TRENTON – Senator Loretta Weinberg proposed legislation today which will cap the amount of money that sitting public officials can accept for legal defense funds, and require that such contributions be disclosed to the Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC), in order to ensure transparency and accountability in the prosecution of corrupt public officials.
“In this country, everybody is entitled to a fair and speedy trial,” said Senator Weinberg, D-Bergen, an advocate for ethical protections and greater transparency in government. “However, public officials who are accused of official misconduct should disclose to the public just who is contributing to their legal defense, and there should be a cap on the generosity of their supporters. It’s a mockery of the judicial system when accused elected officials can hire superstar lawyers and escape prosecution for their crimes, and this bill would ensure a far more rational, fair and just model.”
Senator Weinberg’s bill would institute a $2,600 per year cap on contributions to an elected official’s legal defense fund by an individual, group or organization. The cap would not apply to the expenditure of the officeholder’s own funds, or any contributions from the officeholder’s immediate family. The official would also have to register any legal defense fund with ELEC and make quarterly reports with information about all transactions of the fund, including the name, address, occupation and employer of each contributor or recipient of the fund. Any violation of the provisions of the bill would be treated similarly to violations of campaign reporting and donor limit requirements currently on the books.
“The defense of public officials from alleged crimes against the public trust must be public knowledge,” said Senator Weinberg. “It’s an unfortunate fact of government service in New Jersey that far too many elected officials face charges of crimes against their office, and have to answer to allegations of abuse of power.
“The public has a right to know who is helping officials dodge guilty pleas when there are credible allegations against them,” added Senator Weinberg. “I think opening these records up to public scrutiny will tell us a lot about the sort of people who are contributing to the defense funds of indicted politicians.”
Senator Weinberg said that, in addition to opening the judicial process for corruption cases to public scrutiny, the bill would help expose the ties between legal defense contributions and public contracts. She said that by opening up contribution records to the light of day, exonerated public officials may face more pressure to avoid paying back legal defense contributors with government contracts, a variation on the pay-to-play model which has inflated government costs while making politically-connected individuals rich on taxpayer funds.
“If someone stays in office during legal proceedings, I’m concerned that they may be tempted to help those who helped fund their defense,” said Senator Weinberg. “This is backdoor pay-to-play at its worst, and by limiting the dollar amount that can be contributed, and exposing these records to the light of day, we can hopefully close down an avenue of abuse for behind-the-scenes political payback.”
The bill is scheduled to be introduced on Thursday.