Major Overhauls Proposed for Legislative Ethics Committee, Ethics Training
TRENTON – The full Senate today unanimously approved a bipartisan package of ethics reform measures sponsored by Senate President Richard J. Codey that would, most notably, prohibit current legislators from serving on a key panel that investigates ethical complaints against members of the legislature and staff.
“Consider these measures a down payment on our promise to institute a wide range of ethics reforms this year,” said Sen. Codey (D-Essex). “First, it’s important that we have the right oversight in place to investigate ethical complaints and help eliminate conflicts of interest. In the coming months, we look forward to addressing a number of other pressing ethics issues that will help restore the public’s faith in their elected officials.”
Bill A2452 – would amend the state Conflicts of Interest Law with respect to the membership and operation of the Joint Legislative Committee on Ethical Standards, requiring that the committee be comprised solely of members of the general public.
The bill also cuts the size of the committee in half, from 16 to eight and stipulates that no more than two members may be former legislators. The bill calls for the majority and minority leaders of both legislative houses to appoint two members each.
Furthermore, the bill clarifies the procedures for appointing a Chair and Vice Chair, a process that has led to stalemates and inaction in recent years when committee members could not reach a consensus on electing leadership. Under the proposed legislation, the Chair would be appointed jointly by the Senate President and Assembly Speaker and the Vice Chair would be appointed jointly by the Senate and Assembly minority leaders. The bill also stipulates that the Chair and the Vice chair may not be affiliated with the same political party.
The bill also prohibits complaints from being filed within 90 days of an election to avoid manipulation of the process for political purposes. However, the bill will require that any complaint filed within seven days immediately following an election be expedited.
Furthermore, the bill also gives the committee the authority, when reviewing a complaint, to require the legislator under investigation to submit detailed financial disclosures beyond what is presently required to be disclosed by law. This additional information would remain confidential unless at least three-fourths of the committee decide that the information should be made public.
The legislation also strengthens ethics training for legislators, requiring that in addition to the annual online tutorial currently required, members also must attend a yearly in-person ethics training session.
In limiting the make-up of the committee to public members, the following shall be prohibited from serving on the committee: any current lobbyist or governmental affairs agents, any full-time state employees or any officer or director of any entity that is required to file a statement with the Election Law Enforcement Commission. Additionally, lobbyists and governmental affairs agents will be prohibited from serving on the committee for one year following the cessation of all lobbying or government affairs activities.
The Senate also unanimously approved two resolutions (ACR-159, ACR 164) that would, respectively, adopt a permanent Legislative Code of Ethics for 2008 and 2009 and codify into law the changes that Sen. Codey instituted last year to promote transparency and accountability during the budget process.
The terms of bill A2452 would go into effect 30 days after enactment. The legislation now heads to the Governor for his signature.
# # #