Bill to make candidates subject to state bribery laws lurches into motion
Move comes after a second former assemblyman skirts corruption charges
Assemblyman Greg McGuckin (R-Ocean) at the Ocean County Republican Organization’s nominating convention on March 10, 2021. (Nikita Biryukov | New Jersey Monitor)
A long-stalled Assembly bill that would make political candidates subject to the same bribery rules as elected officials appears to have lurched into the motion after receiving a bipartisan companion in the Senate.
Assemblyman Greg McGuckin (R-Ocean) introduced the bill in 2012 after a federal judge dismissed extortion charges against then-Assemblyman Louis Manzo (D-Hudson). The judge said the state law Manzo was charged under did not apply to candidates.
“Whether you promise it before you get sworn in or after, it’s still bribery,” McGuckin said. “And it should be addressed.”
Since then, McGuckin has introduced his version of the bill in four other legislative sessions, though a judge’s decision to dismiss bribery charges against former Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell appears to have drawn enough support to spawn a Senate companion.
Prosecutors allege O’Donnell, while he was seeking to become Bayonne’s mayor in 2018, solicited a $10,000 bribe in exchange for a promise of tax work to a cooperating witness, since identified as Morristown attorney Matthew O’Donnell. Jason O’Donnell, who is not related to Matthew O’Donnell, served three terms in the Assembly before opting against a re-election bid in 2015
“Word got back to me his attorney was pointing out the Legislature has had this bill every session for the last eight years, 10 years, and hasn’t done anything with it,” McGuckin said, referring to Jason O’Donnell. “So therefore, clearly it couldn’t be a crime if they’ve not fixed it after the federal court decision.”
Superior Court Judge Mitzy Galis-Menendez dismissed the charges against Jason O’Donnell in June after his attorneys argued the mayoral candidate could not be accused of bribery because he did not hold public office at the time of the alleged exchange of cash and so had no power to follow through with any promises.
The bill would eliminate the apparent loophole in the bribery statute by explicitly barring candidates from accepting bribes in exchange for promises of future preferential treatment related to their official duties.
“You shouldn’t take cash. It shouldn’t happen. First, I think it’s worthy of discussion, and second, I don’t think the circumstances that are addressed in the bill should be permitted,” said Sen. Joe Cryan (D-Union), the bill’s Senate sponsor.
The measure includes exceptions for campaign speeches, ads, and other activities used to generate legal campaign contributions.
McGuckin’s bill appears headed for a committee hearing after being stalled for nearly a decade, though it remains unclear whether it will reach floor votes in either chamber.
“I do anticipate it’ll be on committee, but where it goes from there, we’ll see,” Cryan said. “It’s worthy of the conversation because it’s pretty clear, with the court ruling the way it is, that it’s in the legislative wheelhouse to get it done.”
Like Jason O’Donnell, Manzo was accused of accepting $27,500 in exchange for the promise of official favors while running an unsuccessful 2009 campaign for Jersey City mayor.
The charges against Manzo, lodged as part of a major corruption sting that helped Chris Christie land the governorship, were dropped after a U.S. District Court judge ruled relevant provisions of an anti-corruption law did not apply to Manzo because he did not hold office of the time.
“This wouldn’t have happened had we fixed this 10 years ago when we had the chance and the federal judge said, ‘Hey, New Jersey, look. You’ve got a problem,’” McGuckin said. “If you want to make this a crime, then make this a crime, but be clear.”
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