Murphy Carefully Defines ‘Personal Friends’ to Ensure Transparency

Colleen O'Dea | January 18, 2018 | Politics
It’s not just about friendship, rules clarify who can give gifts to the governor and which ones he must disclose

gift box
On his first full day in office, Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order holding himself and his staff to virtually the same ethical and transparency standards as prior administrations, with one exception designed to close a loophole that critics say former Gov. Chris Christie exploited.

A six-page “Code of Conduct for the Governor” defines, but does not name, who may be counted as “long-time personal friends” of Murphy for the purpose of determining whether the governor may accept — and have to report on a financial disclosure form — gifts, lodging, travel expenses, and other things of value. Specifically, a long-time personal friend is someone “who has had an existing personal relationship with the Governor at least three years prior to the date on which he or she took office.” Murphy will not need to report any gift, travel, meals, and other items or services such a friend gives him. It’s the first time an ethics code has included such a definition.

Additionally, Murphy clarified some of his intentions later in the day, yesterday. He said he intends to take a salary; the governor’s salary is set at $175,000. An administration official also said the wealthy former Wall Street executive plans to put his investments into a blind trust to prevent any potential conflicts of interest as he carries out his duties. The rules for blind trusts are also spelled out in the executive order. According to his 2016 tax return, Murphy had $4.6 million in income, most of it in capital gains.

Just friends

The governor may accept other gifts from those who have a personal relationship with him but do not meet the definition of a “long-time personal friend,” and will have to report them, provided they are not given by lobbyists or by anyone whose personal relationship to Murphy is related to his official duties as governor. And the governor cannot receive any benefit from anyone who might benefit financially from any official decisions Murphy might make.

While defining a friend might seem extreme, it is something the Murphy administration decided to do as a result of questions raised over some of Christie’s travels. A February 2015 New York Times story, published as Christie was readying his run for president, questioned the ethicality of some of his travel.

The paper reported that in 2012 Christie and his family took a trade mission to Israel, traveling on the private plane of billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson, who at the time was opposing a bill before the governor to legalize online gambling. The article further reported that at the end of the trip, the Christies spent the weekend at parties and in hotels paid by King Abdullah of Jordan. There were also flights to Dallas Cowboys games on the plane of owner Jerry Jones, whose company got a Port Authority of New York and New Jersey contract that Christie had supported.

At the time, Christie spokesmen said King Abdullah was a friend of Christie’s and that Adelson had not been lobbying the governor personally against the bill. Christie had not reported these trips on his financial disclosure forms but that was not required when a friend gave the gifts.

U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat up for re-election this year, was indicted for receiving gifts and trips in exchange for advocating for a Florida doctor’s business interests. Menendez, who initially did not report the gifts, argued they were allowed because he and Dr. Salomon Melgen were long-time friends. The senator’s case ended in a mistrial last November. Menendez is covered by a different set of ethics rules, those governing federal officials.

Reusable financial disclosure rules

New Jersey’s financial disclosure rules for state officials date back to the administration of Gov. Jim Florio in 1990. Since then, every governor has readopted or further amended these rules.

The clarification of the rules for the acceptance and reporting of gifts and travel and the definition of a long-time personal friend are the only substantial differences in the rules Murphy put in place in his executive order, signed Wednesday morning. The order requires the disclosure of sources of income, including gifts and honoraria, exceeding a minimal amount, as well as properties owned and business interests. Amounts are disclosed according to ranges of income, from less than $1,000 to more than $500,000.

Ethics was not a major issue in last year’s gubernatorial campaign. In signing the order, the second of his administration, Murphy appears to be sending a message that his administration is serious about transparency. The governor did not answer questions on the signing.