With a close vote expected on the proposal to allow South Jersey Gas to run a pipeline across 22 miles of protected preserve to connect with its BL England plant, Christie’s governor's office went to the state Ethics Commission to get an order directing Ed Lloyd, a Pinelands Commission board member who serves as codirector of the Eastern Environmental Law Center, to recuse himself from voting.
Lloyd said the Pinelands Commission’s executive director told him that it was the governor's office that went to the Ethics Commission to get a ruling that Lloyd was in conflict of interest because the nonprofit had written a letter to the Pinelands Commission asking for another public hearing on the pipeline. Lloyd said he never saw the letter, which had been withdrawn the next day. Despite Lloyd’s abstention, the motion to approve the pipeline failed by a 7-7 vote in a rare defeat for the Christie administration.
In a second controversy, Daniel Aubrey, a writer whom Guadagno wrongfully accused of contract fraud as part of her 2010 campaign to oust the nonpartisan executive director of the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, said the Ethics Commission never responded to his subsequent complaint against Guadagno.
Aubrey’s allegation was contained in documents he submitted to NJ Spotlight and was reported Monday in The New York Times. This was just 10 days after Zimmer went on MSNBC to accuse Guadagno of transmitting Christie’s threat to withhold Sandy aid.
Franzese, who served along with the late Daniel J. O’Hern, a former state Supreme Court associate justice, as special ethics counsel to Gov. Codey, said in a recent interview that the renewed public interest in ethics issues in the wake of the Bridgegate and Hoboken allegations could provide an opportunity to complete implementation of the reform agenda set out in 2005.
“When Justice O’Hern and I developed the template for the new state Ethics Commission to replace the old Executive Commission on Ethical Standards, it was our strong recommendation that the commission be composed fully of public members, and not have any representatives from the current administration serving on the commission,” Franzese said.
“The law that was passed in 2005 moved incrementally toward that model with four public members and three members from the government as a minority in the belief that having members of government who understood the nuances and understood how government worked could inform the outside perspective of the public members,” she said. “In my experience serving for four years until 2010, the model worked, but it takes a strong chair and strong public members to keep the commission independent and nonpartisan.”
Franzese suggested there may be other ways to ensure the independence of the commission.
“Bipartisan commissions have worked in the past,” she noted. “It would be an interesting idea to have the members of the Ethics Commission appointed by a panel of retired Supreme Court justices who would be charged with vetting the candidates. This would lend further immunization from the idea that influence could be brought to bear by the branch of government over which the commission must serve as watchdog.”
Franzese and Ingrid Reed, who chaired the Governor’s Task Force on Local Government Ethics that started under Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine and finished under Christie, both said that the next round of ethics reform should apply to the state’s ethics code to New Jersey’s hundreds of municipal and county governments and authorities, which were exempted when the 2005 ethics law was approved. (Reed also serves as chairwoman of NJ Spotlight's board.)
“Sadly, the problem of corruption in government is by no means unique to our state,” Franzese said. “We have a toxic mix of business, money, and politics. Public office cannot be for private gain or for purposes of influence-peddling. It must be used solely for the public trust, unaffected by any modicum of self-interest or personal enrichment or the enrichment of those with whom one has formed personal alliances.”