TRENTON –Senate Majority Leader Steve Sweeney today said he will introduce legislation when the Senate reconvenes in the Fall to create a mechanism for the State to suspend any local elected public official if he or she is indicted for a crime or offense which, if convicted, would result in forfeiture of office.
“Serving in government isn’t a fundamental right, but a privilege which is forfeited when someone crosses the line and abuses the public trust,” Sen. Sweeney (D-Gloucester, Cumberland and Salem) said. “Elected officials cannot effectively carry out the people’s business from under a black cloud of suspicion and must step aside when charges are levied against them. If these public officials will not do the right thing and step down the State needs a way to force them from office until they can clear their names.”
He said last week’s arrests of dozens of public officials who were indicted on charges of selling their office have shaken the public’s faith in its elected leaders.
“Rather than go back to the business-as-usual model of allowing elected officials to continue to make decisions affecting the public, we need an alternative which balances the rights of accused individuals with the greater public good,” Sen. Sweeney said. “This bill would create the right balance and would go a long way in restoring the public trust in cases when corruption has been exposed.”
The bill, which is similar to one proposed in 2002 by then-Senator George Geist, R-Camden and Gloucester, would require the State to issue an order suspending any local elected official who is indicted for a crime or offense that would result, upon conviction, in forfeiture of public office. Under the bill, the suspension of the public official may be without pay if State officials first conduct a suspension-pay hearing to preserve the elected official’s due process rights. The suspension order would remain in effect until the elected official is either convicted or exonerated of the charges in the indictment. If a suspended official is exonerated, the official would be able to collect back-pay if any pay was withheld.
The Senator’s bill would apply only to locally-elected public officials, whose authority is designated under State statute. Inclusion of other elected officials such as state legislators would require the Legislature to pass an amendment to the New Jersey Constitution, which would then have to be approved by voters in a general election. Under the current schedule, this couldn’t occur until November 2010.
Sen. Sweeney said he wanted to advance a more immediate solution. In addition to his bill, he expressed support for other administrative or legislative remedies which would suspend any indicted public officials, whether elected or appointed.
“I think most people would support suspension from office without pay for anyone in government indicted on serious criminal charges,” said Senator Sweeney. “However, in New Jersey we have had a number of locally elected officials who tried to buck the public calls for their resignation and dug in their heels to remain in office while they fight public corruption charges. We need to move immediately on suspending these officials from government duties and regaining some sense of trust from the public we represent.”
Senator Sweeney said many public officials facing corruption charges will stay in office in order to leverage plea deals and more lenient sentencing, while others see refusing to resign their office as a way of maintaining their innocence. He said the State should play no part in allowing officials to use their public office to bolster their legal defense of public corruption charges.
“The public pays a dear price for the cost of corruption, in higher taxes and inflated public contracts,” Sen. Sweeney said. “By allowing indicted officials to stay in office, we’re paying to let guilty officials avoid the full weight of penalties that their crimes may carry. That just seems to add insult to injury in public corruption cases, and the taxpaying public deserves and demands better. The law needs to be changed.”