The state Ethics Commission, which would rule on any ethics complaints against state officials in Bridgegate or other Christie administration scandals, yesterday approved Gov. Chris Christie’s recommendation for its new executive director -- Susana Espasa Guerrero, a former governor’s counsel who served in the governor's office with all nine Christie aides subpoenaed in Bridgegate.
Guerrero previously spent eight years working in the law firm of Christie’s most trusted political adviser, William Palatucci, overlapping with Christie’s last four months as a partner at the firm before taking office as U.S. Attorney.
Guerrero did not return four phone messages yesterday afternoon even though staffers said each time she was in her office. But Andrew S. Berns, the Republican Denville lawyer who chairs the Ethics Commission, confirmed last night that Guerrero’s appointment “was formalized today by the Ethics Commission by a vote.”
Berns said the Guerrero appointment to replace Peter Tober, whose nomination to a state Superior Court seat was approved by the state Senate January 4, came straight from the governor’s office. “With these sorts of appointments, there is a recommendation made by the Appointments Counsel in the governor’s office and we have a vote and if the person is successful, they get the position,” he said.
Neither the governor's office nor the Ethics Commission made any formal announcement of Guerrero’s appointment yesterday, but her name was listed as executive director on the staff list on the commission’s website.
While the U.S. Attorney’s Office evidently is conducting a criminal investigation into Bridgegate and into Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s allegations that the Christie administration threatened her and improperly withheld Sandy aid, state officials could also be called before the Ethics Commission to face charges. The commission can impose fines ranging from $500 to $10,000 and up to a five-year ban on holding public employment under the State Ethics Code and the Conflicts of Interest Law.
Former members of the state Ethics Commission are taking issue with the way Christie injected the governor's office into the hiring of its past two executive directors. Indeed, one former chairman of the commission, Paula Franzese, a Seton Hall law professor, said it may even be time to rethink the concept of having members of the Ethics Commission appointed by the governor.
“The Ethics Commission was created in the 1970s and its tradition of independence endured for 40 years,” Franzese said. “It always had a strong, independent executive director, and it usually appointed successors from within the ranks who had had the opportunity to gain expertise and experience and who understood the importance of maintaining the commission’s independence from the governor's office. It was always the tradition that the governor's office would not intercede in appointments because the governors were mindful of avoiding the appearance of impropriety.”
But that has changed under the Christie administration. William E. Schluter, the former Republican state senator who was the Legislature’s leading ethics advocate and formerly served as vice chairman of the commission, said the Ethics Commission’s appointment of Christie’s choice as executive director exemplifies what is wrong with the commission under Christie.
“This is the whole problem. The commission is supposed to choose the executive director, not the governor,” said Schluter. “Now, this is the second time that the governor has put in his own choice as executive director. The commission has to have total independence. That was the purpose of the reforms implemented after Gov. McGreevey left office in disgrace.”
Under the leadership of Gov. Richard Codey, who made ethics a top priority during his year as governor finishing out McGreevey’s term, the Legislature passed a new ethics law that replaced the old Executive Commission on Ethical Standards, whose members had been high-ranking officials from the executive branch, with a new seven-member Ethics Commission whose majority was made up of four public members. The state’s two strongest ethics advocates, Franzese, who had served as Codey’s special ethics counsel and led the public fight for the reforms, and Schluter, were named chair and vice chair of the new commission.
The independence of the Ethics Commission from the governor’s office is particularly critical with new allegations of ethical violations and abuses of power making headlines virtually every day, Schluter noted. Political activity by state employees and efforts to cover up the Bridgegate scandal that might not rise to the level of criminal prosecution could be considered ethics violations, and various conflicts of interest involving business dealings have also been alleged.
One such instance could be Christie Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Kelly’s directive to David Wildstein, a Christie point man at the Port Authority, to close the George Washington Bridge access lanes reportedly to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for refusing to endorse Christie for reelection. This could violate the ethics code prohibition stating that “an employee shall not directly or indirectly use or seek to use his authority or the influence of his position to control or modify the political action of another person.” It also could violate the provision that “an employee during the hours of duty shall not engage in political activity.”
“There are a lot of issues related to Bridgegate and the other allegations that have been made public that could come before the commission,” Schluter said. “That is why I felt it was so important for the Ethics Commission to maintain its independence because it cannot maintain the public confidence if it doesn’t.”