Images of mostly Democratic elected officials trailing away from the trough of corruption and through the public consciousness earlier this month have sent scandalized Jefferson-Jackson lawmakers in tough districts into ethical overdrive.
Particularly down in Atlantic County, origin of the Pleasantville School Board-turned statewide scandal, according to charges filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Draw no link. Make no connection with the fallen, and if there’s any doubt, here’s a tough ethics package to prove it. Such is the message of Assemblyman Jim Whelan.
In his bid for the state Senate in District 2, Whelan today called for a crackdown on public officials either convicted of crimes or who engage in unethical conduct. His opponent, GOP state Sen. James "Sonny" McCullough, shot back that Whelan has little credibility as a member of an ethically-challenged Democratic majority in Trenton.
During his terms as mayor of Atlantic City prior to his successful bid for the Assembly two years ago, Whelan emerged as the only chief executive in years who wasn’t either carted off in cuffs or purged from office under an ethical cloud.
McCullough, who’s served as the mayor of Egg Harbor Township for 22 years, groused, "I don’t know how he (Whelan) was a reformer as mayor. Some people say he was the only decent mayor because he didn’t go to jail."
But Whelan’s people say that as the mayor of Atlantic City between 1990 and 2001, their candidate was "credited with cleaning up the resort, sweeping out corruption at the Mercantile Exchange office, tow lot and sign shops, and taking on various corrupt politicians such as former Atlantic City Council President Craig Callaway (whose brother, Maurice, was charged in the latest scandal)," according to a Democratic Party press release.
"Whelan entered office with a reform-minded agenda and continued enacting reforms through his entire tenure," said Whelan spokesman Raiyan Syed, citing the Press of Atlantic City’s re-election endorsement of Whelan mostly based on the then-mayor’s record on ethics.
"We can no longer tolerate the culture of personal greed and political cronyism that contaminates the politics of this state," said Whelan.. "Far too many of our public officials have been convicted or accused of using their offices to enrich themselves and their friends – all at the expense of the taxpayers they are sworn to serve. It has embarrassed our state and seriously eroded the public's trust in government at the local, county and state levels."
McCullough argues that he’s on the record calling for an all-out dual office holding ban, a more aggressive measure than what the Democratic majority settled on in this last session, which grandfathers in current dual office holders.
The Whelan people love that argument, because they quickly indicate McCullough’s current status as a dual office holder – he stepped in to fill Sen. William Gormley’s unexpired term in addition to continuing to serve as Egg Harbor Township mayor.
But McCullough says he’s committed to leaving the mayoral post should he secure the state Senate seat on Nov. 6th.
If elected to the Senate, Whelan said he would make government more transparent by posting all public records online, impose stiffer fines and prison terms for convicted public officials, and seize their government pension benefits and stolen assets. He said he would also dismantle the "toothless" commission that oversees ethics complaints against legislators, and create in its place an independent panel of "respected former judges and prosecutors to review those complaints."
According to Syed, Whelan said the way the commission is currently constituted, with legislators overseeing the cases, amounts to a "kangaroo court" where lawmakers routinely look the other way on ethical misdeeds. To further curtail unethical activities – or even the perception of conflicts of interest or other unethical behavior – Whelan will push for stronger ethics standards and financial-disclosure rules for legislators and all state officials.
"We can no longer tolerate the culture of personal greed and political cronyism that contaminates the politics of this state," said Whelan. "Far too many of our public officials have been convicted or accused of using their offices to enrich themselves and their friends, all at the expense of the taxpayers they are sworn to serve. It has embarrassed our state and seriously eroded the public's trust in government at the local, county and state levels."