleared the state Assembly without discussion by a 74-0 vote and the state Senate by a 37-0 vote.
It expands the definition of “public servant” in New Jersey’s anti-corruption laws to include candidates for public office and anybody who may have won an election but has yet to be sworn in.
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