By Michael M. Shapiro
Last month, the New Jersey State Senate approved legislation that would ban members of the Legislature from serving on the Joint Legislative Committee on Ethical Standards, the committee that investigates allegations of ethical impropriety made against current legislators.
The bill mandates that all members of the committee be chosen from the public and reduces the size of the committee by one-half. A maximum of two committee people can be former legislators. The filing of complaints within 90 days of an election is prohibited, as well. While this is not legislation that will completely reform New Jersey politics, it is a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, several other bills that would have further reformed New Jersey politics were shelved by the Democratic majority in the Legislature.
For too long, legislators serving on the Joint Legislative Committee on Ethical Standards have neutered the committee to protect their own. The committee rarely met and when it did, it gave, at best, a slap on the wrist to the most egregious of ethical offenders. Could anything else be expected when foxes are guarding the proverbial henhouse?
The legislation passed in March will help to restore the integrity and independence of the committee. Of course, the public members are to be appointed by the majority and minority leaders of both the State Assembly and State Senate so the likelihood of their being political sycophants who are enamored with the political system in New Jersey is very real.
Equally disappointing, two former legislators can serve on the committee, creating the possibility of a conflict of interest and the continuation of the political back-slapping that previously characterized the committee. In addition, the ban on filing complaints within 90 days of an election gives ethically challenged legislators a temporary free-ride to their re-election while engaging in unethical conduct.
One can understand the rationale for the ban, to make sure the committee does not become a vehicle for campaign purposes; however, there are other ways to deal with the problems inherent in this situation. For example, complaints could be required to be filed “under seal” in the 90 days prior to an election or the prohibition could extend for only 30 days before an election, etc.
While there are obviously downsides to the legislation, a revamped committee devoid of current legislators is a significant improvement over the current state of affairs. The bill is now on Governor Corzine’s desk. He should sign it!
Michael M. Shapiro, founder of ShapTalk.com, is an attorney who resides in New Providence. He currently serves as the editor of The Alternative Press, www.thealternativepress.com Contact Mike at firstname.lastname@example.org