Inspired by the nationwide campaign against sexual harassment known as the #MeToo movement, lawmakers in New Jersey are proposing a costly new punishment for elected officials and public workers who use their positions to commit a sexual assault or related offense.
A bill that was easily approved by a state Assembly committee last week would result in the complete loss of a taxpayer-funded pension by any elected official or public worker who commits a sexual assault or related offense that somehow involves their official position.
The measure would adopt the same get-tough approach that’s currently written into state law to discourage acts of public corruption, and sponsors have drawn a direct line between the bill and the growing movement known by the social-media tag #MeToo that has raised public awareness about the issue of sexual assault, and harassment in the workplace.
“This piece of legislation could not come at a more appropriate time,” said Assemblywoman Carol Murphy (D-Burlington). “It is important that we protect our constituents as well as reassure them that their voices are being heard, and those representing their voices reflect the same values they embody.”
Inspired by #MeToo
The #MeToo movement has already forced several high-profile figures to lose their jobs or positions, including members of Congress and prominent figures in the media and entertainment industries, such as film producer Harvey Weinstein. But it’s also been outraged, at least in part, by accusations that have been leveled against President Donald Trump that have not resulted in any serious consequences for him.
So far, there have been no instances of a New Jersey lawmaker being accused of sexual assault or harassment this year, and a recent review by the Associated Press of State House sexual-harassment policies across the country found that New Jersey is among those that guarantee a harassment-free workplace. Still, legislative leaders promised earlier this year to review the state’s policies, and to insert updates wherever appropriate. Lawmakers have also been considering ways to improve protections against sexual assault and harassment in New Jersey schools.
Broadening scope of public corruption bill
The pension-forfeiture bill approved by the Assembly State and Local Government Committee on Friday would amend the law that already requires a loss of taxpayer-funded retirement benefits for elected officials and public workers for offenses that primarily relate to instances of public corruption, like bribery and official misconduct. The legislation would add sexual assault, sexual contact, lewdness, and harassment to the list of offenses that result in a forfeiture of pension benefits, with the requirement that the offense be “related directly to the person’s performance in, or circumstances flowing from, the specific public office or employment held by the person.”
The pension forfeiture would occur when the person is either found guilty by a court or has pleaded guilty to one of the offenses that trigger the loss of retirement benefits, according to the bill.
Assemblyman John Armato, a primary sponsor of the legislation, said elected officials and public workers who betray the public’s trust “should not continue to benefit” by receiving a taxpayer-funded pension.
“New Jersey citizens should feel comfortable that the people they choose to represent them are honest and decent,” said Armato (D-Atlantic).
Assemblywoman Patricia Egan Jones, another sponsor, said the legislative effort would also show New Jersey residents that, amid the #MeToo movement, state lawmakers “are taking action.”
“It has been inspiring to see how victims of harassment and sexual assault have created an open dialogue and provoked change in our country to put an end to this disgusting matter,” said Egan Jones (D-Camden).
No unanimous approval
Despite the movement’s growing momentum — First lady Tammy Murphy was among those who shared a #MeToo story earlier this year — the pension-forfeiture bill did not win unanimous approval from all of the Assembly committee’s members last week. Instead, Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll (R-Morris) voted against the measure, citing concerns about how it is currently written.
By including the offense of harassment among the list of additional crimes that would trigger the loss of pension benefits, Carroll said that makes the bill’s punishment “excessive.” Such an offense is typically charged in New Jersey as a petty disorderly person’s offense, resulting in just a fine. But losing a pension earned over a lifetime of work due to a harassment conviction could cost the individual retirement benefits worth potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said.
“This doesn’t have to have anything to do with sexual harassment,” Carroll said. “It just has to be a dispute with your neighbor in which you, for whatever reason, you involve your office somehow.”
“That just strikes me as a hugely disproportionate penalty for the offense, and I can’t support something like that,” he said.