Our state’s unwillingness to plug a potential legal gap that would enable non-elected officials to receive bribes in cash is as shocking as it is perplexing.
After being in limbo for a decade, the bill was eventually passed by the Legislature in March, only to be conditionally vetoed by Governor Phil Murphy and handed back to the lawmakers with revision recommendations. Since then, it has sat in the Senate without action.
The New Jersey Supreme Court has consented to hear the bribery case of former Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell, which is why the legislation is once again in the news.
As a candidate for mayor of Bayonne in 2018, O’Donnell, a Democrat from Hudson County, is suspected of accepting $10,000 cash from a confidential informant. According to the prosecution, O’Donnell promised to provide the informant with legal work if elected mayor in exchange for the street money. O’Donnell lost the election, and state prosecutors accused him of bribery in 2019.
Since only actively sitting public officials are prohibited from accepting bribes under state law, a Hudson County Superior Court judge agreed with O’Donnell and dismissed the bribery charge. A panel of the appellate court overturned the judgment, labeling O’Donnell’s position as a “mangled vision” and “nonsensical conclusion.” O’Donnell’s request for the Supreme Court to consider his appeal was finally granted last week.
I don’t know what the top court will decide in this case. What if O’Donnell prevails, and we missed our opportunity to correct this? Do we want to allow nearly every candidate for office to accept money in paper bags in exchange for promises of future benefits and limit punishment to, say, a campaign finance fine? Our state already has a reputation for questionable political dealings.
I spoke with Sen. Joe Cryan, a Democrat from Union County who was one of the bill’s main sponsors. He said that the Senate has not discussed Murphy’s conditional veto for a straightforward reason.
Cryan declared that the bill’s revisions were unacceptable. “A bill enacted by the legislature with unanimous consent shouldn’t have been vetoed.”
The majority of Murphy’s proposed amendments would add more precise text to the legislation. Murphy’s suggested changes, said to spokesperson Alyana Alfaro Post, “eliminate potential loopholes that the initial legislation did not address.”
To ensure that New Jersey has stronger anti-bribery safeguards in place, she added, “the governor wants the Senate to agree with his recommended modifications, as the Assembly did by a vote of 78 to 0.”
We can only hope that New Jersey’s administration won’t allow for the legalization of bribery. Despite what O’Donnell claims, New Jersey’s bribery legislation does not only apply to elected officials, according to Craig Holman, the organization Public Citizen’s government relations lobbyist.
These regulations, he explained to me, “are intended to prevent the trade of official favors for direct private gain to anyone in a position to offer those official favors—elected officials, appointees, government employees, and even aspirants for public office. Despite the fact that O’Donnell has not yet been elected, he is accused of accepting a bribe after accepting a bag of cash in exchange for performing official tasks.
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