Ethics panel to review campaign season complaints

Remember all those ethics complaints during the campaigns? Wonder what happens to them?

We’ll see tomorrow, when the Joint Legislative Committee on Ethical Standards meets to rule on the five complaints that have been filed since the committee last met. But if history is any guide, they’ll mostly be dismissed.

While legislators who sit on the committee say that complaints occasionally have at least some level of validity, some say they’re filed more to get a headline in the heat of a campaign rather than pointing out a real, troubling ethical infraction. They also say they’ve noticed it happening more often in recently, with candidates taking advantage of a committee – one with a reputation for being toothless and ineffective — for their political ends.

Indeed, 2007 was the year of the ethics complaint, with 10 filed so far- the most of any year on record, going back to 1972. Five have been settled, all of which were dismissed.

“Most of them are campaign ploys – gotcha type things,” said state Sen. Gerald Cardinale, who sits on the committee that will consider a complaint filed against him tomorrow (Cardinale will recuse himself). “They fly all over the place at election time, and it’s much more this time than I ever remember.”

But only one complaint was filed in 2003 – the last time all 120 legislative seats were up for grabs. The next biggest year for complaints was 1991, with nine filed. A cursory glance at the list of all the complaints filed with the committee shows that the majority are made during odd-numbered years – in other words, legislative election years.

Here’s a quick review of the five pending cases:

The first volley came in late September, when state Sen. Ellen Karcher filed a complaint against her opponent, Jennifer Beck, for allegedly using official stationery to point constituents to a campaign related website. Two days later, Beck fired back with her own complaint against Karcher, saying that a campaign mailer she sent out directing constituents to her legislative office may have crossed an ethical line.

Then in early October, seventh district Democratic state Senate candidate Rich Dennison filed a complaint against Republican incumbent Diane Allen for allegedly using legislative staff to watch his press conferences outside of her office (Allen also sits on the ethics committee). Days later, a Joseph Ariyan supporter named Roger Berkley filed an ethics complaint against State Sen. Gerald Cardinale, complaining that the incumbent took junkets from bankers and then pushed legislation that deregulated the banking industry. The next week, Assembly Minority Leader Alex DeCroce charged Democratic legislators Jeff Van Drew, Nelson Albano, Fran Bodine and Jim Whelan with tangling their legislative and campaign offices, which was met by a Democratic threat to file an ethics complaint against DeCroce for using legislative resources to compile the evidence for his charge. (It never materialized).

“There’s been a history over the last number of years of a lot of candidates filing their complaints in October in order to generate a headline to use in a mail spot or radio spot,” said Adler. “I wouldn’t want to devaluate the motives of the people doing it, but the complaints have not seemed to be serious in nature.”

The committee, which is made up of legislators and retired judges, has faced a lot of criticism for not having significant power to impose punishment on offenders, and for having legislators police themselves. Legislation was introduced in May and passed in the Assembly to overhaul the committee, eliminating legislators from its ranks – legislation many Republicans said didn’t go far enough. It’s still pending in the Senate.

Adler agrees with the critique.

“I think the ethics committee and the ethics code are not serving New Jersey well. I think the ethics code should be much stricter and the ethics committee should be composed only of public members,” he said.

Ev Liebman, a spokeswoman for New Jersey Citizen Action, a citizen watchdog group, said that of the five complaints, only the one against Cardinale seems to be a legitimate grievance. Cardinale said he’s confident it will be summarily dismissed, and has previously noted that the legislation that he voted on were bi-partisan housekeeping bills that sailed through the legislature – not bi-partisan banking regulations.

“I think most of these are a way for one candidate to go after their opponent, and it’s kind of a point-counterpoint thing,” said Liebeman. “Another point that it raises is the whole ethics commission itself and how seriously they review these complaints and whether we should change it.”

As it stands, the most severe possible punishment for a legislator is a $10,000 fine and a recommendation for expulsion from the legislature. But according to the committee’s records, the only fine it ever imposed was in 1978, when it took $200 from Assemblyman William Perkins, a Jersey City Democrat, for representing a client before the Division of Motor Vehicles.

Karcher campaign manager Mike Premo said that his campaign’s ethics complaint – the first of the post-Labor Day election season – was not a purely political attack. It was released in the heat of the campaign because that’s when Beck had committed the alleged infraction, he said.

“I definitely think that the Beck campaign needed to do something to muddy the waters, so they filed their complaint in response to ours.”

Beck, however, stood by her complaint.

“It’s very clear cut. It’s political mail that directed people who received that mail to contact the legislator’s legislative office,” she said.

Dennison, who also threatened to file criminal charges regarding his campaign signs being stolen, also denied that his ethics complaint against Allen was more campaign grandstanding than substance.

“I never filed it in the first place for any sort of political gain… That was truly never my intention,” said Dennison. “I’m a proponent of good government and I don’t like to see the political process being tarnished in any way, so that is why I wouldn’t just drop it.

Ingrid Reed, director of the Eagleton Institute’s New Jersey project, said that, if anything, the flurry of campaign-related ethics complaints should tell us that the state is in dire need of clear cut rules for separating campaign and legislative functions.

“There should be clear rules for incumbents who are candidates – what they can do and how they can be contacted,” said Reed. Ethics panel to review campaign season complaints