Oversight of elections, a check on the governor's powers, and greater transparency are the biggest "must do better" comments on a good government report card for New Jersey released this week by a national nonpartisan investigative news organization.
The 2015 State Integrity Investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity gave New Jersey a barely passing grade of D in its latest review of good-government laws and practices. That should not be surprising to many, as the terms integrity and New Jersey government are not generally viewed as synonymous.
New Jersey got two Bs (internal auditing and the state budget process); four Cs (lobbying disclosure, procurement, state pension fund management ,and civil service management); three Ds (ethics enforcement agency, legislative accountability, and political finance); and four Fs (executive accountability, judicial accountability, electoral oversight, and public access to information). The investigation found the state has a significant “enforcement gap,” which measures the difference between the laws on the books and how they're actually implemented, wrote former reporter and editor Ian Shearn in his article on New Jersey's results written for the project.
The state registered the largest grade drop of any state from a similar investigation the CPI spearheaded in 2012. That report rated the state a B+, but the two grades are not comparable since this year's project dropped some questions and two topics altogether -- state insurance commissions and redistricting -- and added an electoral-oversight category. The latest report also covers just the period from January 1, 2013 through mid-2015.
In a statement, Brian Murray, a spokesman for Gov. Chris Christie, was critical of this updated report, saying, "We objected to the strong bias demonstrated by the individual assigned to make the evaluation, and this result simply validates those expressed concerns. No factual basis was provided for the drop in rank or the findings offered, except for a vague reference to ‘different’ criteria which we believe renders the comparison invalid. They declined to include our perspective and merely sought out well known critics of the administration to form their conclusions, rather than any objective observers."
Nicholas Kusnetz, CPI's project manager and a reporter, defended the results, saying the project went through a "rigorous" review process that included checking each state reporter's answers for accuracy. An individual reporter in each state researched and answered 245 questions in 13 separate categories.
New Jersey got its lowest grade on election oversight, a 22 out of 100. Unlike most other states, New Jersey has no independent oversight of its elections, according to the report. The investigation looked for an agency that specifically monitors voting and is not subject to political interference. In New Jersey, the secretary of state oversees elections and the attorney general would investigate allegations of impropriety, but both are appointed by the governor. Some states have set up independent bodies to monitor their elections, while others give that power to the secretary of state, which is a separate elective office not beholden to the governor.
The report cites a former state and federal prosecutor as saying that New Jersey attorneys general have become increasingly political and less independent since the 1980s, although there are rare exceptions.
The New Jersey governorship is known as one of, if not the most, powerful in the nation. The governor is the only state official that is elected statewide. (U.S. Senators are also elected statewide but serve the federal government.) So it also doesn’t come as a shock that the good-government report card gave New Jersey a failing grade of 52 in the area of executive accountability.
And the current governor, Chris Christie, has not been shy in using that power, whether refusing to nominate Superior Court judges or vetoing about 150 bills per legislative session and until last month keeping Republicans from overriding any of those vetoes.
Contributing to that F, the investigation found:
Patronage and cronyism are rampant in hiring;
Politics and governing are intertwined;
Executive branch financial-disclosure statements go unaudited and are not made available in a format that is easy to analyze;
Christie is poor at giving reasons for his policy decisions;
The governor is able to freely accept "gifts" from "friends," and does.
An executive order by a previous governor that continues to apply prevents the governor from accepting most gifts, except when they are from friends. According to news reports, Christie has taken a number of expensive trips in recent years that he said were gifts from friends and thus did not need to be reported on his financial-disclosure report. These included a 2012 trip to Israel for a trade mission on the private jet of casino owner Sheldon Adelson with a side trip to Jordan and a $30,000 hotel bill covered by its king and a January trip to a Dallas Cowboys game covered by team owner Jerry Jones. The attorney general's office agreed in an opinion last spring that such trips need not be reported on the governor's financial disclosure form.
Transparency and public access to information was another area in which New Jersey got a failing grade, or 44 out of 100. It cited the state for having no open-data law and for poor implementation of the Open Public Records Act, finding that state agencies rarely respond to requests for information within the required seven days and routinely take 30-day extensions without explanation. It also criticized the state Government Records Council's lack of power to initiate investigations about OPRA violations and its backlog of appeals of records' denials.
Public records advocates and news organizations' attorneys provided several instances of problems. NJ Spotlight has had difficulties gaining records from state agencies as well.
In hiswritten for the project, former reporter and editor Ian Shearn, who now runs a media-consulting business and does freelance writing, cited an Associated Press article that stated the Christie administration had paid more than $400,000 in legal fees to plaintiffs who successfully sued the state for government records between January 2012 and August 7, 2014. "At the time, the administration was fighting in court against no fewer than 23 records requests," Shearn wrote.
New Jersey did receive some relatively good grades. For instance, the state got a B- both for the state-budget process and for internal auditing procedures. The center praised New Jersey's Office of Legislative Services for its oversight of the governor's proposal and the Office of Management and Budget for publishing the budget online where it is free and readily accessible. It reported that the state comptroller acts independently in conducting audits and found no evidence of patronage, nepotism, or cronyism in the staffing of either the offices of the state comptroller or of the auditor.
What’s more, the state was not alone in getting poor grades. In an overview of the project, Kusnetz wrote thatan A or B. Alaska and California were at the head of the class, each earning a C. Connecticut was close behind with a C-. Like New Jersey, eight other states scored a D and 11 flunked overall.
While stating some of the overall decline in the grades from the 2012 investigation are due to changes to the project that include the addition of "open-data" policy questions, Kusnetz's story singled out New Jersey for having the largest drop in score of any state.
"New Jersey earned a B+, the best score in the nation, in 2012 -- shocking just about anyone familiar with the state’s politics -- thanks to tough ethics and anti-corruption laws that had been passed over the previous decade in response to a series of scandals," Kusnetz wrote. "None of that has changed. But journalists, advocates and academics have accused the Christie administration of fighting and delaying potentially damaging public records requests and meddling in the affairs of the State Ethics Commission. That’s on top of Bridgegate, the sprawling scandal that began as a traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge but has led to the indictments so far of one of the governor’s aides and two of his appointees -- one of whom pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges -- and even to the resignations of top executives at United Airlines. As a result of these scandals and others, New Jersey dropped to 19th place overall with a D grade."
A comparison of some of the ratings given for New Jersey to those of other states raises questions about whether every state was rated with the same degree of scrutiny. But Kusnetz said the CPI stands behind the investigation, since it "had several rounds of review for each question, both for accuracy and consistency."