Legislative leaders have trouble filling ethics committee seats

The Senate and Assembly both passed laws disbanding and reforming the Joint Legislative Committee on Ethical Standards earlier this year. But so far, only two of the new committee’s eight seats have been filled.

That’s because it’s hard to find people interested or eligible to serve, according to Rick Wright, executive director of the Assembly Republicans.

“We are going to make appointments, but like everyone else we’re having a hard time finding people,” he said.

The Joint Legislative Committee on Ethical Standards has been widely considered a joke for most of its existence. It averaged one sanction against a legislator every 10 years during its nearly four decade lifespan. Meanwhile, filing toothless complaints with the committee became standard fare during the legislative campaign season, when candidates or their allies would file a complaint against an opponent and then issue press releases trumpeting it.

With this in mind, legislative leadership, led by Senate President Dick Codey (D-West Orange), ushered through a bill that threw out all former members and whittled down the committee’s sixteen spots to just eight. All eight spots will be “public members” – mostly former judges and legislators. Current legislators will no longer sit on the committee.

But it’s too early to tell whether the committee will be more effective, since as of right now it does not exist. Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, Jr. earlier this month appointed two members: former state Sen. Peter Inverso and former Superior Court Judge John J. Harper. But the other six seats on the council remain vacant. Codey, Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts and Assembly Minority Leader Alex DeCroce have yet to name their appointments.

Wright said that DeCroce has not been slacking on the appointments but wants to make sure he puts the right people in the job, given the new committee’s more stringent ethical standards. Several ex-judges they’ve considered, Wright said, refused an appointment because would have had to cut ties with law firms that have business with the state.

But Wright said that the new ethical standards are encouraging and that the new committee could actually have some power.

“Let’s face it, at different times Republicans and Democrats criticized the committee,” Wright said. “The issue has always been that both parties just appoint people who are going to, you know, ‘wink wink, nod nod. I truly think it’s going to be hard for anyone to say that this time.”

Spokespersons for Codey and Roberts did not immediately return calls for comment.

With two former legislators waiting to go on trial for federal corruption, with former state Sen./Newark Mayor Sharpe James sentenced today to 27 months in federal prison, and with Assemblyman Neil Cohen (until this year a member of the committee) under investigation for allegedly possessing child pornography on a legislative office computer, some legislators feel it’s time to put the committee back together, even if the legislature hasn’t reconvened yet.

“Coming on the heels of Sharpe James’s sentencing, I think it’s time to start focusing on it again,” said State Sen. Kevin O’Toole (R-Cedar Grove).

Kean, meanwhile, encouraged his fellow leaders to make appointments.

“I can’t speak to the appointment process by Dick Codey, DeCroce, Roberts is, but I would just urge that members be appointed rapidly so we have a functioning committee on ethics in the legislature,” he said.

According to state Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R-Demarest), who was the committee’s longest serving member, partisanship had made it impossible for the committee to function. In order to hold a hearing about a complaint, the committee needed evidence. But it could not review the evidence without holding a hearing.

Cardinale said he disagreed with the bill to eliminate legislators from the committee. But he’s upset that the committee’s new appointments have not yet been made.

“I think it’s extraordinary. (Codey) made such a big deal about this, and to a lesser extent Roberts, that we need to do something about this committee,” he said.

Legislative leaders have trouble filling ethics committee seats