Weinberg Bills to Improve Transparency in Government Lobbying, Root Out Conflicts of Interest Advance

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TRENTONTwo bills sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg which would improve transparency in government lobbying, and establish clear guidelines for conflicts of interest, were approved today by the Senate State Government Committee.

Current law imposes reporting requirements on governmental affairs agents who are employed, retained or engaged to influence legislation, regulations or governmental processes, but excludes activities of governmental affairs agents retained by public entities in this State. S1530 both repeals that exemption and requires government entities to justify why they are retaining lobbyists, including an explanation as to why an employee cannot provide the same services as the lobbyist. S1921 would prohibit lawyers and law firms who lobby a public entity from simultaneous employment or contract with that public entity.

“These bills offer common sense improvements to our state lobbying laws. They increase government accountability and provide taxpayers with the level of transparency they deserve,” said Senator Weinberg. “If a government agency is going to spend taxpayer dollars on a high-priced lobbyist, the public deserves to know how much is being spent and the sort of services their tax dollars are paying for.  At the same time, the public also should have some assurance that decisions being made by government entities are not influenced by lawyers who have an ‘inside track’ on the process through employment. We should not have to legislate this, but unfortunately we have seen conflicts of interest in government and actions taken to benefit those who are in a position to influence the process. Clearly, there is a need to establish clearer guidelines and these bills will do that.”

Senator Weinberg said that conflicts of interest at the Port Authority of NY/NJ highlighted by news reports in the last year demonstrate the kinds of ‘deals’ that can result when someone in a position of authority at a public entity also has private interests. The Star-Ledger reported on a number of cases in which former Chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, David Samson, represented clients on one hand and on the other voted in his role as chairman of the Port Authority on matters that benefited them. The newspaper reported that while Samson was chair of the bi-state agency, a company that his law firm Wolff & Samson represented in a civil matter, the Paterson-based Railroad Construction Company Inc., received nearly $16 million in work on projects ranging from the WorldTradeCenter to the HackensackRiverBridge. In addition, Samson voted for a $256 million reconstruction of the Harrison PATH Station after a builder represented by Wolff & Samson proposed converting a nearby warehouse into luxury apartments, The Record reported. Senator Weinberg said that while the reform bills would not apply to the Port Authority, they will establish in law guidelines that are intended to root out conflicts of interest.

 

“The issues that took place at the Port Authority were exceptionally egregious cases of influence-wielding, but we know these kinds of conflicts can exist at other public entities,” said Senator Weinberg. “While this bill would not cover employees of the Port Authority, it aims to fix a loophole in state law and address conflicts of interest at the state and local government level in New Jersey. The fact is that we have to put an end to this culture of influence-wielding, because we’re paying a price for political favor-trading and governmental waste and abuse by individuals who seek to enrich themselves on the backs of the taxpayers.”

S1921 was approved by a vote of 3-0-1; S1530 was approved by a vote of 4-0.